Congregations needing their own pastor asap.

There are two anxieties frequently expressed in words by those who are not comfortable with the transition process. (I hope you catch the implication that some anxieties are not put into words). One anxiety comes out as “I don’t like all this change” (or it is presented as objection to one particular change). The other, most common in my experience is spoken as “How soon can we get our own minister?” Again, there are variations. A more personal one is “when is this STM thing going to be done?” (a combination really).

It is this one I want to explore a bit on this page. The question I’m putting to myself is “Why do people act as if the congregation is desperately incomplete or even “naked” if it has no settled pastor in place?” If you have ideas about that, please write them down before reading on, and if they differ significantly from mine send me a comment or note so I can learn.

As an STM I struggle with this matter whenever it comes up. It tends to happen in open forum settings like congregational meetings where they throw the floor open to “any other questions or comments” or it gets dumped on elders when they visit, and they duly have to report it. I know about myself that my tendency is to be dismissively reactionary, partly because it feels so personally and professionally dismissive and non-appreciative, but also because on a more rational, theological, ecclesiological and sociological level it seems so mistaken and misguided. I’m working on that, and God is working on that in me. Part of that work is “writing it out and thinking it through” as I’m doing here.

“Why do people act as if the congregation is desperately incomplete or even “naked” if it has no settled pastor in place?”

Here are a few of the reasons I see that people feel that way. They are first presented briefly, and elaborated on later:

a) Is it because they don’t like to be personally responsible, that they love having someone to carry the responsibility for them? I say yes, that is part of it.

b) Is it because they don’t understand the priesthood of all believers and the way the body of Christ works in a community? I say yes, that is unfinished Reformation work.

c) Is it because most people really don’t want as their pastor a prophet of the gospel, or a personal and spiritual accountability partner, but instead want someone who will hold their hand and tell them everything is going to be alright even though they are terminal? I say yes, that is part of it as well. So when they don’t have that, they feel something’s not right.

d) Is it because they have forgotten that Reformed churches are structured and organized as council/consistory-led, not Pastor led? Definitely. This one is very frequent in my experience. They want a CEO, someone to “bring them a vision.” This one creates a lot of work for us STMs.

e) Is there a sense of “shame” in the nakedness of not having a pastor? I think so, though this one is more complicated. People sometimes talk as if they are thinking “what will the neighbours and relatives think if we can’t attract a pastor?” That’s shame.

I may add more as I think of them, but that’s a start.

fleshing out a) Sometimes burnout in the leadership and congregation leads to a situation where they just want relief, they don’t want to be so busy and so responsible for everything, especially as volunteers. So they hope to have a paid person to take the responsibility of lots of the work — but moreso some of the hard decisions — off their plates. Other times it is simply a lack of desire to take ownership, even without burnout being part of the picture.

Fleshing out b) The biblical teaching of the priesthood of all believers, and of how the body, as a stand-in for the onliving body of Christ, when healthy, caries within it all the tasks and abilities the body needs, are both neglected teachings and therefore not understood well, nor applied well. Somehow even after the Reformation we retained a belief that we need one person to be a paid “head” and “shepherd” or priest/pope.

Fleshing out c) Speaking of paid shepherd, that role, when you ask people to explain what they mean, generally includes “someone to take care of us” “pray with us and for us” “to guide us (gently of course).” And you get a one sided, very gentle, very sociable, very compliant, always encouraging picture of who this is to be. And then, given b) and a) they are willing to pay someone to be the undertaker greeter coffee-kletzer with a perma-smile. In fact many would call that caricature just the right pastor for them. So when they have a pastor or STM who challenges meanless rituals, who wants to talk about deeper things all the time, who makes it clear sometimes that things are not healthy in the church, well, they clamor for one who care-takes without holding accountable to Kingdom purposes. As a further note, I served one congregation as STM that had called their pastor — despite some serious concerns — mainly because “he was strong in preaching the catechism.” Also, the calling committee was burned out and ready to be done. So what happened was that a pastor desperate for a move found a church desperate for a pastor. Well, it didn’t take long before there were puzzles about the new pastor. Here’s one story I was told “He’d been here (small rural town) about a year, and one summer day I drove by him walking to the post office. I honked and waved. He never even looked up! And I wondered what I had done to upset him that he wouldn’t acknowledge me.” The pastor who was good at preaching and explaining doctrine had serious limitations undertanding social cues, in a community that really wanted a sociable pastor. So things deteriorated. And I got a contract.

Fleshing out d) This one is a strong one. As I mentioned, it creates a lot of work for us. If I try to do any vision identifying with a congregation, the pointers I hear toward this way of thinking will come as the statement “Oh, we don’t need to do that, we can just call a pastor who will bring us a good vision!” That is such a massive setup for failure, and for an STM to get a contract! Going back to a) this one allows the council/congregation to not take responsibility for any vision or direction or mission, and, if the new minister comes up with one they don’t like, they can just get rid of them. “We hired him, we can fire him.” (which reveals other problematic thinking about what calling means, but that’s another post) This is why I emphasize in each congregation I serve, that Reformed churches are council/consistory/board driven, and that they as a group are the real leaders. Responsibility for identifying a misison and vision (in communication with the congregatoin) is their responsibility. The Pastor is just part of that leadership team, not the CEO. As an STM I do my best to help congregations identify and own a call-from-God vision and only THEN do they start working out “what kind of minister can help us achieve that?” Its huge. Those who have known me a long time will be laughing to hear a guy who used to chaffe at Church Orders stuff defending this part of our order.

Please share other angles and thoughts or feedback by way of comments.

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