The Life of JaWS

A blog by Jason Sansbury

Monday, December 18, 2006

Do churches shape pastors or do pastors shape churches?

So I am currently a United Methodist. (In truth, I would say I am a Christian first, an evangelical second, a Wesleyan third and United Methodist last. That is both in order of importance and truth I think.) And one of the things that I have been spending some time thinking on is the current Methodist system for pastoral appointments at our congregations.

For those of you non-UMCers out there, let me explain how it works. The Methodist church is governed in conferences, each headed by a bishop. These conferences are then subdivided into districts and each district is given a pastoral leader called a superintendent. The superintendents and the Bishop of each conference form the cabinet and that group largely shapes and directs where pastors are sent in a given conference. So a UMC pastor is affiliated with a conference and typically serves in that conference for the duration of his/her ministry. (For you polity specialists, I realize that this is an oversimplification...)

So there are some assets to this system and design. Here are some of them:

  1. Pastors aren’t constantly on the chopping block. They know that at least for a year, they will serve a certain congregation. (Typically June of one year to June of the next.) So there is some freedom there.
  2. The cabinet and bishops are free to help make the best fit between pastors and congregations.
  3. There can be a diversity in the types of churches that a pastor can serve over his/her career.

All of that is theoretical though, as sometimes it clearly doesn’t work.

And this is where one of my thoughts has developed. How much do pastors shape congregations and how much do congregations shape pastors?

In the Methodist system and structure, we value laity. We think that wisdom is generally found in and among the many, not the few. We think that God uses committees and structures to help guide and shape things. The caveat is that in my experience, too many times the lay people of a church abdicate their responsibility to whoever their senior pastor is. So pastors essentially have open reign to do what they want. And in some cases, that probably isn’t a "end of the world" decision. It could help some churches that they take that approach and have a pastor who genuinely wants to move the church forward from its current position.

But, I don’t think this approach is best in most cases. One of the things that I have learned from my nearly 12 years in ministry is that the pastors I respect the most are the pastors that are learners and those pastors are rare in the UMC structure. To put it plainly, pastors have built this idea up that once one graduates from seminary, one has everything that one needs to govern, direct and lead a UMC congregation anywhere in America. (This is an extremely wide brush I am painting with…)

But in truth, most pastors are desperately in need of growth and shaping even after seminary, because truthfully, we are all in need of growth and shaping. But when the lay people of a congregation give away their ability to lead and govern in favor of the CEO pastor model, it falls apart. Suddenly they are making decisions based on trying to make a pastor happy rather than what is in the best interest of a congregation. This slippery slope is incredibly dangerous, as we can easily have congregations degenerate into cults of personality that lose sight of the Gospel entirely.

So why does it matter?

  1. Pastors need to be humbled. Truthfully, all of us in ministry have a certain sense and edge of superiority. And we need the lay people of the church to be God's chisel in our lives. We need people who can ask us hard questions, deal with our rough edges and make us more and more whole. When a church ceases to have people who can lead alongside and even in front of a pastor, then it can end in some difficult places.
  2. Churches need a clear, concise guiding vision of who they are, independent of who their current pastor is. When we say that we are going to allow pastors to singlehandedly determine the vision and direction of a church, then we are playing Russian roulette with every UMC congregation. A church needs a clear and better sense of who it is before a pastor arrives , during a pastor's tenure and after a pastor arrives. (The Presbyterian model of interim pastors who help the church through a visioning process while they are between senior pastors is a remarkably thoughtful and educated model. Could we create UMC pastors who specialize in helping churches rediscover their voice and appoint those pastors for short terms in churches that need it?)
  3. Staff people. Okay, so removing the veil of secrecy…I am the victim of clergy abuse. My therapist says it is okay to say it out loud and to own it. So, I was a victim. I served at a church, was successful in most ways and when a new pastor arrived, I was shown the door in 9 months because I didn’t fit that pastor’s idea of what a youth minister should be. Now, I am not perfect, but I had served this church faithful and well for 4.5 years and suddenly, I am amputated from that body of Christ because of one man’s agenda. We need to treat staff people better than that. Sometimes a staff person will need to move on. And sometimes, staff people who understand and get a church’s guiding vision can help shape the pastors who are new to the congregation.

So what should we do?

  1. Ask bishops and the cabinets they serve to examine some of the biases that they bring to the table. People talk about ladder of the appointment system because to a degree it is very real. But a certain number of years in a system don’t necessarily mean that the pastors are ready for new and different experiences at certain churches.
  2. Consider interim appointment pastors to help congregations shape and get a clear sense of who they are before they begin another long term appointment process. And when a church is able to articulate its vision and who God is calling it to be, it will make the process of placing pastors easier, not harder. And salary won’t be as huge a deciding factor. (Under the current system the staffing committees tend to abandon the ideas of who they are to “woo” the right pastor to their church. This is unbelievably foolish and short sighted.)
  3. Value educational experiences. Listen, churches contribute lots of money to the general coffers of the UMC and sometimes, we don’t get much back. Spend some money, energy and effort to train, challenge and provide environments for growth (personally, spiritually and pastorally) in all our pastors. Maybe each conference should mandate a convention or experience together each year. (Annual Conferences do not serve this purpose!)
  4. Empower laity again. We need to encourage churches and listen to their people. When the lay people of a church think that their current pastor isn’t a good fit, we need to give that voice a lot of weight. Most church folks aren’t vindictive jerks out to shaft each pastor that they are sent. Sometimes a pastor just isn’t the best fit. I know of one bishop that is proclaiming pastors will be in churches for 5 years minimum, no matter what. And while I understand that decision is a desire to breed longevity, it also may absolutely kill some congregations who are told to “work it out” with a bad fit. Bad fits damage pastors, congregations and leaders in the congregation. Sometimes we need to realize that mistakes happen and changes are needed.

Just trying to win friends and influence people…


At 1:29 PM , Blogger Jmac said...

Nice post. It's been interesting to me, as someone who grew up in the United Methodist Church, to experience the move into a Baptist church that is a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

When they discuss the priesthood of the believers, they really mean it. The variety of church committees - from the deacons to the church council to the flower committee - all contribute mightily to the vision and direction of our church, and I really appreciate that.

There's also the whole 'independence' thing which is very positive in the standpoint that it lets the local congregation determine its direction, but could potentially be troubling by not having an effective, out-of-congregation series of checks-and-balances. Ultimately, I think the good far outweighs the bad, but it's been interesting nonetheless.

At 9:17 AM , Blogger Jason Sansbury said...

That is interesting to hear. In studying churches (I kinda think I may be called to plant a church in my future...) the ones in the UMC that are the most successful are essentially independent- strong congregational ties and the pastoral staff has been left there because they are "successful" at that church.

And any denomination of church should be very serious about the work of the whole congregation being in ministry together. Otherwise we are all just fancy country clubs with poor choices in carpet color...


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