Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Preaching Change

DAY 7 OF 46

What's the one thing that usually gives churches more headaches than music styles?

New pastors, right?

Churches get new pastors for all sorts of reasons. Pastors retire, want bigger churches, get embroiled in scandals, or simply get moved in rotation by their denomination. Congregations grow or shrink, get bored, or... get embroiled in scandals.

Small churches usually only have one or two pastors, which means any change behind the pulpit can definitely set a different tone in the substance of the congregation's ministry. On the other hand, larger churches can usually absorb adjustment curves with new second-tier ministers, but changing the senior pastor can sometimes be even more daunting a prospect than for smaller congregations.

Part of the problem involves the fact that virtually every evangelical congregation in North America derives its identity and character from the senior pastor. I don't think this is Biblical, prudent, or particularly healthy, but given our culture, that's the way it is. We're trained to think in terms of hierarchical pyramids, with one person at the top, and multiple worker bees at the bottom, with layers of management in between.

This structure tends to work well for corporations and governments, so we've simply assumed it should work well for churches, too. Sometimes it does, but unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't.

Triumvirate of Three Pastors

When I was in college, the elder board for the church I attended came up with the idea of having a triumvirate of pastors, instead of just one senior minister. The church had been searching for a new senior pastor, but - surprise! - had encountered difficulties in pleasing every member. We already had three dynamic leaders in the congregation with seminary degrees who were doing most of the preaching and ministry oversight, so many of us were intrigued to consider how effective they might be as an official executive team.

Their assignments would fall within each man's skill sets: one was more proficient at preaching than anything else, so he would be responsible for coordinating most of the Sunday morning pulpit and worship duties. Another was a seminary professor with years of teaching and mentorship experience, so he would be responsible for coordinating all of the Sunday School curriculum development for adults, teens, and children. The third was a former missionary to Europe who spearheaded the church's world missions and local outreach programs, so he'd carry on in that role, expanding it to include congregational care.

Sound logical?

Ostensibly, the benefit for having three leaders instead of one came from the fact that while ordinary responsibilities would be separated by specialty, major decisions would be shared by all three. Having one senior pastor spending his week running around to meetings covering all aspects of church governance wasn't seen as an ideal way to spend time and administrate. Splitting up oversight could free pastors to get more done in the areas of their best competency. Ministry could be less frustrating, and burn-out less likely. Plus, having each pastor operating in their specialty could increase the overall quality of their actual work.

And to keep the risks of a power struggle within the triumvirate to a minimum, the elder board would hold all three to the same accountability standards.

Alas, too many people in the congregation simply couldn't envision a sizable church like ours not having one man at the top. The guy who preaches the most will automatically be presumed to be the lead pastor, so why can't the other two be associate pastors? What will people outside the church think when they learn we don't have one senior pastor? It's too new, it's untried, it won't work, it shows we can't make a decision on just one guy, and it's simply too radical.

Sound like arguments I'd make, don't they? But remember, I actually embraced the proposal, and thought our elders had really hit a home run. No, it probably wouldn't be perfect, and yes, it would take some getting used to, but we were a non-denominational Bible church, and since the position of senior pastor isn't in the Bible, we wouldn't be doing anything unBiblical.

Well, as you might have guessed, although a number of members were willing to give this novel approach to leadership a try, many more people just couldn't get their head around it, and voted it down. Eventually, after a little more acrimony and dissension, the guy who would have done most of the preaching ended up getting voted in as the sole senior pastor, the seminary professor ended up writing our adult education curriculum in his spare time, and the outreach director went to work for Mission Arlington, our city's highly-regarded mercy ministry.

Which, in my mind, at least, proved that the triumvirate idea probably would have worked better than the naysayers feared it wouldn't.

So, there: sometimes I really CAN think outside the box! I don't necessarily fear change.

Change Isn't Always Necessary

Fast forward many, many, years to this past Saturday. A friend of mine who just graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary commented that one of his professors told his class that pastors should really only concentrate on making one big change when they come to a new church.

Hmm. One big change. As if their sudden presence in a newly-different congregation isn't change enough?

"Why should they think they need to make any changes at all?" I blurted out, perturbed that a professor seemed to automatically assume new pastors should make changes for change's sake.

And sure enough, my friend looked at me like, "well, duh - every pastor should be entitled to make changes to their new church." His was the conventional expression of our North American mindset which, again, is based more on performance than patience.

Nevertheless, I continued with my own perspective. "Hopefully, if a church is elder-led, and has been led well, it will not need much change just because a new pastor comes on board." After all, should we automatically expect that every new pastor is walking into a disaster zone?

To the relief of my friend, who I obviously caught off-guard, somebody else changed the subject.

Now, perhaps my mindset betrays a personal assumption that the senior pastor isn't necessarily supposed to be the church dictator. He may be the most visible face of the church's leadership team, and he may be the leader with the most theological education, but where is the senior pastor position in the Bible? And yes, you can blame my prior exposure to the triumvirate pastorship idea for making me challenge the status quo on this topic!

Not all churches get new pastors because big changes are needed. Not all new pastors come fully-equipped to immediately evaluate what's wrong and needs fixing. And not all of the things new pastors think they want are legitimate needs.

Let's face it: most preachers are Type-A guys who thrive on action. They like being in charge, in front, and in demand. New stuff means something's getting done. "Change is good" could be their life motto. And a lot of times, elder boards, which generally are comprised of the same type of people preachers are, can easily be deluded into thinking change for change's sake is a sign of progress.

It shouldn't take long after a new pastor arrives that changes needing to be made will make themselves readily apparent through normal circumstances, the prodding of the Holy Spirit, or both. Walking in brimming with new ideas and old assumptions isn't necessarily leadership. It's more like selfishness. Maybe some arrogance. And likely, some impatience. Not exactly Fruits of the Spirit.

Gonna Make That Change

I'm not ranting on this just because, generally speaking, I'm not a fan of change. I've simply been through enough pastoral changes in my church-going career to know the difference between pastors wanting God's best for a congregation and pastors wanting whatever's best for their own career.

Obviously, in some situations, change may actually be welcomed by everyone. Such as when a new pastor is ushered in before the dust has even settled from the coup which ousted the last guy. Or when the Bible hasn't been preached for years, or other ministries of the church have been neglected.

But let's not forget: the only time complete change is absolutely, 100% essential is when God welcomes sinners into His Kingdom. And even then, it's not something we accomplish on our own. It's the Holy Spirit working in and through us for God's glory. With Christ as our new pastor-shepherd.

That's Change - with a capital "C" - we can believe in!

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