Posts Tagged ‘limits of pastor’s power’

How much power should a pastor have in a church?

Should a pastor have absolute power to make decisions?  Or should he implement change only after consulting with other leaders?

I once met with a well-known pastor in the San Jose area.  He had a commanding presence and seemed like someone who knew how to wield power firmly.  He told me that he had two boards in his church.  One kept telling him, “Go, go, go!”  The other one kept saying, “Slow, slow, slow!”

Over my years as a pastor, some people told me that I needed to exercise more power than I did, while others labeled me a dictator who didn’t let others make decisions.  I suppose most pastors struggle with the proper balance here.

Let me share with you five principles about how pastors should wield power in a church:

First, a pastor’s authority originates from God.  A pastor does not gain power through ordination, or by being a seminary graduate, or by attending a conference at Saddleback or Willow Creek.  No, a pastor’s authority comes directly from the Holy Trinity.  The Father, Son, and Spirit call specific individuals to pastoral ministry.

Before ascending to heaven, Jesus told His disciples that even His own authority was derived from His Father: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

And Paul told the elders/pastors of the church at Ephesus that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).

Many – if not most – of the men who pastor a Calvary Chapel are taught “The Moses Principle” of leadership.  God spoke directly to Moses, and Moses told the people what God said.  Pastor Chuck Smith is fond of asking pastors if they work for the Lord or for the board.

Since God calls people to be pastors, those pastors always need to be accountable to Him for the way they exercise authority.  While the Godhead truly possesses all authority for all time, a pastor’s authority is both partial and temporary.  Therefore, it needs to be stewarded wisely.

Second, pastors are to advance the kingdom of God.  They are to say with Jesus, “Thy kingdom come,” not “my kingdom come.”  It is the job of a pastor to make Jesus look good, not make himself look good.

Pastors should be content to have people talk about Jesus rather than themselves.  It is unworthy of a pastor to aim to make a lot of money, or to become famous, or to be unnecessarily admired, or to have his eye on a larger church.

I Peter 5:6 is written in the context of church leadership and says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”  A humble pastor knows that he is accountable to God and that the Lord will reward him in His own time and way.

In other words, it’s important for a pastor’s motives to be pure – and a true desire to build God’s kingdom usually results in more pastoral power, not less.

Third, a pastor earns power as he serves people.  A pastor cannot stay in his church office all day and earn power by thinking up new projects.  He earns power by touching the lives of hurting people.

In my second pastorate, there was a couple that didn’t seem to like me.  The husband was standoffish and the wife could be caustic at times.  While they weren’t overtly antagonistic toward me, I didn’t really know how to win them over.

Three years into my tenure, the wife’s mother died.  As I ministered to the family in their time of grief, I could sense that things were changing.  Before long, this couple was one of my best supporters – but it took time.

Isn’t this what Jesus said in Matthew 20:26-28?  “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

If anyone deserved to exercise authority over people, it was Jesus.  He had the ability to force people to do things against their will – but He identified and met their needs instead.  He never bulldozed anyone over.  He presented His case and let people make up their own minds about His kingdom.

I am eager to follow a leader who says, “I care about you.  Come follow me.”  But I resist following anyone who says, “Do what I tell you to do just because I tell you to do it.”  Uh uh.

Fourth, a church grants a pastor power when it trusts him.  When should a pastor begin to make major changes in a church?  Some experts say, “The pastor should start making changes from Day One.  He’s in his ‘honeymoon period’ and can do no wrong.”  Others counter by saying, “But how can a pastor institute major changes when he doesn’t yet know the congregation or the community?”

For example, Ronald Richardson summarizes the view of Israel Galindo in Galindo’s book The Hidden Lives of Congregations: “A believer in longer pastoral tenures, he suggests that it may take about five years to get to know a congregation well enough to articulate a vision of ministry.  This seems exactly right to me.  During that time, the pastor can become an accurate observer of the congregation, get to know the subterranean forces at work, and make a solid connection with the leaders and members, finding out what ‘church’ means to them.  It is also critical that the pastor find ways to honor and respect the members of this church and what they have created over time.  Within this context, the pastor then courageously upholds a vision for mission and ministry that fits that specific congregation.”

A pastor cannot go into a church and automatically implement an agenda that he’s read about or seen work in another situation.  Every area and fellowship are unique.

The wise pastor realizes that trust takes time.  This is why a pastor’s best years begin after he’s been in a church for at least five years.  The people have learned that the pastor truly knows them, understands them, loves them and wants what is best for them.  He doesn’t view the church as a mass of statistics but as a collection of individuals and families whom he deeply treasures.

If a pastor truly loves the people of his church, then he should retain the title “pastor.”  If he sends off signals that he doesn’t love them, then he should be called “reverend” or “CEO” or “your royal highness” – anything but “pastor.”

That’s a title that must be earned over time.

Finally, a pastor’s power needs to be shared.  While I thank God for all the leaders in the Old Testament, I don’t think that pastors should ever be viewed strictly as generals (like Joshua) or kings (like David) or prophets (like Amos).  While Israel did have elders, the OT is filled with stories of individuals making decisions in consultation with God alone.

But the New Testament applauds a plurality of leaders in a local church setting.  Read Paul’s words to the elders in Ephesus (Acts 20:17-38) or Paul’s instructions about overseers to Timothy (1 Timothy 3:1-7) and Titus (Titus 1:5-9) or Peter’s admonitions to elders (1 Peter 5:1-5).  There isn’t just one governing leader in a local church – there are many.  Some elders are set apart and paid because of their giftedness in leading and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17-18) but every NT church has multiple leaders – not just one.

However, I believe that a pastor needs to set the agenda for a church.  As he reads Scripture, prays, studies the community, and learns the congregation, the Lord gives him a direction for the church.  (If a pastor chooses to implement change without the governing leaders, that’s a formula for termination.)

The pastor then shares his agenda with the leaders.  Unless the pastor is promoting heresy or building his own kingdom, those leaders need to take the time to understand that agenda so they can fully stand behind it.

No church can have a board alone set the agenda.  I can’t think of a single church that is doing anything for Jesus where the board casts the vision.  That’s going nowhere.

Instead, the pastor needs the leaders to help promote and explain and even defend his God-given agenda.

But more than anything, the pastor needs the board’s counsel as to the timing of the agenda.  If the pastor gets too far out ahead of the congregation, some people will become highly anxious and conflict will break out.  If the pastor lags behind the congregation, there may be calls for a new leader!

This is why leadership is an art, not a science – and why your pastor needs your prayers so very much.


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