10 Ways Pastors Muck It Up

After posting a blog about my observations of a dying church, there were comments given that made me think it wasn’t a bad idea to blog about ways pastors can muck it up as well. After all as the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” Certainly in my experience I have observed and witnessed ways that pastors have not helped a congregation and even have hurt a congregation. Of course, there are the extreme and obvious examples of sexual abuse or misconduct and financial corruption. However, I am mostly addressing ways that good pastors have made not the wisest choices and therefore have led to the decline of a congregation or certainly have sped up the process.

As more and more seminarians are graduating from seminary, they are hit with a stark reality that there are not that many healthy congregations that are looking for a pastor or can afford one. Those that are looking, more and more congregations are looking for pastors with specific leadership skills that call for creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, flexibility, and commitment. I am not sure if seminaries are equipping future pastors for this type of reality. I’m also not sure that there are many pastors who have the experience, willingness, or know-how to move a congregation in the direction it needs to go.

Having said that, here are my ten observations on ways pastors can actually make a situation worse. Some of these may seem contradictory, but depending on the situation of the congregation, certain actions may be helpful or hurtful.

#1 Pastoral Identity

Pastors are human. It can be deflating to look out into the congregation and see so many empty seats or plan a bible study or some event and very few show up. Even for the most humble of pastors, it is hard to not take it personally or have it play on one’s confidence as an effective pastor. However, as pastors, we have to be attentive to what defines us as a pastor because being in a dying congregation will test one’s identity. I’ve seen many pastors not willing to let go of having a pastor’s study, parking space, a full-time secretary, or discretionary funds in a salary package. If we are leading congregations to change and let go of things that have identified them, we must be willing to do the same.

When my Head of Staff went on sabbatical, I was pregnant with my first child. When he returned, I joked with him that I was tempted to turn his office (which is connected to mine) into a nursery. Surprisingly, he said that it wasn’t a bad idea. Now, I just want to say that it didn’t happen and I was seriously joking. But ever since, he is thinking about ways to better use that office space for other needs in the church. Especially with increasing amounts of children, we are in need for more space.

#2 Ego

Serving a church can be a lonely process, but it doesn’t have to be. It is vital that a pastor reach out to neighboring churches or sister congregations for help. Not just financial assistance, but possibilities in shared ministry, mission, and even new ideas for doing things in bookkeeping, stewardship, programming, etc. Also, dying churches have something to offer. Figure out what makes your church unique or what you have to offer.

I do not serve a large congregation, but we have a lot of kids. I spent a lot of time revamping our Sunday School program and curriculum that fits a small church with limited financial resources. I freely share the curriculum and resources with other small congregations who can’t afford curriculum. This has been a great way to partner and share ministries.

#3 Times Up

Knowing when your time is up can be a difficult thing for a pastor to discern. I once heard that all pastors are interim pastors, meaning we are called to serve a particular congregation for a particular time for particular reason. More and more pastors are staying past retirement age. Some pastors have stayed even when they know that their particular skills is not a good match for the congregation. Some stay too long because the church has become their home and family and may be too attached to the congregation. Whatever the reason, a pastor should always discern whether it is their time to go.

I was called to my church for a particular reason – to help the congregation grow healthier and more connected to the community. My church has changed a lot since I first started and I am currently discerning whether they need a pastor with other skills and passion to move them to the next transition, whatever that may be.

#4 Jumping Ship

This leads me to the other extreme. It is just as detrimental to a congregation when a pastor jumps ship, especially a sinking one. When I served a committee that helped struggling congregations, I would regularly meet with pastors to discuss ideas and possible steps. For congregations that seemed to be heading towards closure, I would tell pastors that one of the greatest gifts you can give is to lead them through a faithful and pastoral process that brought closure to the congregation – where they can celebrate the life of the church and dream of ways they can continue their legacy by blessing another ministry  with their building and assets. Unfortunately, I have seen many pastors jump ship, leaving the congregation to pick up the already fragile pieces.

#5 Sense of Call

When a pastor speaks of one’s sense of call, it might be mission, social justice, new church developments, chaplaincy, or parish ministry. Rarely or ever do you hear someone who is called to dying congregations. But with increasing amount of struggling congregations, maybe it should be a sense of call – someone gifted in hospice, transitions, assessment, pastoral care, and experience to give congregations closure and ability to look at ministry beyond the existence of their church.

This may also mean that pastors called to this type of ministry need to be creative when it comes to finances. Usually these congregations can’t afford a full-time pastor. But there are other options like being bi-vocational (part-time pastor/part-time secular job) or serving yoked congregations (two churches share one pastor).

#6 Communication

They always say that communication is an important ingredient to a successful marriage. That is very true between the relationship of a pastor and congregation. It is important for a pastor to not sugar coat the truth when it comes to the reality of the situation. It is important for a pastor to convey in words, deed, and action, the vision of the church. It is vital that the pastor communicate purpose, focus, and intention in everything the church does.

Pastors should use every venue and tool to communicate what needs to be communicated: newsletter, social media, sermons, letters to the congregation, etc. Leadership is about equipping and empowering people. People can only be effective if they know the truth, the purpose, and the vision of what they are to engage in.

#7 Leadership

Certainly pastors have encountered the challenges of getting enough volunteers, enough lay people to participate in a project, mission, or activity. This is a common problem. Having said that, I have been surprised to see how many pastors do not take the time to train, develop, and equip lay leaders, therefore taking on everything themselves. It does the congregation no benefit to have a pastor that does it all. Pastors actually do more harm not asking, empowering, and nudging the congregation enough. Therefore, there is no ownership, no investment, and no commitment. In a previous blog, I mention characteristics needed for today’s leader.

Derek Sivers says that a leader is ineffective unless it has a good follower. Here is a great video where he explains the importance of the first and second follower.


#8 Change, Change, Change

It is no secret that change is inevitable if a church is going to transform, reinvent itself, or meet the needs of a changing community. The danger is changing things simply for change sake. Unnecessary changes can actually do more harm than good. It drains the limited energy of the parishioners. It deflates the hope and confidence of the church. It confuses and misdirects what really needs to be done. It is fine to get rid of the pews for coffee tables and chairs, but ask yourself why? It is fine to get rid of the organ for a praise band, but what is the reason. Coffee tables and praise bands do not bring in people unless it is relevant to the identity of the congregation or the congregation is committed to making significant changes and shift who they are.

Do not underestimate the identity of the church community. When my church first hired me, my job description centered around developing ways to attract young Chinese-American families to our church. The demographics showed that more Chinese-American families were moving into the area and so the church thought it would be a great idea to hire an Asian-American pastor to help them develop a strategy. The problem was that the church was mostly “white” and there wasn’t a clear understanding about what it meant to focus on attracting a group of people from another culture. Simply hiring an Asian-American pastor wasn’t going to do it.

#9 Tools

Most of the tools that pastors have in their tool belt are preaching, pastoral care, and administration skills. When it comes to struggling congregations, some pastors attend redevelopment conferences or even new church development conferences to get new ideas about how to transform ministries. However, I feel that two of the most important tools a pastor should have are the tools of observation and assessment. The ability to observe and assess a situation, one’s own emotions and struggles, a parishioner’s problem, or the direction of the church is a vital tool. One of the best parts of my job is observing worship and assessing how people engage in worship. While I do participate in leading worship, when I am not preaching or leading prayers, I stand in the back of the sanctuary watching how parents worship with their children, how visitors engage in the liturgy, and how comfortable or uncomfortable people feel in worshipping in our sanctuary. Depending on what I observe, I am able to tweak, get rid of, and communicate to the leadership of my church what possible next steps we may need to explore.

What inspired me to turn broken pews into interactive toddler boards was observing how toddlers were constantly wandering in the back of the sanctuary during worship. I thought how wonderful it would be to have something tactile for them to theologically engage in.

#10 Self-Care

It seems obvious, but a burned out pastor will have a hard time giving the necessary creative energy, dedicated time, and effective leadership a congregation needs. Like I said before, serving a struggling congregation can be lonely and add to the stress and burden a pastor feels. It’s important to get support from colleagues, a spiritual director, and mentors. Every pastor needs a safe space to share their struggles, accomplishments, and frustrations.

Every three months, a group of Presbyterian pastors in San Francisco meet for lunch to share what’s going on in our lives as well as our congregations. I am also blessed to meet with a group of clergywomen once a month, sharing resources, ideas, laughter, and tears. And this is on top of having a great Head of Staff that I can confide in and plenty of mentors that will have coffee with me at a moments notice. I have my sanity and passion for ministry because of all of them.

As a pastor, what have been your lessons learned, struggles, accomplishments, and growing edges?

9 thoughts on “10 Ways Pastors Muck It Up

  1. Thanks Theresa for this!
    But is it possible for any pastor to excel in even half of these and if not, what then?
    Doesn’t the community surrounding the pastor have a responsibility to own and do what the pastor can’t do, rather than dismiss the pastor in the hopes of finding some pastor who can? It seems that the church that assumes this responsibility will be healthier than the church that doesn’t, even the church having a pastor exceeding in all 10!

    1. You are absolutely right John. Thanks for your comments. This blog came out of one I wrote about a congregation’s responsibility. So certainly it takes both the pastor and the congregation. Also, I didn’t mean for the list to be comprehensive, but in some way stand on their own. They have all been separate examples of what I have seen and experienced. I certainly am not suggesting that pastors need to be perfect or congregations, but that there has to be mutual compromise, grace, and communication.

  2. Theresa, Your posts, and this one especially, are well written, thoughtful, and inspiring. It almost makes me wish I were 30 years younger and active in parish ministry. Keep up the great work and sharing such creative reflections. Don

  3. Thanks for your blog! This particular post left me feeling a bit shaky, however, as I discern my pastoral relationship with the congregation I currently serve. When I interviewed for the position a year ago, the search committee told me they were struggling with financial issues, as is true with many/most churches today. I asked them how long they could survive, given the total cash in investments/checking/savings accounts, if nothing changes in the church. Ten years, they told me. And then I got some financials that supported their projections. Upon arrival, however, I saw an entirely different set of financials, that gave a very dire picture. They/we have 3 years at best. This is a congregation that has been in decline for a long time. Ten, fifteen years ago, the had about 800 in worship. Now it’s down to about 100, with the avg. age 70. The search committee also told me that these folks didn’t want their church to die and were ready to do what was necessary to grow. Included in this list are 1) move the congregation to a more visible location (not on a dead end road in a very post-modern community) 2) drastically update the worship space, remodeling and sprucing, as well as the rest of the HUGE facility, making space for other groups to use it. Well, they aren’t ready to do any of the above. In fact they’d rather the church die as long as it stays the same for them while they are alive, which will take about 2 – 3 years. Now, I am 58, and in 2 – 3 years, I will be too old to receive a new call (plus the fact that I’ve only been here such a short time) and I’ll be too young to retire. I am not a maintenance pastor nor am I a pastor called to the ministry of being a chaplain to a congregation that is choosing to die. I’m in a pickle, and “jumping ship” seems like an option I will need to take. I am in the twilight of my vocation and do not want this to be my last ministry experience. I don’t think my passion and style will serve a congregation well that has chosen to just let the church go.

    1. Loril, thank you, thank you for sharing with such conviction and honesty. This particular blog is really partnered with a previous blog I wrote on 10 observations of a dying church, which appears from what you share is more the reality than you “jumping ship.” I think every pastor has a right to reflect on their gifts and calling with that of the church to determine if it is a good match, which is why I also put down #3 (knowing when your time is up.) If you decide your time is up, you may be in a perfect position to tell them the cold hard honest truth (if you haven’t already.) It really takes the cooperation of the pastor and congregation to work together. I truly feel with my church that I came at the right time with the right people with the right pastoral staff. Previously to me coming there, my head of staff worked 13 hard years moving that church of 30 people to a place where they were ready for change. Frankly, I don’t know how he had the patience or faith, but it was his work that made my job so much easier. Blessings to you as you discern your calling.

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