Responsibility for congregational health lies with both congregation and pastor, but many congregations fail to recognize the sacred responsibility they have to the pastor called to shepherd them. Evidence of this failure can be seen in the alarming number of pastoral resignations that occur each year, creating a rolling brown-out in church leadership.
According to Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries, approximately 1,500 U.S. pastors depart their pulpits each month.1 Approximately 23 percent of these pastors are fired or forced out, and in most cases the church never knows why. Similarly, in a Christianity Today International article, John LaRue reports that 34 percent of all pastors serve congregations that had either fired or otherwise forced out the previous pastor.2
The Nature of Nurture
Congregations, of course, rightly expect their pastors to nurture them. However, they also have a sacred responsibility to nurture their pastors (1 Tim. 5:17-19). There is a correlation between the health and well-being of the pastor and the long-term productivity of the church. Longer-term pastorates are well-correlated with effective evangelism and sustained church growth and health.3 The losses to a church from rapid pastor turnover are incalculable.
However, the pastoral relations committee (PRC) can play a key role in fulfillment of the congregation’s sacred responsibility to nurture their pastor. The PRC is where the agendas of church and pastor meet. When functioning well, the PRC finds ways and means to sustain the excellence of the pastoral staff.
Crisis Management or Care Delivery System?
Unfortunately, many PRCs do not operate this way. They tend to become crisis management teams. In churches with this kind of unsupportive PRC, when the congregation hears that the committee is meeting, the buzz is “What’s wrong?” and anxiety levels go up. In these churches, the PRC accumulates grievances against the pastor until pressure forces the safety valve to release it. That is when the meeting is called. The approach is often, “Pastor, lots of people feel… Many people want… We hear from many that…” The committee serves as interpreter and filter of congregational attitude, thus hindering the pastor from direct personal engagement. The PRC thus becomes the third party in a communications triangle. People speak to the PRC about the pastor, and the PRC becomes the vehicle through which the pastor hears the people. Although these roles may need to be performed at certain times, their constant performance only breeds a wariness and a weariness on everybody’s part.
I have experienced this kind of dysfunctional PRC and almost resigned myself at one time. The worship wars, cultural conflict, adversarial agendas, and a sharp decline in attendance had taken its toll on me and on the congregation. But I did not resign. By the grace of God, my church’s pastoral relations committee reinvented itself and became a life-giving force for me. They asked, in effect, “How can we sustain the long-term excellence of our pastoral staff?” What emerged from conversations with the church, the council, and the PRC were the following recognitions:
Time is of the Essence
The pastoral task is not about efficiency. Time in the office does not equate to ministry done. Hours reported have little bearing on the Kingdom work accomplished. Personal time is needed: time to grow, time to waste, and time away from the church will benefit the church. For pastors, Sunday is not the Sabbath, but certainly the pastoral task requires Sabbath.
As the work is primarily spiritual, time devoted to personal spiritual pursuits will also bless the church. Pastoring is one vocation that cannot be done by will and skill alone. By its very nature it requires time for meditation and reflection, prayer, solitude, and study. Time is needed to process memories and to enjoy anticipation. Soul care is time consuming.
In a study on pastor burnout conducted by the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 74 percent of the pastors who participated in the study reported that they had too many demands on their time.4 They operate without adequate margin, and the “general adaptation syndrome”—exhaustion resulting from long-term cumulative stress—takes it toll. One simply runs out of “gas.”
Just as my computer generates an hourglass to tell me it is working on something and that I can just chill in the meantime, so the PRC can serve as the pastoral hourglass. (God is at work, so chill.) To do this, the PRC agenda needs to review the pastor’s planner. The tyranny of the urgent and the pressure of the “should” will fill up all available time unless it is designated “sacred time.” Long-range planning for time alone, time away, and time with family will help protect “sacred time.” The PRC can help the driven pastor to think in terms of daily time, weekly time, monthly and yearly time.
Several years ago, my family and I packed up for a long-overdue vacation. Just as we were about to leave, a long-time church member fell ill. I left my various contact numbers with the church chair. But before we left, he said, “We won’t be calling. Take your heart with you.” Receiving this grace of time from the congregation was hard but blessed.
Expectations are Made Explicit
The pastor is not the savior of the church. However, congregational expectations often are that the pastor will lead them into their “promised land.” The PRC can help prevent an exacerbation of unrealistic expectations.
Churches tend to view themselves as the focus of pastoral ministry. Pastors are called to do ministry among the members: teach, disciple, preach, marry, baptize, and bury. This is “centripetal” ministry: it all devolves inward. However, most pastors, knowing that a self-focused church will inevitably be depleted, view their calling as more “centrifugal,” one that spins outward in evangelism, engaging the community at its point of need, and doing global mission. These two agendas end in mortal combat.
Awareness of the congregation’s and one’s own expectations is the first step toward bringing them into alignment. Are the expectations of each party clear from the beginning? Are changing expectations articulated or just simmering? Although the call may come with an explicit, detailed job description that spells out the pastoral duties—preaching, teaching, caring, leading—in some detail, explicit expectations are not the problem. The trouble lies in a host of implicit or hidden expectations that can be camouflaged by the rhetoric in job descriptions. These expectations are held by individuals in the church and by the body itself. They are not articulated but nevertheless form the grid of evaluation: quality of preaching, frequency of altar calls, visitation schedule, availability, warmth, behavior of family, personal and spousal attire, and technical competency.
Given that not every possible expectation can or should be listed in the job description, the PRC becomes the manager of the implicit. It attempts to vocalize what is silent.
An example of how this role can be exercised effectively occurred in my own congregation. I am an avowed “jazzoid,” so I had initiated an invitation to a well-known jazz artist to do a series of concerts at the church with a view to attracting the unchurched from the community. After the publicity went out, a strong oppositional element in the congregation arose, saying, in effect, “If you do this, we will leave.” I was tempted to call them on that! Anger mounted on both sides. It had become a pastoral relations issue for sure. But the PRC bridged the gap. They encouraged the “opposition” to explain their feelings. It turned out that, to them, jazz st
ill carried connotations of smoky bars and sultry singers. It was agreed that the events could be hosted at several larger homes outside the church (and in the end, did more to move the church out into the community than hosting the events at the church building would have).
In this scenario, my explicit mandate was to implement outreach and evangelism. The implicit expectation was that I not trample on “Christian propriety” while doing so.
Trust is Built
A call to pastoral ministry often comes with a job description that compensates for all the faults and mistakes of the former occupant of that position. The search committee thinks, “Now is our chance to make sure that never happens again!” One pastor asked why his job description said he must park in the designated “Pastor Parking” spot. “So we know when you come and go,” was the answer. If the previous pastor/congregation relationship was rocky, the new pastor is often burdened with an a priori atmosphere of mistrust. In some ways it is like a second marriage: it begins with hope and anticipation that this time it will go well, but there is a hidden reserve of mistrust and fear.
The pastor/congregation relationship must begin with trust, and more trust will be granted as the relationship matures. Most new pastorates begin with a honeymoon stage where faults and quirks are overlooked. This will not last, of course, but the PRC can leverage this into creating a climate of trust that will prevail when the first fight comes. Trust builds as quickly as the people get to know the pastor, so a nurturing PRC might use the honeymoon period as an opportunity to highlight their new pastor. This can be done with a series of interviews during worship or for the newsletter, PRC-sponsored in-home gatherings, or “body life” events like sports and picnics that put the pastor in a less formal setting. Events like these, as well as lifting the pastor up in prayer, can be keys to building trust.
Also, if the PRC becomes aware of certain needs in the pastor’s life, these can be shared—with permission—in appropriate settings for care and prayer. It may seem counterintuitive, but trust also grows where there is vulnerability and admission of need. The bust of the walk-on-water pastor may be temporarily displayed on a pedestal, but lurking underground is the suspicion that “it’s too good to be true….” And it is. Then the head rolls.
Balance is Maintained
The pastor needs to model a healthy life for the congregation. If he or she is a driven, compulsive workaholic, any other modeling of or teaching about maintaining a healthy balance in life is negated. However, churches often expect this level of consecration from their pastors. At other times it is the pastor who brings this level of expectation and applies it to church volunteers and staff. The PRC can help structure right balance. A balanced tire will run better, smoother, longer, and more safely than an unbalanced one.
Accountability for the pastor’s well-being is crucial in establishing balance. This is more “health reporting” than what is often thought of as accountability. When the PRC comes along and says, “Reverend Elise, we would like to review your time spent, how you use your hours. Frankly, we see you pouring almost endless hours into counseling, which is appreciated and needed, but you are often too exhausted to lead us into the areas of biblical discipleship. We want to see how we can help.” If the PRC said that to me, they’d have my time sheet asap!
However, accountability is often a cover for controlling or a synonym for oversight. Sometimes this is needed, to be sure. Pastors need shaping, correction, rebuke, and discipline. But accountability needs to be more than that; it needs to be offered as congregational care to the pastor as well.
Many businesses offer “comp time” to their employees—time off from work that compensates for a period of prolonged work. This is one way to help keep life in balance, because there are times and seasons when we must respond to huge demands. Pastors rise to the occasion, but once risen they cannot simply stay there. They need “comp time” to regain strength and perspective. The PRC can help ensure that comp time is taken.
Humanity is Allowed
The pastor must be allowed to fail. She or he is not without fault or flaw, is still being sanctified. We are not speaking of gross moral failure but of accepting the imperfections and even enjoying the idiosyncrasies of personality. If the church wants its pastor to be a bold visionary and a courageous leader, then it must also expect enormous and repeated failures. Babe Ruth had 1330 strikeouts. Thomas Edison said, “Results? Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.”5
An example of this occurred in one of my own pastorates. I had wanted more prayer in the church, so I created various prayer opportunities: Sunday night prayer service, midweek prayer service, special “days of prayer”; prayer wheels, prayer cells, prayer chains. Most of these efforts produced minimal results with maximal sustained effort, which is code for failure. What did work? A once-a-month prayer breakfast and teaching committees to do more than just open and close in prayer but to actually pray.
Pastors may fail at leadership training or evangelistic programs. The pastor may fail to revitalize a congregation or prevent a split. Of course, “failure” is hard to measure because there is always some element of good within every effort.
However, to hit the home run or turn on the bulb, the pastor must be encouraged to explore, to be adventuresome, and run some risks. The supportive PRC again comes alongside the pastor and says, “You are called of God. We encourage you to go with the vision that God gives to us all. We are with you on this!”
How many PRCs have ever said, “Pastor, we think you need to take more time for study, for family. We’d like you to take some courses on postmodern worship”? Probably not too many. But Dr. David Kersten, executive minister of the Board of Ordered Ministry for the Evangelical Covenant Church, says pastors tend to minister out of spiritual deficit. They give out more than they take in. They run depleted. They run to the edge of the margins. The PRC that helps pastors help themselves will ensure a longer, richer pastorate and will thereby deepen and bless the congregation.
1. Ken Sande, “Strike the Shepherd: Losing Pastors in the Church,” Byfaithonline, the Web magazine for the Presbyterian Church (www.byfaithonline.com/partner/Article_Display_Page/0,,PTID323422%7CCHID 664022%7CCIID1825498,00.html).
2. John LaRue, “Forced Exits: A Too-Common Ministry Hazard,” Your Church (March/April 1996), 72; and www.christianitytoday.com/cbg/features/report/6y2072.html. Also see http://www.christianitytoday.com/leaders/newsletter/cln00712.html.
3. Thom Rainer, Break Out Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 56–57, and Glenn Ludwig, In It for the Long Haul: Building Effective Long-Term Pastorates (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2002).
4. “Reflections on the Study of Clergy Burnout” conducted by Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary; Michael Jinkins, Congregations (May/June 2000), available at www.alban.org/ShowArticle.asp?ID=42.
5. Gerald Beals (www.thomasedison.com/edquote.htm).