The biggest mistake preachers make concerning huge churches

This sounds like a given, but pastors would do well to tell themselves repeatedly, “I will never go anywhere without a strong indication the Lord is sending me there.”  To do otherwise is to invite major trouble.

You can hardly believe it.

You’re a pastor and the search committee from Megaville has arrived at your church.  It’s about time you were getting the notice you deserve, you cautiously (and humbly) think.  After all, you logged the requisite years in seminary and struggled through several pastorates, all of them challenging to one degree or other.  And now, something good seems to be happening.

The committee attends several Sundays in a row, and then you get a phone call.  They want to  take you and your wife to dinner next time they visit.

You’re both excited.  You line up a baby sitter, wear your newest clothes and use your best manners.  All goes well and you both begin to dream.  How would it be to live there, to adjust to that huge place, to deal with such successful people, to administer such a large staff, to manage a budget in the millions?  What do you suppose your salary will be? and what will you do with all that money?  And could the Lord really be giving you such an opportunity?

Also, you begin to think how nice it would be to leave behind this present church with its problems: difficulty in meeting the budget, a staff member who is a constant headache, and a few high-maintenance lay leaders.  Poof! Gone in one fell swoop.

We move to Megaville and start afresh.

A few days later, the committee calls again.

They want you and your wife to fly to their city and see their facilities.  They are about to impress you big time, and you know it.  And can hardly wait!

Who doesn’t want to be wanted? And wooed. And impressed.

You have trouble sleeping.  It’s all you and your spouse talk about, even while cautioning each other, “Let’s not get our hopes up.”

Like that’s going to happen.  It’s all you can think about.

That big church has come to you!  The mega-congregation, the one you’ve admired from afar, the church whose pastor two or three times back was somewhat famous and is still being quoted on the internet, that church’s search committee is interested in you becoming their pastor.

Okay.  Can we pause here and analyze this process?

They’re praying….

Are they ever! But it’s hard to ask the Lord “show us the way” when they’re feeling so strongly “how could this not be right?”  Even so, they say all the right words: “Lead us.”  “Show us.”  “Lead them.”  “Thy will be done.” And this one: “If there is something not right about this, Lord, please stop it.” (All the while, their flesh is calling, “Don’t stop it! Please don’t stop it.”)

At this point, the typical pastor makes the biggest blunder of his life.

He thinks because the church is huge, it surely must be healthy. And faithful.  And effective in all it does.  The staff must be wonderful, the deacons too, and the office staff the gold standard for office staffs.

He thinks that wonderful huge church must be everything his present church is not. And he’s wrong. It’s amazing how similar churches of all sizes are.  The problems are just magnified and intensified as the numbers increase.

Why this false assumption matters

Assuming the church to be healthy means the candidate for that pulpit does not ask the big questions, does not look suspiciously at the bum’s rush the search committee–now going into their chamber of commerce mode–is putting on for them, and does not run all the references he should on the church.

The too-impressed and overly-snowed pastor skips the steps he knows full well he should be observing.  As soon as the committee makes it plain they are seriously considering him as their next pastor, he needs to get started on his own personal search.

His prayer life intensifies, and he gets serious in calling on Heaven for direction.

He should be interviewing the church’s past ministers, lead pastors as well as staff, and calling a few neighboring pastors to get their take.  Denominational people are a rich resource of information on churches.  And because this church is so well-known, he will want to call two or three of his best friends in the ministry to ask, “What do you think?”  (Then, stop talking and listen closely to what they are saying. And in particular to what they are not saying.)

The pastor should be taking notes.  Lots of notes.

If one is available, he needs to read a written history of that church. And get a copy of the constitution and bylaws and study them until he knows them from memory.

Then, and only then, he needs to schedule a meeting with that search committee to ask his questions. Until now he has primarily been responding to their questions.  This is his time.  He will want to formulate his questions in non-threatening ways, but plan to be direct and plain-spoken.  He will want to take quick notes on their answers.  When he gets back to the room, he should take an hour and translate these notes into fuller, clearer, more helpful responses.

The pastor needs to decide going in that if the committee’s answers are evasive or unsatisfactory, the wise thing would be to back off and seek the Lord’s wisdom.  If they are hiding something or spinning some troublesome spot in their recent history, he needs to pick up on this.

The committee needs to know the man of God to whom they feel so attracted has his head screwed on straight and thinks clearly and wisely.  That he is no one’s fool.

And because he is intelligent, the pastor may choose not to confront the full committee with the contradictions he hears, the less than accurate tale they are giving him, or what they are not saying.  He may decide to deal with these in a private session with the chair and one or two others.  Again, he takes full notes and expounds on them later.

When we fail to do this 

Too late, many a pastor learns the awful truth.

He arrives on the scene and discovers any or all of the following…

–many in the congregation are angry at him before they’ve even met him! for taking the place of the beloved former pastor.

–a staff member or two is angry because of some rumor he heard about the new pastor that frightens him or her

–even though the church has adopted a new set of plans for the future, they are nowhere ready to begin implementing them.  He will need to go slow and win their trust.

–the pastor’s secretary has decided she does not like him and is going to do all she can to make sure he knows that.

–some of the leaders who were not included in the search now feel they need to let the pastor know who really calls the shots around here and that they are going to have to be consulted before he makes any changes.

And those are just for starters.

The funny thing about this

Even if the prospective pastor knows all this going in, God may still be leading him to take this pastorate. After all, sick churches need shepherds too.

But that new pastor should go in with his eyes wide open, is what we are saying. “Wise as serpents, harmless as doves” is how our Lord put it (Matthew 10:16).

And, the sicker the church–meaning the deeper the problems, the more ingrained they are, the greater the things that are at stake–the more difficult will be the steps a new pastor takes when he arrives.

He knows going in he cannot do this alone. He needs a strong corps of prayer warriors.  He needs a few great advisors. (Not good ones, but great ones!)  And he needs a supportive team of church lay leaders who will stand by him when things get rough…

As they will.

No sick church was ever made healthy without a fight. Without pain.  Without some amputations and major surgery.

No sick church was ever made healthy without losing some members.  And departing members can often be angry, mean-spirited, and trouble-making.

So, let the pastor know going in what he’s getting into.

That’s all we are saying.

Pray for your pastors, friend.





3 thoughts on “The biggest mistake preachers make concerning huge churches

  1. I’d like to add, pay attention to the makeup of the search committee. Who was chosen to be on it? If you can find out, how were they chosen? Do they represent a cross section of the congregation or were they hand picked from one demographic? Regardless of the gender of the pastor candidate, be mindful of group think on the search committee. It might be that some of the search committee has leadership aspirations but has to demonstrate to the current leadership that they know just whom to satisfy. This matters a lot because if the committee is made up of or must satisfy a demographic that is only 20% of the congregation, then 80% might not have chosen you had they been consulted or represented.

    • Personally, I think this is not information I’d care to go into. Finding it out would require a lot of effort, and even if I knew it, not sure what use it’d be to me. So, personally I wouldn’t do this.

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