Dont blame the Pastor

Unlike Australian dwarf tossing, Pastor bashing is not an official sport, and I hope it never becomes one. Good grief, the poor guys have it hard enough already on poverty wages, putting up with all the foibles imaginable from their truculent congregations, without suffering slander in the press. But the institution has its down side. However a lot of it is not even their fault. As Pogo said, ‘I have seen the enemy, and he is us.’

Let me give you an example. An Elder in a church I went to once told me several times that he thinks it is good for the church to set one person aside fulltime to hear the leading of the Lord. I pointed out this strategy had been practiced for the past 1900 years in Christendom with some… interesting results. Oddly, he was a little surprised, but had to agree.

In fact most religions in the world at one time or another go in for leaders who ‘tell them the will of God’. Its the oldest sociological trick in the book, and very easy to expose if you are outside that religion. We Christians feel sorry for the poor Arabs who are basically conned into giving their lives in Islamic Jihads marching over minefields with the key to heaven strung around their necks. However could the Muslim’s see the sociology that drives us? We might not be picking it up because we are inside our own environment. As the old Scotsman said, “Oh that God would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us”.

So let us proceed. The other day I put a question to a Pastor I know. I asked him, “shouldn’t Pastors try and work themselves out of a job?” What did I mean by this question? Well, let us say Pastors have a certain set of activities they do – encouraging others, visiting the sick, running Bible studies, and preaching on Sundays. Shouldn’t they be searching out members within their congregations to do all these tasks themselves?

Take preaching for example. I bet the average listener to sermons can’t remember last weeks topic. I’ve been in churches where they ask this from the front, and I’ve seen the proportion of hands raised. But one sure way to get at least one person to learn something from the Bible is ask him to preach on it. Or take a study on it. Bottom line is, eventually you could get a church group running itself. The Pastor could fade out of it. And then go start another church. Such was my question. To my surprise my Pastor friend didn’t agree. So I went home and worked out some reasons he might have for keeping his fellows on the payroll.

Firstly, and most cynically, he may be an Empire builder. However I don’t believe this one myself. Simply because if anyone was primarily after power and influence in the church, they would be the last to admit it. They would say “Oh no, I am working so that my congregation will become strong and self sufficient”. This is what Alan Pease calls ‘Talk Language’. Like if someone starts a sentence with the phrase, “No offence meant but, ….”, you can be sure what they say is intended to offend you.

Having said all that I have talked with Pastors, and its amazing to a simple layman like me how often they bring up power struggles in the church. Recently one told me, “you can’t have two front men as Pastors. They will both want the action, and one will have to go.” I couldn’t believe it. In my simplicity I thought we should be promoting others, and giving up the seat of honour for our brother.

Shattered my naiveté a little, hearing that. But it recalled a further thing to mind. Namely that the very word ‘Pastor’ connotes a visiting, caring, compassionate type of role. But mostly when I look through the papers and visit churches where there is a ‘Pastor’, turns out he is the preacher about 90% of the time. The front man. No doubt there is an explanation for this somewhere.Finally on this point, and worst of all, I got involved once in a series of Bible studies that said, in black and white, we should submit to the authority of our Pastors. And I know there are plenty around who like their name prefixed by the word. When speaking to them you are supposed to say ‘Pastor John’ or ‘Pastor George’. How am I meant to address other members? ‘Salesman Rick’ or ‘Nurse Louise’?

The sad fact is of course that people who rely solely on this sort of input, and don’t check their Bibles, (like at least one early Mediterranean church did) are quite likely to end up accepting and believing this stuff. Which is all very well if you are aiming to mindset a group of people in a certain direction. But it doesn’t speak much for freedom. Now you might say to me, well you have to face reality, those sort of power games go on all the time. You are absolutely correct, that it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. In fact the dynamics that drive people into groups, into organizing themselves along certain lines of thought and action, are inherent to the very basics of social organization and power. Ever since the garden, man has acted this way. God taught us all a lesson about it at the Tower of Babel. We didn’t listen though.

So I’m more interested in a God that can move us to unrealities of social behaviour, that can get us acting against our natural tendencies, that can move us to love. At least I know I need to be moved in that direction.

The second reason my Pastor friend might have is that he just sees day to day problems and can’t lift his eyes to any vision. He may feel swamped by those characterised by Bob Jones as people “who can’t find their way home from work.” In this scenario the poor Pastor lurches from one crisis in his congregation to another. Firefighter supreme. Very little possibility of anyone gaining enough maturity to tie his shoelaces. I take my hat off to these people. They sacrifice their life working at what appears a hopeless task. But it is not without purpose actually, if viewed the correct way. Now, no doubt there are situations like the last one, but I for one don’t know how many. Such churches need a whole football team of Pastors each anyway. No, it’s the options below where there’s some sociology at work.

The third reason my Pastor friend might have is that he doesn’t have a vision of a church body doing his job. That is preaching sermons, visiting people etc. Or, significantly, the church members don’t have that vision for themselves either. I will return to this. Or he may be part of an institution that has a career path in church work. This is actually a variety of the second option. Here you’ve got a large organisation that can’t understand what we are talking about here, and has already given up reading this article anyway. They have far better things to do with their time than argue with people who question the validity of their existence.

Here I will make a terrible assumption. If this is wrong, my whole argument lies in tatters. I’m going to assume that churches actually do want their people to grow stronger, that they do want to develop leadership. Somehow I’ve picked up that this is a Christian type of ideal.
Now Saint Paul (or just Paul if you like) used to wander around the Mediterranean stopping occasionally to build up a Church group. After working with a flock for a while, he would move on. Not to another church by the way. To another town. To start from scratch. And he left churches that had problems. We know this by the letters, usually just one letter actually, he wrote back to them. So they had to sink or swim.

However today we see Pastors continually getting ‘called’ from one church to the next. Perpetual round about. Sure a few of them start up brand new groups, but the statistics are against it in the Western world at least. And human nature being what it is, so long as you have someone else running affairs in your church, you don’t need to do anything. Or very little anyway.

In fact there’s an immutable logic which says if you appoint someone to do these tasks, by definition you are not planning to do them yourself. And therefore the average church member doesn’t get experience in a whole range of activities run by the Pastor. Simply then, how can this leadership we spoke of earlier, emerge?

I’m serious, I don’t think we realise we’ve got a battle on our hands, the way we run things. We need leaders to grow. And fast. Oh, I know everyone agrees with this, but it is basically lip service. Because we don’t see many Pauls around. We don’t see people developing church bodies, and moving on thereby allowing, perhaps forcing those they’ve left behind, to run things themselves. Instead we see Pastor swapping.
Now here’s a little analogy. Prior to World War II it took several years to train a fighter pilot in Britain. During early WWII the training period was cut to three months. Britain had to. There was no choice. Those rapidly trained young men had to fight in the skys because there was no one else. Poorly trained as they were however, they helped win the Battle of Britain in 1940. When people realise there is a war on, amazingly rapid strides are made through necessity.

So here is a radical suggestion. If you have a fulltime, salaried Pastor, get rid of him. That’s right. Out he goes. Send him to the other side of town, and rent a school hall for him there on Sunday mornings. Let him start another church over there from scratch, and run your’s just with your own ordinary members. Honestly, this may be a crazy recommendation, but it’s not necessarily stupid. Your church will learn more from that experience of independence than you could ever believe. And if your old Pastor is worth his salt, within two years he will have a new thriving group across town.

Plenty of congregations exist without clerics. The Open Brethren generally don’t have Pastors, and yet they get by quite well. In fact ask anyone that knows any actual facts about this often maligned denomination, and they will agree that those people really got into the Bible, and learned it well. Somehow without any career people, without any salaried pastoral team, they did better than most other denominations in teaching their people the Bible. Isn’t this significant? It’s not that they constructed better buildings, or sang more songs, or protested more about racism, or condemned the government more etc etc. No. Without an institutional leadership setup, they taught their people Biblical truths better than most. Which strikes me as pretty central to what we are all about here.

A second benefit to this strategy is that you will get to know others in your church. Hundreds of nice congregations currently exist where the members don’t even know each other well enough to fall out. If you have to work out what you’re doing together, you will soon get to know each other. It might be tough, but getting out of our comfort zone is invariably good for us. This is one part of Sociology neatly designed to give us opportunity to learn to love each other.

Furthermore your church cannot grow too big without splitting off new cells. Seventy people is about as big as you can get and still maintain strong interpersonal relationships. So you run the risk of working in a church body that hopefully resists the alluring pull of institutionalising itself. Which could be quite an adventure.

Now why did I say at the start that the fault was with ourselves? Because I don’t think most congregations want this kind of challenge. After all, I hear you say, the church is probably the longest standing institution the West has. And it is under enough threat from secular pressures as it is without suggesting getting rid of the various ancient or modern heirarchies governing it. (Personally I think these two issues are related, but that is another story.) And there’s another reason – we are lazy. As always it is easier to hand over responsibility.

Not for a minute do I believe these institutions will be unravelled from within. It is a social maxim that people do not get into positions of authority, only to dismantle them. Even Winston Churchill said he did not rise to power to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire. But unfortunately for him, it happened anyway.

So will they be pulled down from the outside? Probably not either. In fact the worst thing an antagonist can do to any religion is persecute it. That strengthens inner resolve like nothing else whether you are talking about Russian Orthodox, Mormonism, Pentecostalism, Judaism, or Bahai. And therefore it follows that church structures will also stand for a long time to come. There is a tremendous interia in society. Religious institutions, ancient or modern, are left weatherbeaten, but largely intact. In tough times adherents cling to their structures like they had six arms. It gives them a pillar of solidity in an uncertain world. Which is one of the differences between religion, and a living faith in Christ. Because He and his dividing sword are always attempting to cut through the veneer of institutionalism. He reminds us yes, the world is uncertain, but He is not.

One verse we need to remember in this context is Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” (NIV) The historical reality is that forceful men have arisen and influenced the churches direction on earth for the past 2000 years. They still are today. The amazing thing is that God works within the historical and modern reality anyway.

Let me finish by telling you what happened to my Pastor friend. He gave up Pastoring. Deliberately he went out and found himself an ordinary job, the type of boring, meaningless work that characterises the Western world. He found it hard, and he told me it was very rewarding. He reckoned that all Pastors should do this from time to time, to experience the pressures and tensions and problems that other people undergo all their lives.

I thought it was a courageous act.