Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Pastors and Their Congregations: What to Do, As Well as What to Say

As I noted earlier, thank you all for the extensive and affirming feedback for my "10 Things Pastors Need to Hear from Their Congregations" post of last week.  As I noted then, the response indicated that this is a conversation we definitely need to have, and so this post represents my attempt at continuing that conversation with all of you.

I hinted at it in how I wrapped up last Sunday's sermon, but I firmly believe that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures were written on a timeline of liberation: God liberates Joseph from slavery in Egypt in Genesis as a precursor to liberating His entire people from slavery in Egypt in Exodus, God inspires the judges and David to keep Israel free from foreign overlords, God speaks through His prophets to demand liberation for the people under greedy, corrupt kings in thrall to the Ba'als, and finally, God sends His Son to liberate us from sin itself.

And in light of that reality of Scripture, I find it both fascinating and worrisome that in church, we are apt to feel as chained down as ever by the customs and ways of the institution.  People may not feel comfortable bringing constructive criticism of the pastor to his/her face, so they repeat it behind his/her back.  Or, folks do not wish to rock the boat with a powerful lay leader or church matriarch/patriarch, and so they triangulate the pastor into this dispute.

Pastors, for their part (and I say this not just for myself, but also on the basis of many, many long and meaningful conversations with colleagues) feel chained down by the perception that while they are called to speak truth in love to their congregants, far more often than not, hard truths get placed on the back burner because like you, we pastors are not always interested in operating in authentic freedom.

And so while we have covered 10 things churches should say to their pastors, here, in the same spirit, are 10 things I wish more churches would DO for their pastors, in the spirit of creating a freer atmosphere in which the Holy Spirit can move and work:

1. Encourage Innovation

This is the big one.  If church gets a rap these days for being stodgy and outdated (and in my experience, it does suffer from that rap among non-churchgoers), it is largely because we have stifled newness for the sake of repetition.  But this can be a both-and, not an either-or: there is no reason to cast aside tradition, just as there is no reason to ignore novelty.  But what does encouraging innovation look like?  Well...

2. Honor the Job Description

If your pastor (or you yourself, if you are a pastor) do not have a job description, get your church crack-a-lacking on one ASAP.  Now, does the job description receive regular updates from your church's board or personnel team?  Does the church get to offer feedback on what goes into (or gets removed) from the job description?  Perhaps most importantly, how accessible is the pastor's job description?  Is it made widely available, or is it tucked away and people have forgotten what it really says?

3. Explicitly Value Renewal

Write into the job description--or personnel handbook, or church charter, etc.--evidence of your church's value of renewal for congregation and clergy alike.  It is not wrong to expect your pastor to lead your church in ministries of renewal or revitalization (like nursing hurting ministries back to health), nor is it wrong for the pastor to ask the church to provide avenues for his/her own renewal (like paying for retreats or sabbaticals).

4. Make Room for Physical Health

Ministry is a notoriously unhealthy profession, with pastors suffering disproportionately from obesity and all that it entails.  Long amounts of time spent writing and talking to people over sweets and soda are emphatically not what the doctor ordered.  Ensure your pastor has enough time in their day-to-day schedule to maintain a regular workout routine, and even consider providing exercise equipment at the church or paying for a gym membership.

5. Don't Let Wounds Fester

To springboard off of #4, spiritual health has a lot of overlap with physical health, including the reality of injuries and afflictions.  If the congregation has wounded you in some way, seek care from us immediately.  If we have wounded you in some way, seek reconciliation with us immediately.  Even a minor spiritual wound, like a physical wound, can get infected and grow into a much bigger concern if left unattended.

6. Know When to Make Your Case

Pastors are people--we have good days and bad, but regardless, Sunday in particular is not the day to come to us with any serious sort of grievance.  Why?  Our brains are like lab rats on Red Bull, and I promise you, we will forget everything you're saying to us.  Think about it--you wouldn't expect your favorite music artist to remember anything you shouted to them at a concert, right?  The same logic applies here.  It isn't personal, it's just human nature.

7. Similarly, Don't Ambush

Almost every pastor I know (including yours truly) has a horror story about being blindsided about something or other by a congregant or small group of congregants.  Soften the ground first by broaching the subject clearly--but not artificially urgently--over email or telephone so that we know what to expect.  We're silently thanking you for it, believe me.

8. Respect Our Time

A colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless) once slapped a sign to his office door saying something to the effect of: "I'm usually here, except when I'm somewhere else, but even then, I should still be here as well."  Recognizing that this is a job for us in addition to a calling, and that we too get tired at the end of the day and cannot work at all hours, is clutch.  Similarly, if we have blocked off certain hours (or a day) for studying and sermon preparation, PLEASE honor that.  If we are unprepared preachers, the entire church suffers.

9. Don't Butter Us Up

Yes, we pastors love being affirmed and appreciated, because a lot of the work we do is invisible to the vast majority of the congregation.  But because our work is so relational and interpersonal, we tend to have finely tuned BS detectors, and we often know when we are being genuinely complimented and cared for, and when we being brown-nosed.  Please don't try to manipulate our emotions, it is far more apt to do harm than good.

10. When In Doubt, Ask

Please do not go behind our backs to do things.  If you want to try something new, just ask!  Especially if it is something innovative or creative (see #1), I promise you, we will be listening with open ears.  Plus, if you get us on board, we are liable to do everything we can to empower you and make sure your new ministry goes well!  It really is a win-win.

As always, I welcome your feedback.  Pastors, what do you wish your church would do for you more?  Laypeople, what do you think you could do or not do to help facilitate your pastor's success within  your parish?  What have I left out?  What have I said that you might you take issue with?

Yours in Christ,

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