Big Questions

Relationships

Why does it so often happen that by the time churches and pastors part ways, the relationship has become strained or even antagonistic?

One possible reason for strained relationships between pastors and churches is the tendency of churches to put their pastors on a pedestal, with impossible expectations of responsibility for a congregation’s flourishing as a community. When pastors also place these expectations on themselves, the potential for failure is greatly multiplied, with the possibility of creating resentment and frustration for all—and burnout for the pastor.

When a congregation’s leadership holds the pastor responsible for “fixing” what might have historically been an unhealed or divisive issue within a particular congregation—good luck! A pastor can help a congregation face its own flaws, including historic sins and hurts, and thereby help create change. But this can happen only if the pastor knows him- or herself to be equally flawed and identifies with the continued need for repentance and humility.

For this reason, whatever might need changing in a congregation must be initiated by the whole council—elected deacons, elders, and pastor—in a shared acceptance of responsibility so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, under the rule and grace of Jesus our King, change and growth can lead to new flourishing, with a vision focused on following Christ rather than on following a pastor.

Both pastors and congregations would do well to remember that a pedestal by definition is a small and lonely place with little room to maneuver freely. It is also a place from which one can fall and land hard. It might be envied as a lofty perch that provides a great vista, but in the end, it is not what God provides for the flourishing of every congregation who calls Jesus Lord.

About the Author

Judy Cook is a family therapist and a member of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster, Ontario.

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Comments

Judy, thank you for this thoughtful reply. It is certainly the case that unrealistic expectations can contribute to a breakdown in any relationship, including that of pastor and congregation.

Let me offer a second possible explanation, one that I have seen more often. It involves the unholy use of power. Sometimes it is the pastor, who implements his vision and changes without consultation and appropriate respect for the authority of council. Sometimes is is a council or council member that lords it over a pastor in an ungodly way. Sometimes it is a small group of members that secretly plots against the pastor. Abuse of power has been the most common cause of pastor/church relational breakdown that i have observed through my career as a pastor. 

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