10 signs the church worker has been there too long

The pastor or church staff member or the chairman of a committee or a church officer has overstayed his/her welcome.

Let’s talk about how to tell.

One church I pastored had a vivid illustration of what happens when a member holds a position so long they begin to “own” it.  Behind the church–same block–sat the synagogue.  Across the street from the synagogue sat the funeral home, owned by one of our deacons. One day this good man told me, “Preacher, we could have bought the land the synagogue is sitting on for a pittance years ago.”

Our growing church needed additional land, which is why we were having this conversation.

He said, “When the house that used to sit on that property came up for sale, the people wanted $30,000 for it. I was willing to raise the money and buy it. I felt we’d be needing that property in the future.”

“The trouble was that Mr. McClanahan, the church treasurer who had held that job for decades, vetoed it. He said that was just too much money for that piece of land and we would not pay it.”

“No one, including the preacher, wanted to stand up to McClanahan, so we let it go.”

“And now,” the deacon said, “We can’t touch that piece of ground for a million dollars.”

He was right in that. I’d asked around discreetly and found that out.

A church where I was guest-preaching was in the act of trying to dislodge a church secretary who had held that office since Noah was a little boy. Even though she was in her mid-70s and long overdue for retirement, she would not budge. As the unofficial church boss, the woman would not change her way of doing things, would not agree that the pastor had the right to have an administrative helper who would do what he asked, and would not agree to go away quietly. (I have no idea how it turned out. These things rarely go smoothly.)

Ten signs the person has held this church job too long.

1. They resist change.

Now, change is hard for most of us, but in churchwork, it’s the order of the day. The only constant is change, as the saying goes. The Lord’s parable of “new wine in new wineskins” fits here.

In the late 1960s, when I began pastoring Emmanuel Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, we printed our bulletin on a mimeograph machine. Everyone had manual typewriters and one phone line corrected our office with the world.

Change did not occur overnight, but incrementally. The mimeograph changed to offset presses, and those to copiers. The first copiers turned out single reproductions on a form which had to be peeled away and discarded. These days, every church of any size has a color copier.

Pastors used to make $5,000 a year and could live on it. They had heard of computers, but most had never seen one. The idea of carrying around in a pocket a gadget which had access to everyone in the world and all the information everywhere never entered any preacher’s mind.

It’s a new day. And–do not miss this, my friend–it’s getting newer every day. Tomorrow will be newer than today. A few years from now, the smart phone and laptop will be relics.

As she left the church to join another, the unhappy woman told her young pastor, “I know when we brought you here 2 years ago, we said our church needed to make some changes. But I didn’t know they would affect me personally.”

2. They become territorial.

“This is my area. Keep out.”

“This is what I do and I don’t do anything else.”

“This is my job and not yours. So don’t try to take it from me.”

No one owns a desk, owns a job, and owns a ministry. It belongs to the Lord and through Him to His church.  Pastors are the overseers (episcopos in the Greek) according to Acts 20:28.

A staff minister told me how the pastor’s secretary was misbehaving during the time they were without a pastor. “She refuses to help any of the other secretaries. She says it’s not her job.”

Bad, bad attitude. If she cannot change that and do it quickly, she’s history.

3. They forget why they were put in that position in the first place: to serve.

If anyone could have lorded it over others, it was Jesus Christ Himself. Yet, He said, “I am among you as one who serves.”

Pastors are sent to serve. Staffers are to serve. Church officers and committee chairmen are sent to serve.

A servant works to make other people successful. The congregation led by a staff of servants is blessed indeed.

Half the parables in the New Testament deal with servants in one way or the other. The key to greatness, Jesus said, is servanthood.

The day you forget that is the day you have become irrelevant and superfluous and have outlived your usefulness.

4. They offend co-workers, church members, and outsiders by their attitude.

Crabbiness is often found in direct proportion to one’s rebellion against God. The Lord Jesus sweetens the spirit as nothing else does.

In time, the nice people who work with (or “for”) this individual find themselves tip-toeing around him/her. They send out word whether he/she is having a good day so others will know how much distance to allow.

5. They cannot take criticism or suggestions.

The reason such tyrants manage to dominate a church (or some portion of the church) for long periods is that, because they are so resistant to criticism and intervention, the Lord’s people–usually the nicest humans on the planet–would rather do anything before challenging them. As a result of this passiveness, the despot is allowed to run his own little kingdom and the church suffers.

No one wants to enter the church office to beard this lion. One of the first and best indications of our Christlikeness is teachability, which means we are open to outside help and criticism. It is to our shame that we in church leadership sometimes harden our hearts and grow resistant to anyone with a suggestion.

When a leader in any church becomes resistant to outside interference, supervision, guidance, and suggestions, it’s past time to make a wholesale change.

6. They believe the policies and rules apply to others but not them.

After Jim and Tammy Bakker fell from PTL’s lofty perch in the late 1980s, later Mr. Bakker said, “I thought the rules that applied to other people did not apply to me.”

There is no room for pastors who preach integrity to bend the rules for themselves. He must set the standard for Christlike behavior, sweetness of spirit, and servanthood. Then, it is his responsibility to make certain that those under his supervision follow his example.

7. They make decisions without considering proper channels.

They bypass the people put by the church in place to make these very decisions.

It happens almost casually and unintentionally at first. The pastor phones the chairman of finance and says, “We could purchase that property this week if we can come up with the funds.” (Or some such proposal.) The chairman says, “Go ahead and do that, pastor. It’s too good to pass up.” Now, what happens next is critical.

At this point, the pastor must say, “Bob, thank you for that. I completely agree. But I need to say to you, dear brother, I’m not asking for your approval, but for the committee’s as a whole.” Bob is only one member of the committee. If the preacher allows Bob to speak for the committee, the seeds for tyranny have been sown.

A pastor told me of a church he previously served where one family called the shots. In a deacons meeting, it was announced that the family had determined a revival was in order and they had proceeded to invite the evangelist, without even checking with the pastor.

8. They become defensive.

The individual erects a fortress around their position and proceeds to fire salvos at anyone who appears on the horizon and looks suspicious. It makes for a terrible work environment.

The defensive person makes excuses, lays blame, rationalizes, and attacks. None of this is even remotely close to the accepted behavior for followers of Jesus Christ.

What is the first qualification for joining a church staff? It should be Christlikeness. Anything less and the individual is disqualified. Likewise, to continue on the staff should require nothing less.

9. They think they are irreplacable.

Pastors fall into this trap more than others, I’m thinking. It’s unreasonable if they would stop to consider that a) this is the Lord’s church and b) it was there before they came (in most cases) and will be there when they leave.

No one cannot be replaced. Say that to yourself repeatedly, pastor, and you’ll find it liberating. It allows you to take a day off, or a full vacation and let someone else fill the pulpit and minister to your flock without worrying about whether your position is in jeopardy.

After all–and this is something else to tell yourself often–it’s not your job. It’s not your church. You belong to Christ and He sent you here and when He’s through, He will reassign you elsewhere. So, relax.

It’s our insecurities that drive this false sense of our own indispensability.

10. Worst of all, they’re willing to destroy the church in order to hold on to their position.

This may be the biggest indicator of all that this person’s employment is seriously past the termination date. When any church worker becomes bigger than Jesus, they need to be put to pasture and sent there immediately.

Ah, but there’s a little problem.

This individual has friends and family in the church and many people who have been touched by and genuinely helped by him/her. If they are mistreated–or if it even appears they’ve been dealt with unfairly–a major eruption will occur within the membership.

So, the typical pastor tiptoes around these disasters-in-the-waiting. And that gives the tyrant free rein to do as they please, to continue their bullying tactics.

Rather than discuss what to do about this, let’s address How to keep this from happening to yourself or your church.

1) Rotate leadership on a regular, planned basis. That way, no one becomes possessive and secretive.

2) Put courageous people in leadership. When a troublemaker needs to be dealt with, they do not hesitate to take appropriate steps.  Troublemakers should be dealt with by the lay leadership, not the pastor.  The preacher has to minister to them in times of crisis.   I am remembering the time I asked our administrator to retire the church hostess who had become a problem.  She was past the official retirement age, so that was his approach.  The family did not appreciate this, however, and most carried hurt feelings toward that staffer.  But they loved me! (I would tease the staff-member about this.  He took it well, and recognized that this goes with the territory.)

3) Constantly test yourself. “Could I walk away from this job?” Give yourself minor tests by taking vacations and leaves as needed and appropriate.

4) Train your own replacements. That way, you are constantly reminding yourself that another will soon have this position.

5) In your mind, and if possible, with others also, set a date for the end of your work at this position.

Winfield Rich served numerous Southern Baptist churches as interim minister of education, and did so wonderfully. An interim can take quick action without people getting overly upset, since it was known from the first that his tenure would be short. Windy, as he was known, helped one church I pastored. He had a line which I’ve often quoted.

“I’ve come to leave,” Windy was announce as he began work. And sure enough, three months or six months later, he would be on his way to another assignment.

In a very real sense we are all interims, all of us serving the Lord’s church in between two people, the one we follow and the one who succeeds us. That being the case–we all being interim, whether pastor or staffer or church officer–here are some guidelines:

–We should get on with our assignment and not delay too long while getting our feet on the ground.

–We should try to leave the church in better shape than when we found it.

–We should try to leave on our terms, not another’s.

–We should try to leave peacefully and orderly, so that the church will be strong and Christ honored.

–We should leave them clamoring for more!

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