Response to “Pastor, know your Flock”

This page is a response to an article in a periodical many Canadians from my Denomination read. The article is copied below my response but here is a link to it, as it will be helpful to have read it first:

My response:

I’m writing in response to the article called “Pastor, Know your Flock” by retired pastor Ralph Koops. I’m responding as a Christian Reformed pastor who is currently fulfilling my calling as a Specialized Transitional Minister (STM). STMs come into churches that are known to be struggling, often after a difficult parting of a pastor. They come to try to help find a way through the wilderness toward new places of God’s promises being fulfilled.

To put some experiential qualifications on the table up front: I know personally the pain and confusion of going through an Article 17, but also of a divorce, of a pastor father who was (rightly) deposed in his retirement years, of a gruelling Classical Examination where the Synodical Deputees were prompted by Classis to apologize to myself and my wife for the way I was treated by them1, and I have endured a number of other bumps along the way to where God amazingly has me now.

It has taken me this much time to formulate a reply because I don’t want to speak out of my own knee-jerk pain reactions, but out of careful and prayerful consideration in a way that is truthful and has good possibilities for being helpful to pastors and churches.

I had an in-person — partially public — conversation with Pastor Koops about this subject a few months before his article was printed. We clearly disagree on some aspects of this. I was very glad to see his writing toned down from what he said at the event where we had our conversation.

First, areas of agreement:

Pastor Koops, in the article, is characterized as saying that churches need neither CEOs nor evangelists, but pastors who are true “shepherds of the flock.” I wholeheartedly agree with a necessity for pastoral shepherding as a key part of the biblical calling. Shepherding is a basic role from which leadership (CEO) and outreach extend. That said, shepherding should not draw all energy from actually leading and reaching outside of the church. I likely differ with him in how that shepherding is worked out or lived out in a congregation, but exploring that is not part of the scope of my response, and I’d rather respond to a clear description of what shepherding looks like to Rev Koops than speculate too much about what he meant. I would welcome him creating such a description.

I fully agree with him that our system of church government — which leaves the main power in the hands of the local consistory — is a big contributor to the problem because that gives little power of intervention to other individuals and groups who are trying to help. I also strongly agree that more training, particularly of Elders, could start to remedy a lot of this. Even creating a culture where all parties ask for and receive help sooner than they have been would alleviate a lot of the damage that now occurs.

I concur that a lot of the struggles might be partially rooted in relational deficits in pastors. For decades the focus of our seminary was on producing academically excellent theologians who could preach reasonably well. In many people’s experience there is a consistent negative correlation between academic (and/or theological) strength and relational abilities. The “absent minded professor” is not fiction, nor is the introverted exegete who loves studying books and then cuckoo-clocking on Sundays to present what they have learned. In fact I resemble that last one. What most churches — particularly if they are smaller and closer to a rural culture — are looking for is a relational pastor, not an academic.

Indeed, I also think preaching should be much of what Rev Koops says it should. At serminary (spelling intentional) we were told that so-called “weak” preaching will be received better if the pastor has taken time to know the people well.

But now on to where I differ:

Because Rev Koops spoke in general terms, it is dangerous for me to exercise the arrogance of presuming to know what he means by catch phrases and summary words that he uses. At times he sounds more nostalgic for a bygone day than helpful for today, when he speaks with a “we” that sounds more like he’s talking past-affirmingly with a group of fellow retirees, than giving help for the current problem. That is unfortunate and left me disappointed.

Where he speaks positively of a “servant-like demeanor,” I think of pastors I have known who have become complete slaves to their church. These pastors have lost the necessary boundaries around themselves, and focus instinctively on pleasing others while not taking care of themselves or their loved ones. They would be viewed highly by congregations as great “servants” but in fact are slaves to people being pleased with them. Such pastors will please a lot of people with what looks like his or her “dying to self” (and family). But it is rooted in personal weakness, not Christ-strength. Burnout or going down in flames is a likely outcome of this situation. Some Article 17s have that element in them. So I am wary of supporting Koops in this until I know more what he means.

I also think of how congregations, often unwittingly, but sometimes intentionally, assault healthy boundary keeping. Congregations also come to mind that have lost the understanding of what it really means to affirm a preacher’s calling from God by “calling” them, and who believe they are hiring a shepherd who is accountable to them alone and who they can “unhire” when no longer happy. We pastors also tend to forget we are accountable to God above all, not the congregation.

Where Koops mentions “authoritarian attitudes” I wonder if the pastors he is thinking of might just have been exercising the prophetic voice of calling a flock back to the basics and essentials of being the body of Christ in a Reformed way, and doing so with urgency and passion. This kind of leading is very unpopular in our popular-vote focused era, where, when the general pew opinion of a pastor has declined, people presume it is time for the pastor to move on. I am concerned about this because I see increasing evidence that the power of consistories and councils, combined with assessment by popularity numbers, endorses people-pleasing, stasis quo (spelling intentional), keep-everyone-happy pastoring. And yes, I fear that is exactly what Rev Koops is advocating, not having heard him say otherwise. And not having heard that, I feel compelled to speak out. Authoritative preaching of the ways of the Kingdom of God, of the radical grace and powerlessness and counter-cultural way of Jesus does not find acceptance in such an environment, and I have begun to wonder if that is a big part of our current struggle.

A biblical comparison that comes to mind often for me is to wonder what would have happened to authoritative appearing Moses had Israel had our cultural patterns on it’s way out of slavery. The grumblers might have started a petition to remove the leader.2 I think in fact that is part of what is happening in many Article 17s today. So, really, we have become just like our culture, instead of standing apart.

I most strongly disagree with the following sentence of Rev Koops, partly because I know it to be his main explanation of these fractured situations: “Problems usually start with the leadership, not with people at the grassroots level.” By leadership he primarily means pastors (you can tell that from the context, which is a problematic paragraph on numerous levels for me). In direct disagreement with Pastor Ralph, I think it is in fact largely cultural changes that do create these separations. What I mean by that is the expectations of congregations by-en-large seem to be in the area of wanting a chaplain-politician-peacekeeper, motivational speaker, history-preserver as their pastor. This at a time when many entering ministry do so because they are on fire for a completely different vision, often because they love to tell people about Jesus and grace and call them also to spiritual “heart change” transformation. Ministry is in fact getting pretty close to a cross-cultural experience for Pastors, even though they and the congregation may share Northern European heritage. Pastors who let congregations comfortably preserve the culture and patterns of the past by drinking hot brown beverages and eating baked goods with them are getting rare and congregations are displeased with those who actually preach the gospel or call them prophetically to ongoing Reforming.

What has happened to the call back to the basics of the gospel? Where is the call from the pastor to give up religious idols and religious addictions? Where is the gospel call to constantly be changing from the inside out as God gives a new Spirit and a new heart? My experience is that these tend to get skipped over, and the pew stays comfortable.

In the culture of the CRC today, a pastor who takes seriously that aspect of their God-work rapidly falls out of favour, and may be considered to have poor social skills or be acting like a CEO or focusing too much on evangelism. Visionary leaders that want to bring people more actively into the challenges and blessings of Gods promises will be treated in a way that leads to fractured flocks.

These days we are beginning to learn how congregations operate as systems, just like families do. Entire congregational systems can be dysfunctional and pockets of it sin-driven, especially when it comes to power roles. We are learning to recognize chronic anxiety in congregational systems and how that creates destructive energy that spreads to affect those in leadership who do not know how to counteract it. Such fear-driven anxiety also brings a lot of power to spiritually and/or emotionally unhealthy or immature members. We are learning that a small power pocket in a congregation that is bent on some agenda that is not gospel rooted (it could be either a preservationist agenda or a change-ist one, or something else) can destroy the entire dynamic for a pastor, such that he or she is made out to be a scapegoat onto whom all blame for the system’s problems gets shifted. The pastor is viewed as someone who most often will at some point “move on,” so, conveniently the perceived issues then can be assumed to be leaving with the scapegoat. That is mistaken, as proven by congregations repeatedly having “issues” with their pastors. This applies no matter how much visiting the pastor does in the congregation.

I have read biographies of pastors where they, with puzzlement, describe experiencing this but don’t quite name what has really gone on. The most recent one is Rev. Wildeboer’s “When God shows up” where he tells of being on the pastor end of these kinds of counter-movements.

Some suggestions for working towards Solutions:

Here are just few ideas to work towards. Again, this part is not really in the scope of what I set out to do in responding to the article. Yet I did not want to finish on a note of questioning and critique.

Congregations need to learn how their “stated” values are very often ideals,3 and how a whole set of invisible-to-them “real” or actual values get lived out instead. Calls are extended with a description of the preferred or dreamed-of values, and when a pastor comes in response to them, he or she often gets caught in the gap between dream values and really lived values. Another fracture occurs. Lets teach congregations to identify their real values.

My experience is that officebearers are indeed inexperienced, busy, and poorly trained and equipped, especially for when things get difficult and tense and dysfunctional, and few of them, pastors included, understand the wider dynamics of the congregational system and how anxiety works such a system toward blame-shifting and scapegoating if things get uncomfortable. When anxiety builds enough emotional static, its discharge can be very damaging. With the primary authority resting with such officeholders, in crisis or critical situations the problems grow too difficult to manage “in house.” Yet a lack of interest in calling for help — lest we be seen as inadequate — lets a problem fester enough that too often the congregation needs to move immediately to intensive specialized care after a serious fracture. The poor equipping has it’s reasons and causes. But a solution is that Classes and Seminaries offer training in these areas. To push that point I have even proposed that no one can stand for office without having had the requisite training, not so much in church order, but in relational dynamics.

Some Classes already have help like this available, but more should consider putting a part or full time set of resources in place who can help intervene as soon as problems seem to be developing.

We pastors need to be repeatedly reminded somehow that although the paycheque and approval/disapproval from a congregation pull very strongly toward us feeling a need to ‘keep them happy’ with our work, we ultimately will have a greater accounting to God, our real boss, who fortunately is very patient and gracious.

It’s not a solution for everything, but it’s a start.

Pastor Pete VanderBeek, MDiv. STM

1 Rev Koops was one of them

2 See Exodus 17:3; Numbers 14:1-4, especially v 4; and similar passages

Pastor, Know your Flock

Click to access 14Feb24.pdf

by Ralph Koops

I am writing as a pastor. Even though I am retired, I am still involved in pastoral ministry and preaching. As a Synodical Deputy, I have been present at several Article 17 situations, which refers to the severance between a pastor and the congregation he or she serves. Last year there were so many of these separations that two other Synodical Deputies and I sent comments in our report to Synod, which took note of the observations and printed them in the Acts of Synod.

In such situations, the pain for pastors and their families is immense. I cannot even begin to imagine the hurt and disappointment. The hurt in congregations going through these severances is equally painful. It affects all relationships in the congregations involved, and I always shudder at what this does to the young people in such circumstances.

Our Presbyterian form of church government has severe limitations and does not help us much in these situations. Whether it is church visitors, regional pastors, mentors, Pastor-Church Relations or Classes, none have much authority. The primary authority rests with the local consistory. When consistories are weak or inexperienced, difficulties in the congregation are hard to address. Too often when dissatisfaction with the pastor begins to surface, consistories do not address the situation quickly enough.

Gradually more and more people leave the congregation, sometimes even the Christian Reformed denomination. Finally Classis gets involved, but the damage is done. When I was ordained, my father said to a few elders, “Now that he is ordained, you still have to make a minister out of him.” Elders, you are in charge and early involvement and mentoring may help in avoiding Article 17 situations.

The increase in pastor/church severance is sometimes attributed to cultural changes. There may be some truth to that, but I do not think it explains everything. Problems usually start with the leadership, not with people at the grassroots level. Thankfully, we have many fine pastors who do their work faithfully. In troublesome situations, however, the pastor bears a large responsibility, and often it comes down to a deficit of people skills. When you do not know how to relate to people, pastoral ministry is not a good fit. At times some have authoritarian attitudes, rather than a servant-like demeanor. Why be called pastor if you want to function like a CEO? Even terminology, such as Lead Pastor and Senior Pastor, hardly fit a Reformed understanding of office. You do not find this language in the Church Order.

General Eisenhower would demonstrate the art of leadership with a simple piece of string. He’d put it on a table and say, “Pull, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push, and it will go nowhere at all.” It works the same way when it comes to leadership. People need and want to follow a person who is leading by example. People do not care how much we know until they know how much we care and love them.

Be ‘preoccupied with people’

“I am disturbed by the distinction that is consistently made between ‘evangelistic’ and ‘maintenance’ ministry, with a clearly critical attitude against maintenance ministry,” Rev. Martin Geleynse says in The Canadian Story of the CRC (Hofman). I take that criticism rightly to refer to outreach at the expense of the local congregation. It should be both/ and, not either/or.

“Consequently,” Geleynse continues, “young ministers have no clue how to be pastors of the flock. Pastoral visiting is rare or is given to a ‘pastoral care committee’ consisting of an elder and a number of members of the congregation. These fellows do not know what they are missing. We drank gallons of coffee and tea, and I know that not every visit we made was spiritually meaningful. But we knew our people personally, we knew where they lived, we had them into our homes, and we tried our best to build them up in the faith, to help them walk the walk and get them to repent and return to the Lord (when they wandered). We were not preoccupied with ‘mission statements’ and reorganizations. We were preoccupied with people and I firmly believe the church was the better and the stronger for it.”

This is an age where many people often feel lonely. I am pleading with pastors to tune in to this need for belonging. If, as a pastor, I visit someone during the week, that person will listen differently — more openly, more receptively — the following Sunday. If you have difficult people in your congregation, visit them more. Many faithful shepherds already do this. Others need to be reminded that the whole congregation needs pastoral care, not just the sick, shut-ins, seniors and youth.

Two Essentials

“A recent social media post by a friend asked whether or not people would be offended by a visit from their pastor,” Michael W. Campbell, professor of historical-theological studies, shared in the July 2013 issue of Ministry, a Seventh-Day Adventist publication. “Within a short time, more than 100 responses uniformly agreed that some of their most meaningful spiritual moments came from caring pastors during a pastoral visit. Most went on to deplore the fact that pastors today do not visit them at home anymore. Pastoral visits were incredibly influential in shaping my own Christian experience; and now, as a pastor, I see them as essential for staying in touch with the heartbeat of my congregation.”

Pastoral care, of course, must be balanced with solid, biblical, exegetical preaching. Sermons should see the Bible as the covenantal salvation history of redemption with Christ at the centre of every message (Luke 24:27). Preachers, preach enthusiastically (it is a sin to bore people with the Word of God), prophetically, pastorally and in a comforting, encouraging and also challenging way. Topical preaching and especially moralistic preaching impoverishes a congregation. Preach the word faithfully and get to know your people, and everything else usually takes care of itself.

Think of what Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church “. . . we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children” (I Thes. 2:7). And “for you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (I Thes. 2:11, 12).

Pastor Ralph Koops is a mostly retired CRC pastor. He and his wife belong to Brantford Hope CRC. He preaches on a regular basis and does some pastoral work in Brantford and Mt. Hamilton CRCs.


2 responses to “Response to “Pastor, know your Flock”

  1. Michael Vander Laan

    October 15, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Two thoughts/reactions:

    1) It’s important to see original sin behind all this. If the question is “whose fault is it that there are so many Art. 17s, the pastors or the congregations?” The answer is yes. Both have issues to be addressed and sins to confession and repent from. Pete, you address the challenge congregations have in confronting their sins. But I feel like you gave the pastors a blank check. Which gets me to my second thought…

    2) Pastors are rightly held to a higher standard, but are often falling way short of it. If one seeks to be a leader… The long and short of it is that pastors can do a fantastic job of insulating themselves, deceiving themselves, and promoting themselves. Pastor’s issues are often far more than a lack of relational awareness (though more wouldn’t hurt.) It’s more than a lack of self awareness. It’s the problem of self deception.

    We pastors think we are doing a good job. We think we are doing what we think God has called us to do. But what if it’s not? What if we can’t see that it’s not? What then? Pastor thinks “I doing what God has called me to do?” Congregation says “You’re not doing what God has called you to do (or vice versa)?” What do you do? Can we gain enough wisdom from systems thinking to solve this?

    Maybe a little. It seems to me that the solution isn’t found in leaning into one’s authority. Rather, it is the acts of humiliation, asking for criticism (regularly), confessing sins, working diligently on turning in a new direction BY THE PASTOR that will have the most significant effect on the congregation and the pastor/congregation relationship. If the pastor is a leader, we best lead humbly (including in our preaching), fully aware that our hidden sins are always with us, and that we are constantly confessing and repenting. This includes the all important task of asking for forgiveness when we realize we hurt a parishioner (and we hurt parishioners all the time!) If we did so, I think we would find more compassion in ourselves as pastors and in the congregations such that less Art. 17s would be occurring.

    • pastorpete

      October 16, 2014 at 9:29 am

      Thanks for the thoughts Michael.
      On 1) Yes, my piece might appear to give pastors more of a blank cheque, but that is because I’m deliberately countering the one Rev Koops gave congregations. In reality, I do not argue Pastors are free from responsibility or original sin.
      On 2) I would agree by saying part of the problem of self-awareness in many cases is that the opinion of congregation members becomes the main self-awareness or standard. That is actually loss-of-self and loss of perspective. On the other side of that continuum is what you mention: insular self-definition. Somewhere in between is good, collective, healthy-system God-aware discernment of direction.
      I suspect you didn’t really mean to say “humiliation” but meant humbling, being vulnerable. I fully agree with that being part of good pastoral leadership. I don’t know you but I hear you speaking as someone who has not encountered powerful congregation members who a) are invested in keeping the pastor safely on a pedestal and so are shocked when he/she refuses to stay there, b) see that vulnerable honesty in a leader as a leadership weakness and c) are threatened by it because they themselves may need to become vulnerable about their brokenness and the effect of sin in their life. And you are on your way to an Art 17. Or crucifixion.


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