Although the question the search committee asked was, “What is your church growth plan?” what they were after was something much deeper. Something was amiss, and they knew it.
You didn’t need to tell them that their community was different; they realized they didn’t really know all their neighbors any more. You didn’t need to tell them that the big Baptist church across the highway just kept getting bigger; they could watch it grow. You didn’t need to explain to them how the Methodist church had done a better job of reaching out to families with youth; many of their kids had left and taken their grandchildren there.
Just like most congregations in the United States, the only way they knew to measure whether a church was successful was to count the number of people in the pews on a Sunday morning and the number of dollars in the offering plate. The success of a church can be measured in many different ways. But their method of measuring success was not what caught my attention. What caught my attention was the word your.
“Pastor, what is your plan for growing our church? What is your idea about how we can attract more young families? What is your thought about contemporary worship?” (Interestingly, no one has yet asked me, “What’s your budget plan for the church?”)
I don’t have anything against church growth. If a community is faithfully living its calling from God in the world, then people will notice and want to participate in that. If a church is faithful to Christ’s mission, I believe some measure of growth can usually be expected. However, the issue I knew I would have to attend to with my new congregation, from day one, was their expectation that I was coming to be their resident “church expert.”
It’s not hard to see why. From where they sat, wasn’t I the one who had just spent three years at a prestigious theological institution where I learned not only theology and biblical studies but also all manner of practical concepts? Wasn’t I the one who had worked in campus ministry and as a student pastor in a church plant geared toward postmodern young adults? Wasn’t I the one who had been ordained to work as the program director for a world-recognized interfaith organization? Wasn’t I the expert?
Indeed, their expectations were not all that unique. Citing research done by Pulpit and Pew, a report produced by the Presbyterian Church (USA) sums up a congregation’s expectation of their pastor nicely:
The Bible describes a variety of forms of ministry leadership. Evangelists served a critical role as the early Christian church began to organize. In the Middle Ages, the pastor as mediator of sacramental grace became primary. The sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestant Reformation’s principles of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, among other things, elicited the pastor as preacher and pastor as ethical guide models. Around 1900 and with growing literacy new images and metaphors for pastoral ministry began to emerge, especially after the First World War. In no uniform order or pure forms, pastoral ministry models of professional educator, psychologist/counselor, agent of social change, and manager of the church surfaced as ideals. Recent research shows many congregants expect their pastor to master each of these models; to be an expert in each of these roles [final emphasis mine].
We want our pastors to be experts in practical matters like leading worship, education, pastoral care, administration, and community organizing. And yet, typically, decisions about whether the candidate is qualified to fulfill a congregation’s expectations in these areas rest upon a very few number of conversations with a search committee, one sermon before the congregation, and parishioners’ feelings about whether they connected to the candidate during the three to five minutes they talked to her at the “getting to know you” reception the day before in the chaotic fellowship hall.
This scenario doesn’t bother us, however, because we assume that if the candidate can make a strong interpersonal connection, answer the search committee’s questions to its satisfaction, and deliver a well-prepared sermon, then they must be “exactly the person we’re looking for.” Their interpersonal skills and successful delivery of a dynamite sermon translate, in our minds, to a perceived ability to excel in administrating the church’s day-to-day activities and to effectively guide church boards and committees in carrying out the congregation’s broader ministry. I think it is not far from the truth to say that congregations vote on a pastor based primarily on her preaching skills and then are shocked if she’s not a great administrator.
Pastors, also, are aware of the disconnect between training and expectations. When pastors say things like “They didn’t teach me this in seminary,” what they are usually talking about are skills one would learn in business school. Yet they can’t tell anyone that they are not equipped for the task, so, rather than find themselves without a job, I see pastors all over the country giving in to the expectation that they can be good administrators because they know this is what congregations want. Imagine that you are a pastor in this situation: What would you do if an entire church were counting on you? Like most others, you would remind yourself that you can do this, and step up and try to meet expectations, wouldn’t you? You would not admit you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, you would continually tell yourself that you could until you believed it.
Congregations should quit trusting and expecting that pastors know everything about how to conduct the business of the church. A pastor’s area of expertise is actually quite narrow. If we continue insisting that pastors be our resident church experts, we will find that our expectation causes more problems than it solves. If we continue trusting one person to expertly address all areas of church life, things will begin to fall apart. A better (and, I would argue, more faithful) plan of action is to begin tapping into the wisdom of the priesthood of all believers.
“I don’t have one,” I said in answer to the Pastor Search Committee’s question, “What’s your church growth plan?” “All I have is a ‘Be Faithful to Jesus Plan,’ which would include helping you all figure out how to spread Christ’s grace and peace in this community. If I become your pastor, I’ll be with you for only a season. But this community is where God has called you to be the body of Christ. This is your church, and you all know your town better than I do. There’s no way I could suggest something better than the ideas already present in your congregation.”
Like many Alban Weekly articles, this short piece is an adaptation from a longer and more fully developed argument. In the section of Open Source Church from which this piece is adapted, Landon Whitsitt also explores the differences between learned skills and natural ability, The Wisdom of Crowds, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the fungibility of intelligence, the need for diversity, and more. This article originally apepared in the Alban Weekly on June 27, 2011.
Adapted from Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All by Landon Whitsitt, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All
by Landon Whitsitt
In Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, Landon Whitsitt argues that Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone can see and edit, might be the most instructive model available to help congregations develop leaders and structures that can meet the challenges presented by our changing world. Its success depends, he demonstrates, not on the views of select experts but on the collective wisdom of crowds.
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt suggests a different way for churches to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth.
Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality
by Stephen Chapin Garner with Jerry Thornell
In Scattering Seeds: Cultivating Church Vitality, Stephen Chapin Garner and Jerry Thornell share the story of their home congregation, the United Church of Christ in Norwell, MA. This average congregation has approached congregational life in a not-so-average way. Garner and Thornell don’t claim to have the secret to church growth and vitality, but in sharing the story of their simple church in New England, they give hope and innovative ideas to congregations in regions all over the country.
Practicing Balance: How Congregations Can Support Harmony in Work and Life
by David Edman Gray
Work-life imbalance is a problem that has personal, national, and religious implications. Millions of Americans sense that they are rushing through life and that their work and non-work lives compete with one another. Many of us are harming our health through overwork. David Gray’s Practicing Balance demonstrates why congregational leaders should take work-life imbalance seriously.
This is your chance to take this popular, skill-and-tool-filled in-depth seminar. This repeat of last March’s sold-out seminar will fill up fast.
Act now: Early Bird Rates are available through August 1.
Stepping up to Staffing and Supervision
Leader: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant and author
October 1-3, 2013, Hilton Gardens (airport) Hotel, Phoenix, AZ
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