“But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; My steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of some pastors, when I saw the success of those less gifted than me…. Their strength is firm; they are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride serves as their necklace…. Their eyes bulge with abundance; they have more than their heart could wish….” (Psalm 73…sort of… With apologies to the Psalmist.)
A pastor friend who has seen his share of troubles during his pastorates which total perhaps 25 years shared his questions with me.
One. Some pastors live their entire lives without problems, serving church after church with a string of unbroken successes. What sets these pastors apart?
Two. And yet other pastors seem to know setback after setback in their ministries. Are they to blame for this? What are the characteristics that lead some pastors to go from trouble to trouble in churches?
After posing the questions–good ones, I think most will agree–he said, “I expect there are so many reasons for this,” and he named a few. “God’s sovereignty, the pastor’s ability to deal with church politics, and temperament/personality.”
I promised him I would give this some thought and put the questions out here for our friends to comment on. (Consider this your invitation.)
One. Why do some pastors go from success to success without ever having to deal with an uprising of their leadership, a coup by the deacons, firings, diminishing statistics, scandals, and such?
My first thought is that we might be surprised at how much trouble some of the mega-church pastors, the super-stars in the denominational firmament, have had to deal with in their years. But because we are far removed from them and their PR people are so good, we never hear of it.
A lady in one of my churches came to services on her motorcycle, then would call me during the week to say she had no business attending our church (which was large and affluent by her standards). “I sat in Sunday School,” she would say, “with these fancy ladies in their fur coats. They live in mansions and send their kids to the big schools. I’m so out of place there.” On one occasion I said to her, “My friend, I saw where you sat for worship last Sunday. You might be interested in knowing that on the same pew was a family that has just lost a son as a result of an overdose. On the pew in front of you is a family facing bankruptcy. And not far behind you was a couple on the verge of divorce. You must not judge these people by the coats they wear and the cars they drive.”
In addition to the big three reasons my friend suggested–the sovereignty of God, the skill of the pastor in dealing with interchurch politics, and the temperaments of the pastors–we can think of a few more reasons why some pastors never are subjected to church bullies, rogue deacons, and carnal personnel committees….
–Some churches are mature. When trouble arises, they deal with it.
–Some churches are blessed by faithful leadership who protect their pastor from slander, vicious (and malicious) attacks, and mean-spirited opposition.
–And some pastors are just…dare we say it?….lucky. (Is there such a think as luck to Christians? And yet, there seems to be a certain randomness in some of these things. So, I’ll just put this out there, although I’m not sure of it.)
–One factor might be denominational standards and cultural expectations.
The pastor of a small Bible church was retiring after over 40 years there. He said to me, “I have not had a single instance of a group in the church trying to get me fired. Not one.” And yet, his church rarely if ever hit a hundred in attendance. My thought was, “Had this been a Southern Baptist church, the church-growth folks would have sent him packing.” If it’s not growing, it’s the pastor’s fault. Lord, help us.
–Finding the perfect fit between the congregation and the pastor may be another factor. I’ve known many pastors to be sent packing for no other reason than “He wasn’t a good fit for our church.” I even heard it about myself more than once.
Two. What characteristics lead some pastors to have multiple setbacks in their pastorates?
My wife Margaret had an Uncle Harold who pastored churches and served as a director of missions in Alabama. My observation was that wherever he went, trouble erupted. On more than one occasion he was asked to leave. He said to me once, “I guess I’m the Lord’s troubleshooter.” I was young and just beginning in the ministry, but the thought that came to me was, “Maybe you’re a troublemaker.” But I had no way of knowing.
Some people–as my friend suggested in his original note–simply have prickly personalities that rub people the wrong way, that push people away rather than draw them in. Those people are usually unable to see their problem and admit to their mistakes in order to repair broken relationships. So, they leave a string of fractured relationships in their wake, and eventually do one of two things: have an ever-decreasing membership or keep moving on to other churches where they repeat the same process.
Do good and faithful pastors–effective, sincere, godly–sometimes pile up a string of “failures”? (Using the word in the human, accepted sense) I think so. If the Lord sends the faithful, healthy pastor to a broken church, no one is surprised when bruised and hurting members turn against him. It’s a human thing. During a life-saving course in college, we were taught that the swimmer you are trying to save will often fight against you. The person is fighting for survival and not thinking rationally. There’s some of that in hurting churches. I pastored one of them.
Even so, I would do this….
If my pastorates all seemed to decrease under my leadership and if I was ousted from two pastorates in a row, I would seek help. I would try to find someone with skills in pastor-helping and church-analysis to take a look at my ministries and advise me. That is not to say I would enter this evaluation/counseling allowing someone else to determine anything about my calling or my ministry. I would however pay a good price to have a capable, veteran Christian analyze how I led a church and give me his/her verdict. Dr. Rob Paul has a ministry called Church Revitalization and would be one I would not hesitate to ask for input.
it’s a huge subject and one we will not resolve in a brief article. We will welcome comments from readers (below).