During my last pastorate, a senior couple – who were both very supportive of my ministry – lived in a local retirement home. The man eventually died, and his wife asked me to conduct his memorial service at the retirement home so the seniors wouldn’t have to leave the premises.
I had agreed on a time for the service with the widow, but then we spoke a second time on the phone, and she wanted to change the time. On the day of the service, I became confused about when I was supposed to be there, and showed up 30 minutes late … to a packed room of anxious seniors. Fortunately, the widow was an incredibly gracious person, and she smoothed things over for me, but my mistake could have been disastrous had she been vengeful.
Dr. Leith Anderson (one of my professors in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary), in his book Leadership That Works, discusses the concept of “parish poker.” Although Anderson isn’t a gambler (and neither am I), he states that at the beginning of every poker game, each player is given a certain number of chips.
In the same way, Anderson claims, a pastor is given 50 to 100 chips when he comes to a new church. After that, he either gains or loses chips depending upon that church’s unique value system. Anderson cites a few examples:
*Preach a good sermon (+2 chips)
*Preach a bad sermon (-8 chips)
*Visit sick person in the hospital (+7 chips)
*Sick person dies (was expected to recover) (-10 chips)
*Sick person recovers (was expected to die) (+40 chips)
*Bring cookies to monthly board meeting (+1/2 chip)
*Lose temper and shout at board meeting (-25 chips)
In his book, Anderson tells the story of a new pastor who was called to a conservative mid-western church. He came a few weeks early to settle in, and on the Saturday before his initial Sunday, the pastor gave away the pulpit to another congregation … without asking permission. According to Anderson, that decision cost the pastor 2,000 chips, which means he’d have to preach 1,000 good sermons just to get back to zero … which would take 20 years!
That pastor was done before he even started.
Here is why “parish poker” or “the pastor point system” matters: because as a pastor’s total points nosedive, he’s increasingly likely to be terminated.
There are two ways to be terminated using the point system:
First, you lose a massive number of points at once. Examples:
*Tell your church that everyone will be saved (-5000 points)
*Have an affair with a board member’s wife (-5000 points)
*Embezzle funds from the children’s ministry (-5000 points)
*Hack into the associate pastor’s computer (-5000 points)
Second, you stop gaining points but steadily lose points over time … eventually plunging toward zero. Although this isn’t easy to do, some pastors have mastered the art.
To switch the analogy to banking, they are great at making withdrawals … and poor at making deposits.
Based upon the 36 years that I served in 9 different churches, let me add some events/incidents that involved me as pastor:
Failure to use the Scofield Reference Bible (-3o points)
Visiting seniors at home to shoot the breeze (+20 points)
Letting youth attend Christian rock concerts (-100 points)
Holding a missionary conference (+25 points)
Discovering your son peed on the church lawn at the conference (-25 points)
Having a band during Sunday worship (-200 points)
Baptizing a new convert (+10 points)
A longtime family leaves the church (-40 points)
Conducting a funeral for a longtime member (+35 points)
Confronting a staff member about misbehavior (-75 points)
Earning a doctoral degree (+5 points)
Failing to say hi to someone one Sunday (-15 points)
Raising almost a million dollars one year (+80 points)
Falling behind the church budget the next year (-300 points)
Let me make five observations about this point system, especially as it relates to pastoral termination:
First, as I did this exercise, it was simple coming up with minus points, but challenging to come up with plus points.
Maybe I forgot all the good that I did … or maybe it’s just easier to remember the criticisms than the compliments.
When a pastor first comes to a church, it seems like he can do no wrong. But a few years later, it can feel like he can’t do anything right.
I don’t think a pastor can do much to acquire a lot of points at once, even if he wins the mayor to Christ. You build your points slowly.
But if you mess up, you can lose a lot of points quickly … and it’s usually not what you did or didn’t do, but who you offended that matters.
Second, value systems vary – sometimes wildly – depending upon the church or the person.
In my first pastorate, I was expected to visit all the seniors in their homes at least quarterly … just to talk. But in my last three pastorates, nobody expected me to visit anybody in their home.
In my second pastorate, the head of the deacons as well as the head of the deaconesses (they were married to each other) both left the church because I wouldn’t forbid our young people from attending Christian rock concerts, which were still in their infancy. In the churches I served subsequently, that was never an issue with anyone.
If a young pastor grew up in a church, and only knows one way to do ministry, he may have a hard time in his first or second pastorate if he tries to impose the value system of his home church onto his new one. The point system in every church is different, and it takes a while to learn what’s commendable and what’s condemnable.
In fact, one of the wisest things a new pastor can do is to get to know those who know the history of the church, and to discover what will get you applauded … or assaulted.
In my second church as a youth pastor, an entire family opposed my ministry because the previous youth pastor – whom I knew – had painted the youth room orange without permission. Since we both had gone to Biola, this family assumed I would operate as he did.
Third, a pastor needs to accumulate a lot of points up front to survive his inevitable mistakes.
My father-in-law, my first and best ministry mentor, told me that when I first became a pastor, I should (a) work very hard my first year and develop a reputation as someone industrious, and (b) choose a Bible book with a positive message to preach from. (He suggested Philippians.) In other words, he was telling me, “Slowly acquire lots of points … and don’t do anything to lose points.”
Then the wife of one of the deacons announced she was divorcing him, and no matter what I did, I was going to lose points … and I did … but not that many.
I know there are people on both sides of this issue, but I really believe that a new pastor has to take his time and get to know people before he starts making changes at the church. He needs to amass hundreds of points before he begins to say and do things that are guaranteed to lose scores of demerits.
Fourth, double the minus points when you’re dealing with a church bully.
If the pastor hurts Bill, and Bill is a kind and quiet man, the pastor will only lose a few points.
But if the pastor hurts Joe, and he’s loud and opinionated, Joe will tell his network what the pastor did … act like a victim … try and turn others against him … and the pastor will lose many points quickly.
In one church, I suggested going to lunch with a bully, but he didn’t want to know me because he wanted to keep me at arm’s length as a scapegoat. Whenever I was around him, I kept our conversations brief because I didn’t want to give him any ammunition he could use against me. I probably acquired a few minus points from him by doing that, but that was better than losing scores of points by opposing him outright.
Most people in a church will give a pastor the benefit of the doubt if they witness or hear about something that concerns him. But a church bully won’t cut the pastor any slack.
Finally, a pastor may never know when he’s lost enough points to be terminated.
This is because the scorekeeping is never public. Points reside in the head of a church bully … the wagging tongues of a faction … or secret meetings of the official board.
Pastors inherently know that if they are guilty of heresy, sexual immorality, or felonious conduct, their days in a church are numbered.
And pastors often know who the scorekeepers are in a particular church, but pastors usually don’t know the point system the scorekeepers are using.
A pastor might think, “Okay, I didn’t say hi to Jane … that’s probably only a loss of 3 points.” But if you offend Jane, she might debit you 100 points.
This is why pastors are shocked when the board suddenly asks for their resignation. By the pastor’s reckoning, he’s up 2,472 points. By their reckoning, he’s 2,472 down.
Obviously, a pastor can take this point system to ridiculous lengths. You can’t have a positive, influential ministry if you’re walking around mentally adding and subtracting points all day.
Ultimately, a pastor has to try and please the Lord, and let the point system go. We aren’t saved by our good works … we are saved by God’s grace.
But sadly, pastors are employed by good works … a point system … and over time, they can lose so many points that they’re toast.
What are your thoughts about the pastor point system?