There’s a theory I’ve been toying with recently. It sounds a bit cynical … and maybe it is … but I wonder about it anyhow.
How many churches exist primarily to pay their pastor’s salary?
You ask, “Jim, isn’t that backwards? Don’t pastors exist to serve their churches?”
Yes, I believe that’s the way it should be … but in thousands of cases, that’s not how things really work.
Let me explain my thinking.
According to church growth experts, only 15-20% of all churches in America are growing numerically … which means that 80-85% of churches are either stagnant or declining.
In my experience, churches that:
*are growing have an outreach-oriented vision … are willing to take risks … make tough decisions … and preach God’s Word with authenticity and conviction.
*aren’t growing exist primarily for themselves … refuse to take risks … punt on tough decisions … and preach God’s Word so that nobody is offended.
Since at least 80% of all churches are stagnant or declining, isn’t it safe to assume that 80% of all pastors lead stagnant or declining churches as well?
If Jesus is truly God incarnate … the Savior and Lord of All … Giver of the Spirit … and the Prince of Peace … then why are so many churches not doing well?
In my view … especially among small and medium-sized churches … too many churches exist primarily to pay their pastor.
Let me give you an example.
Pastor Joe was called to Fellowship Church five years ago. Everyone likes Joe’s personality, family, and preaching. In fact, Joe has made many friends throughout the congregation.
But during Joe’s tenure, the church has gone from an average Sunday attendance of 165 down to 115 … and to be honest, nobody really cares.
Because Joe loves the congregation, and they love Joe … and as long as the church can pay Joe and keep him around, everyone feels fine.
Joe doesn’t want to do anything to upset this lovefest. His wife seems content. His kids like their friends and community. And Joe’s position feels secure.
He earns a decent salary … along with benefits and retirement … and he has no plans to go anywhere.
But if Fellowship Church is really going to grow, Joe needs to reverse the trend by engaging in activities like these:
*He needs to reinvent himself as a pastor … by visiting growing churches … attending leadership conferences … finding a mentor and/or coach … and even going back to school.
*He needs to start preaching that people are lost without Christ … that hell really exists … and that Fellowship’s people need to share their faith with their networks.
*He needs to lead the congregation in creating a vision that specializes in reaching lost people for Christ.
*He needs to recruit and train several new board and staff members … and make sure that several current leaders (who are holding the church back) step down for good.
*He needs to create a climate where risk-taking is expected … even if there are occasional failures … because most churches that play it safe don’t grow.
Whenever Joe gets tempted to create growth plans, he can envision the following … because he’s seen it happen to other pastors:
*several leaders might leave the church (and take their friends with them).
*some of Joe’s friends might leave as well.
*Joe might have to endure increased criticism … frequent misunderstandings … and uncomfortable board meetings.
*a faction might even arise and demand Joe’s resignation for disturbing congregational peace.
*congregational giving might plunge to a level where the church can’t afford to pay Joe anymore.
Consciously or unconsciously, Joe weighs the costs. Even though attendance and giving have been steadily decreasing, everyone seems happy with Joe … and Joe is happy he can provide for his family.
But if Joe really takes the steps necessary to see his church go forward, Joe’s job … and security … and retirement … might all be on the line.
So Joe puts in his time … pastors his people … teaches on Sundays … and plays it safe … and his church continues to decline.
How do I know so much about pastors like Joe?
For my first 9 years as a pastor, I was Joe. My ministry was boring … few lives were changed … and I played it safe … but I was dying inside … and my church was dying, too.
Until I heard a series of tapes by Bill Hybels that changed my life and ministry forever.
With God’s help, I reinvented myself as a pastor … focused on the Great Commission … changed my preaching … hired needed staff … and took risks.
In fact, I put everything on the line for the gospel.
Was it easy? No.
But I felt alive … and my church came alive.
I let God worry about my salary and retirement … and He never let me down.
Remember what happened to the steward who buried his single talent in the ground?
He walked away with that one talent … but displeased his Master … who expects that His managers will invest and multiply their talents for His cause.
When churches exist for pastors, they stagnate and decline.
When pastors exist to advance and expand Christ’s kingdom, churches grow and prosper.
Let me conclude with a poem that describes the ministries of all too many church leaders. Dr. Curtis Mitchell from Biola College claimed it was found on a tombstone:
Here lie the bones of Nancy Jones
For her life held no terrors
She lived an old maid, she died an old maid
No runs, no hits, no errors