These days it’s a more complex and interesting picture. Of course certain things don’t change. The Apostle Paul’s words to Timothy (I Timothy 4) still give a good framework for those in pastoral leadership. But beyond that it’s good to know what your specific assignment is from God. Then you can work under His authority rather than simply the paper authority of an ordinal or the institutional authority of your church network. There is another benefit too.
Because the goals of Christian ministry are so aspirational, because the example of Jesus, the Apostles and the highpoints of revival history show us the amazing potential of Gospel ministry, it is easy to look on every ministerial engagement as a failure. Revival didn’t come. The church changed but wasn’t transformed. Such and such a venture didn’t spark or bring the growth anticipated. But do those measures mean you failed?
Looking back on my own experience in ministry positions I can see that each setting came with its own divine instructions. Even with an outcome short of community transformation those instructions can give me a grid by which to look back and say, “I obeyed what the Lord asked of me. Maybe not perfectly. Definitely not perfectly. But I did serve the purpose for which he placed me there.”
That perspective helps me be more intentional in seeking to follow the Holy Spirit’s specific instructions for today, and today’s setting.
I was talking the other day with my friend Drew – a senior pastor who was weighing up the question of how long he might stay at his current post. Drew is one of 7 pastors I know personally who right now as I am writing who are experiencing a pattern that is repeating widely across western mainstream churches.
- Church hires pastor by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- Church attacks pastor by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- Church fires pastor by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- Church seeks new pastor by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Something is off in that picture isn’t it? It can’t be the same spirit each time can it?
SILVER BULLETS, ALBATROSSES AND GOOD FITS
Why is this pattern becoming so common? It may be that in the current climate of decline in the West many churches suffer the pressure of a background survival-anxiety. As assortment of complex societal factors are diminishing the congregational aspect of church life and we don’t know how to fix it. Local churches hire a new pastor often in the hope that (s)he will prove to be the silver bullet to slay all foes. When the new pastor proves to be a mere mortal disappointment turns to blame. The pastor is now regarded is an albatross (in maritime folklore albatrosses were regarded as a harbinger of doom!) When blame turns toxic it becomes dismissal or even defamation.
Landing on a good-fit curve opens up the possibility of a much longer tenure where more strategic approaches and a wider range of tasks and processes can be reached for. In that more comfortable setting the dangers are different; goals that are too great or ill-defined, staying on the same track longer than the Holy Spirit is instructing, staying on after you have made your contribution. Pastors who manage long tenures best often do so with the help of coaching and/or periodic consultations that help them and their churches to change gear when threshold moments are reached.
However the growing tendency of churches to the silver-bullet/albatross curve goes some way to explaining why pastoral tenures are, on average, becoming briefer.
HOW THIS PLAYS OUT IN THE STATISTICS
Lifeway Research found in 2011 that the average pastoral tenure was 3.6 years. The Barna Institute also found the 4th year as the most common year in which senior pastors would resign their tenure. In one denomination region I worked with, over a 20 year period, the average tenure of a senior pastor was 2.6 years. The average! That means some tenures were briefer still!
CASE STUDY & A YOUNG PASTOR’S QUESTION
Drew felt that he was at phase two of the silver-bullet/albatross curve, doing his best to serve the needs and mission of the church but getting punished for his efforts by his board of elders. “How long do I have to do this for?” was the question Drew put to me.
What Drew did not want to do was repeat the experience of a mutual friend, who I’ll call Phil. Phil had worked his behind off trying to get a staid, elderly congregation to allow some innovations onto the church’s menu in order to help it reach new generations.
Phil was really kicking against the goads, not assisted by the presence in the congregation of the former senior pastor, who remained as a kind of unofficial gatekeeper, effectively grading or vetoing all Phil’s best efforts. The stress began to tell on Phil, limiting his sleep, diminishing his appetite, and distressing his waking life until he suffered a stroke.
After significant time off work, Phil’s financial needs forced him to return to his pastorate and work part-time – despite his impaired mobility and very low energy. Meanwhile politics in his parish had not eased in the least, his predecessor still in residence, and no more helpful than before. Phil worked as hard as he was able until he died of a heart attack in his mid forties.
I have no doubt that Our Father will greet him in Heaven with beautiful words of love and grace, “My Beloved Phil, well done thou good and faithful servant!” But did Phil’s congregation merit that? If they simply didn’t want what Phil was offering, surely Phil should have felt free to move on?
However, in times past ministers did not feel free to do that because the only paradigm was “Stay until your senior says that you can move. And in the meantime do what it says in the book!”
I believe that poor Phil suffered unnecessarily – in part – because of that paradigm.
WHAT KIND OF ASSIGNMENT ARE YOU ON?
By contrast, my perspective is that God deploys us for more specific purposes than that. I believe he moves us in order for each of us to make our contribution – and be fruitful. Jesus said, “I have sent you to bear fruit, lasting fruit.” I hope and believe that my millennial brothers and sisters lean more in that direction than did past generations.
My friend Drew made clear to me that he did not want to feel he needed to keep “banging his head on a brick wall” on an indefinite basis. So I encouraged him to ask the Lord what is his specific assignment at his current church. It could be:
- A Timeframe: Use your gifts. Make your offering for a pre-defined time frame. Four of my church assignments have been time-framed by my employer.
- An Outcome: Use your gifts. Make your offering until such and such an outcome has eventuated.
- A Process: Lead the church in a specific way through specific transitions.
- A Task: In my first church assignment my task was simple – create a student congregation. In my fourth church assignment it was equally simple – do whatever the senior pastor needs and asks of you.
- A Placement: The Lord may simply say, “Do whatever I instruct you, in this place, until further notice!”
Which framework is the definer for you? You may wish to say that it’s more complex, that it’s a mix. A placement can become a task. A task can become a time-frame. But which framework is the one of first order?
SO DO YOU KNOW YOUR ASSIGNMENT?
To have clarity on the framework to which you are working is important whether you are on the silver-bullet/albatross curve, or on a good fit curve.
It is uniquely empowering to know which kind of assignment you’re on. It will determine the intensity and focus of your work. And it can make your work less burdensome by clarifying its limits and making it finite. It can be reassuring because then, whatever your level of “success” (remembering that outcomes are almost always corporately generated) you can move on when the signal comes with the assurance that you have done what the Father sent you to do. This isn’t a framework that guarantees “success”. But it is one that can help make sense of your contribution.
In a line of work where failure can appear to be the unavoidable measure, because the potential of God and the Gospel are infinite, it is vital to eat of the food that fueled even Jesus himself when he said to his disciples: “My food and drink is to what God put me here to do – and do it until it’s done.” (John 4:34)
That is a satisfaction so deep. It is one I aspire to. And one I wish for each one I coach, and all my brothers and sisters in ministry.
Patrick Laughing, by Charlie Mackesy