The Ministry and its Discontents: Pastors in Peril

I know a lot of ministers.   That might seem like a statement of the obvious coming from one who has been a minister for over thirty years, but I know even more ministers than you might think. For one thing, I was a seminary chaplain for several years and all my former students are ministers.  And I had three sabbaticals in British universities where ministers were being trained.  And I was in a D.Min. degree program where all my classmates were ministers.  Add it up and it is a lot of ministers!

And since early in my ministry I have been asking them to put me on their church newsletter mailing list, and a number of them have.  Many of those have converted to e-letters lately, but still, I get a pretty steady stream of newsletters from congregations, and it is fun to see what my ministerial friends are up to.

Except when it isn’t fun, and that seems to be happening more and more lately.  I will grab and read a newsletter and immediately start noticing little hints of trouble.  I then typically say to my wife, “Uh oh.  So and so is having a disturbance in the Force in his or her congregation!”

Now I recognize that the ministry has always been a perilous profession.  I recently read George Marsden’s fine biography of Jonathan Edwards, and was reminded that Edwards was handed his walking papers in Northampton before he came over here to the Berkshires.  This is the same Edwards that not too many years before had been the toast of the Reformed world for his participation in and reporting of the awakenings in New England.  So it can happen to even the best and the brightest (and as in Edwards case, the wounds are often at least partly self-inflicted.)

So pastors in peril are nothing new, but I have been noticing a discouraging pattern in my newsletter reading lately.  And I must interject here that I have known lazy and incompetent ministers, and others who were just in over their heads, but that is not what I am talking about here.  Several of my friends who are smart, wise, bright, hard-working and faithful have suddenly found themselves in peril.

Typically it starts with some sort of a parish self-study or pastoral assessment.  That should be harmless enough, right?  Who can be against transparency and accountability?  But my heart sinks when I read in the newsletter about the formation of such a group, because sure enough, when the results come in there are “concerns” about the pastor, and a special committee is created to “address the concerns.”  The newsletters typically report such grave findings in a kind of code, but you don’t have to be a genius to read between the lines

So “steps are put in place” to address the concerns.  The committee may or may not be led by a sympathetic leader but it doesn’t really matter that much because the process itself has a certain trajectory.   If there is a lay “antagonist” in the congregation he or she (or they) will certainly find a way to get involved.

There soon follows what I call “leadership death by a thousand cuts.” The ministry is quantified by every measure, by hours spent, by visits made, by hours in the office.  Careful time logs are kept.  Business expenses are microscopically scrutinized.

At this point the healthy trusting covenantal relationship between pastor and people has been replaced by a suspicious contractual arrangement that will almost inevitably end in mutual blame and bitterness.  Some pastors will buckle under and keep their “job,” others will devise an exit strategy; one of my good friends just left the ministry, to the church’s loss.

Here are some observations and thoughts from my ruminations on this trend.

1. The roles and assumptions behind this scenario betray a flawed understanding of the church and its ministry. First of all, an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament is not an employee of the church.  Ministers work in the church and with the church but not for the church.  Ministers are not hired, they are called, and nothing betrays the flawed ecclesiology behind pastors in peril as much as the contractual language of  the modern corporation that is frequently employed.  “We pay your salary, you work for us.”  And behind that view is the idea that the minister’s “job” is to do the work of the congregation, and the laity’s “job” is to oversee that work, which is quite the reverse of the minister providing leadership to the laity to let them be the church of Christ in their community.

2. When the congregation understands its mission as the maintenance of its own institutional life, the pastor’s role is to be the general factotum who facilitates that life.  The flawed model here is that the church is to be a chapel to the culture, which is a Constantinian model left over from a Christian society.  This is why the place where pastors are most in peril is in “tall steeple” churches that by virtue of their social and economic location have been able to pretend that the Constantinian church is still alive and well.

3. But the truth is that that model of church is not alive and well, and the current recession has hit even prosperous congregations hard enough to expose the institutional weakness of a church that needs big infusions of cash to maintain its place as the chapel to culture.  When the numbers (members and money) slump, than the lay leadership turns to corporate models to remedy decline, ie. change the CEO.  Or at least demand better numbers (“metrics”) soon if the relationship is to continue.

4. To meet the new expectation of better numbers the imperiled pastor must show vigorous signs of improvement that are quantifiable.  More visibilty in the community, more calls and visits, recruitment (not evangelism) to get more members to come and help prop up the sagging finances.  But “what profiteth a man if he gains the numbers and loses his soul?”  By ramping up an already frenetic pace to show results the pastor is depriving himself or herself of what is really needed in the situation, which is holy imagination.  I would argue that more time in the study and at prayer would be better use of the pastor’s time than more energetic involvement in what P.T. Forsyth once called “the sin of bustle.”

5. An ill-conceived pastoral evaluation will almost certainly bring out some discontents among the congregation.  These discontents may be based on the minister’s real or imagined failings or they may result from a variety of mutually exclusive understandings of the pastor’s role.  Clarity about that role, and about  the congregation’s mission, will help avoid such situations.  I once heard Roy Owald of the Alban Institute say a pastor should never be evaluated apart from an evaluation of the congregation.  That sounds wise to me.  And the dreaded congregatonal questionnaire evaluation should be avoided at all costs.  Oswald suggests that both pastor and congregation ask each other, “What do you need more of from me, and what do you need less of?”  This mitigates the adversarial tone of the evaluation processes.

6. The rigors of pastoral evaluations are the final proof that even though pastors may preach salvation by faith they are often held to a standard of salvation by works.  This is yet another triumph of law over Gospel.

7. Finally, the church of Jesus Christ is not a religious club.  Its mission and ministry is Christ’s own, which is the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another.  Christ has already accomplished that work of holy love in his atoning cross, and so, to quote Forsyth again, it doesn’t have to be “produced so much as introduced.”

Like Christ, his church does not live for itself.  A congregation that understands that will no longer focus on its own institutional life, but reach out of its walls to embody Christ in its community and the world.  The pastor’s role is to help them do that through Word and sacrament and visionary leadership.  The good pastor sows and waters, feeds and encourages.  If the congregation demands that he or she just run errands for them they will dampen the pastor’s morale and distract both the pastor and themselves from their true and glorious vocation to be the church.  And whenever that happens it is a shame, and will please no one but the devil.