When I was a kid, I thought pastors, like Mary Poppins, were “practically perfect in every way.” My pastor-dad sure seemed that way, and when we got together with his own pastor-dad, he seemed flawless as well. I began to assume that all pastors were just as admirable.
After my father left the ministry, our family attended a much larger church where the pastor and his pulpit were much further away from us congregation-sitters. The pastor’s stance behind the pulpit, the lights that shone on him, and the distance between us all made me feel like he was only two miracles away from sainthood. When he left our church for another assignment, our family bought his 1965 Chevy Malibu (my first car, which was totaled in an accident.)
When we eventually attended another church, that pastor’s churchly proximity to the people was much closer, but he was even more distant emotionally. When I shook hands with him at the door, he always said, “Hi, guy.” As I recall, he never even asked my name. (We teenage boys all look alike, I guess.) That pastor eventually resigned. Years later, I learned why. I’d rather not share the reasons. They’re not pretty.
After my formative years, I served on church staffs under three senior pastors. Then I became a pastor myself and have met and known scores of pastors. I admire pastors because of their dedication, sacrifices, and perseverance. Being a pastor is a 24/7, 365-day calling. And in the days ahead, I want to help pastors who have gone through tough times in their congregations, especially those who have become the victims of a forced exit.
But I have met and known pastors who were ticking time bombs, too. Let me share with you five kinds of pastors who inevitably cause trouble in congregations.
First, there is the pastor who has an inflated view of himself. This pastor has charisma, a forceful personality, and can quickly attract followers. He’s usually a compelling speaker and may be a dynamic leader. During his initial years in a congregation, the church grows quickly. But behind-the-scenes, this pastor begins to alientate people. He becomes obsessed with his appearance or his bank account. He tells everyone that he drives the best car and lives in the greatest neighborhood. He demands that people around him call him by his proper title (“pastor” or “doctor”). But this individual values image over character. He’s really a loner because no one can ever get close to him. He thinks that rules apply to others, not himself. And worst of all, this person rarely admits mistakes because he will always find somebody else to blame. There is a term we use for such people: narcissists. And there are too many of them in church ministry. (The stories I could tell!)
Next, there is the pastor who does everything himself. In a word, he overfunctions. I once knew a pastor who could be found every Friday afternoon in the church worship center. Was he praying? Rehearsing his message? No, he was cleaning! He wanted everything “just so” for Sunday. He chose to act that way because of personal anxiety. In a similar vein, in the first church I served as pastor, a room in my home served as the church office, and I was the functioning office manager. I had a used mimeograph machine in my garage and I typed lessons and leadership things onto stencils, placed each stencil onto the machine, and then turned a crank to obtain copies. (I can still smell the ink. Ick!) While I had to make those copies, I quickly learned that I should (a) limit my responsibilities to those tasks that I did best, and (b) hire staff or recruit volunteers to do everything else - and then release them to do the ministry. Pastors who feel like they need to oversee or do everything in a church end up pastoring smaller churches – and sometimes are forced out because they can’t trust anyone to do things as well as they can.
Third, there is the pastor who is just plain lazy. In other words, they underfunction. I served under one. He was in the church office about six hours a week. He didn’t introduce any leadership initiatives. Nobody ever knew where he was (this predated cell phones by twenty years). On Sunday evenings, rather than present a prepared message, he took questions from the people. He was very likeable (I still smile when I think about him), and he was very good to me, so I hesitate to say anything uncomplimentary. But in the end, he was voted out of office in a public meeting, and if there was any one charge that could be laid against him, it would have been “doesn’t work hard enough for this congregation.” The average full-time pastor works 50-60 hours a week, but there are those who feel they can barely work at all and get away with it. They rarely do.
Fourth, there is the pastor who never listens. When I was a youth pastor, I went to lunch with a friend who reads this blog. While we were conversing, he said to me, “Jim, the way you’re talking now is fine in the pulpit, but it doesn’t work in a restaurant.” Ouch! He was right, and I tried to adjust my way of relating to people over the years, but one of the occupational hazards of preaching is that sometimes you forget to turn it off. At least I was aware of the problem. I have met too many pastors who were way too insensitive. They believe that whatever they have to say is automatically more interesting than whatever you have to say. One time, I was having lunch with a group of ten pastors around a table at a conference, and for a solid hour, the pastors of the two largest churches were the only ones doing the talking. They never asked any of the other pastors their names, or where they were from, or how their ministry was going. These guys just lectured the rest of us like we were supposed to take notes. This “pecking order” takes place among pastors because the American church believes that the larger your church, the more successful you are. (I feel a rant coming on, but I am practicing self-restraint.)
Finally, there is the pastor who is way too nice. At first glance, this might not seem like a problem, but it definitely is. A pastor who is “a really nice guy” tries to cultivate an “I like everyone” image, but that’s unsustainable in church ministry. A nice pastor will eventually get bulldozed by a dominating board member. A nice pastor won’t be able to confront staff members when they mess up. A nice pastor will pull his punches when he preaches, rarely saying anything very memorable. (John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and Peter all had an “edge” about them when they spoke. While John the apostle didn’t, he was the exception. Today he’s the rule.) While I like the pastor of our church very much, he sometimes lets it fly. (Last Sunday, when he tore into “superficial Christians,” Kim and I both said “Amen” at the same time.) 77% of all pastors are “feelers” on the Myers-Briggs test and they tend to wilt or run under pressure. While nice pastors are often pleasant to be around, they usually don’t get much done, either – and when their critics come after them, they find that “being nice” won’t save their job. Nice pastors don’t cause trouble themselves, but they permit trouble in their churches because nobody fears them. Think about it.
I could have mentioned many other kinds of pastors who cause trouble - like dominating pastors, controlling pastors, promiscuous pastors, manipulative pastors – but I’ll save those for another time. The great majority of pastors don’t cause trouble. They faithfully teach God’s Word, model a Christlike life, endeavor to win the lost to the Lord, and try to spread the aroma of Jesus to everyone around them. I’m glad God called me to be a pastor, and I’m very glad for the pastors who have been in my life.
But what can the people of a church do if their pastor is causing trouble? I’ll address that five days from today. (I’ll be putting our new place together next Monday.) Until then – stay out of trouble!