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The Problem with Pastors

Pastors easily lose sight of the trees, for the forest.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after having been a full-time staff pastor for over a decade and actively involved in churches for over 30 years.

But f you’re expecting a beat-down on Christian ministers, you came to the wrong place. I honor the office, love pastors, and think their job is one of the most difficult and important in the world. Nevertheless, I’ve come to believe that

In their attempt to “grow a church,” pastors can get really out of touch with the individuals who comprise it.

It’s a unique profession: You listen to problems, give advice, study a lot, administrate programs, delegate people, receive criticism, set budgets, fundraise, recruit, demote, discipline, encourage, visit the dying, bury the dead, and comfort the grieving, and then you are expected to get up every weekend and say something profound, inspiring and practical. Furthermore, your wife must be sociable and happy, your kids must be obedient, respectful, and well-adjusted, and you must be humble, prayerful, devout, knowledgeable, funny, eloquent, tactful, well-groomed, quick on your feet, slow with your tongue, frugal with your money and relatively free of (noticeable) vice.

So… any applicants?

As a result, pastors often live in a cocoon — emotionally, spiritually, and relationally; not only does their congregation rarely “get” them, they often drift out of touch with their congregation.

And then there’s the dreaded “church growth” propaganda.

Okay, maybe the word “propaganda” is too harsh. Nevertheless, American pastors tend to measure success in terms of the size of the church, the projected rate of multiplication, the levels of involvement, and the amount of visitors on any given Sunday.

No wonder we lose sight of the trees.

I once attended a pastor’s conference in which a popular minister was speaking. In a Q & A session, he was asked how the average church member could be engaged to serve, be more involved in the church, and catch a bigger vision for their life and ministry. Note: This is a typical question from an American pastor.

  • Pastor: “How do I get my average member more involved?”
  • Translation: “How do I get the average member to help me grow the church?”

Anyway, that pastor said something I’ve never forgotten. It went something like this:

The dreams of the average church member are far different than that of the average pastor. While the pastor dreams of growing his church and seriously involving his people in the ministry, his people dream of simply having happy marriages, raising good kids, pursuing satisfying careers, finding something meaningful to be involved in, and maybe, just maybe, helping someone find their way to heaven.

I’ve come to believe that the problem with many pastors is this disconnect between them and the average person. While they’re trying to expand the forest, they’re losing sight of the trees. We become so busy trying to grow our church, so enamored by doctrines and models and demographics, so cloistered by our circle of ministry associates and Christian friends, that we lose touch with those outside that circle, namely, our people.

Well, maybe pastors are supposed to see the bigger picture. After all, they’re commanded to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:12). How can they do this if they don’t see beyond the individual? Besides, don’t we want visionaries in the pulpit?

Perhaps it’s a no-win situation. Pastors are doomed to be caretakers of the machine, cranking out enough “units” to meet their quota. At least, stay in business. However, when “growing a church” replaces “growing people,” you have a problem.

But maybe the real problem is, in America, forests are more important than trees.


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{ 25 comments… add one }
  • logankstewart September 15, 2011, 7:03 AM

    I think you’re absolutely right here, Mike. Many pastors nowadays are only out to gain numbers or personal acclaim and their lack of care for the trees is disheartening. I have a good friend going to seminary now who has told me that many of his peers are there for the wrong reasons (either to get involved in ministry and move up the “corporate church ladder” or just because they didn’t have anything else to do), and that, too, is disheartening.

    But yet there are those pastors that have a genuine heart for people, especially for the lost and for the wayward brother & sister. Pastors that take Jesus’ call for the Great Commission to heart and want to rally the trees to do so as well. And while the average church member does want a happy marriage, good kids, etc., shouldn’t he also want to pursue a life that follows Jesus’ words? These things aren’t mutually exclusive, but our pride and desire of Self tends to think that way. And this is where I see the problem with pastors.

    Some want real trees in their forests, fruitful and multiplying, advancing the Kingdom, erm… Forest. Others want fake plastic trees with fake plastic fruits, just a lot of them.

    When “growing a church” replaces “growing people,” you have a problem. Amen.

    • Mike Duran September 15, 2011, 11:40 AM

      “Fake plastic trees.” Nice Radiohead gloss. This is a great comment, Logan. Thanks!

  • Jay DiNitto September 15, 2011, 7:54 AM

    Church growth jockeys I think are too influenced by Acts chapter 2 theology, but they forget that Jewish/Roman Israel, pagan Greece–nay, the entire world–was completely different than Christianity- (and Christianity-lite-) saturated America. We can’t “add thousands” to our congregation because they’ve already added in some form or another. Numbers can’t mean much any more but it’s better marketing than having a “quality” flock.

    • Katherine Coble September 16, 2011, 12:41 PM

      One of my friends rightly points out time and again that those “added” to a flock are, more often than not, simply on a Church Parade–transferring allegiance from one congregation to another. Church growth is no longer an indication of souls converted, but of successful inter-body marketing plans.

  • R. L. Copple September 15, 2011, 8:17 AM

    Having been a pastor myself, I know of what you speak. My first pastorate was a mission church in the Missouri Ozarks. The district wanted the church grown, as it was a tiny mission, and they gave me two years to do it. lol. By the time two years was up, I hadn’t significantly increased the numbers, but probably everyone in that small town knew who I was.

    When I first got there, one lady named Della asked me if I was there for the long haul. I felt I was, and said as much. They wanted someone who would be there for years that they could live with, who would marry their children and bury their dead. But two years was up, the district said I had to go even though I wasn’t ready, and so I left. Artificial deadlines don’t work in a community expecting long term relationships before they’ll trust you.

    The only odd thing about that church is since there were only about five there besides my family, when our third son was born the percentage of increase was so great that I won the eagle award for church growth. And all my wife and I did was have a baby. lol. I thought about writing a new church-growth methodology book, titled “You’re Church Can Have a Baby Boom Too!”

  • Nicole September 15, 2011, 8:18 AM

    I wish more pastors were influenced by the Acts, Chapter 2 theology. That would be relying on the Holy Spirit to grow the church, enable signs and wonders, soaking all of it in prayer, and teach the full gospel so that indeed Christians could be equipped to be disciples and evangelize according to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

    What I’ve seen in recent times, Mike, are young pastors willing to follow the big names/churches in their patterns and philosophies instead of daring to truly trust the Holy Spirit for the vision of the church they serve.

    I’ve seen, as a result, pastors become idols to some of their congregations where all the talk is about the pastor and not the greatness of the Lord. I’ve seen pastors who somehow think the congregation “owes” them something. And I’ve seen such an elevation of the position that it sets the pastor up as an idol to some and for some of the pastors, they accept it.

    No doubt pastors have it tough. The enemy is out to get them at their weakest link, to attack the church under his care, to destroy the leader(s) at their core. This is why they best be sure they’re called to this position in the ministry and put humility and prayer at the tops of their personal requirement list.

  • Nikole Hahn September 15, 2011, 9:17 AM

    ” Pastor: “How do I get my average member more involved?”
    Translation: “How do I get the average member to help me grow the church?””
    Actually, this is not true in our church. The first question is right: How do I get my average member more involved?” The translation is this for our church: “we have few volunteers and our wives are holding down the fort in the vacant positions doing everything.”

    Pastors have a job I don’t envy or want.

  • Nikole Hahn September 15, 2011, 9:18 AM

    I think we shouldn’t generalize that all pastors everywhere only focus on the numbers. In doing this, we trivialize their burdens and take away their humanity.

    • Mike Duran September 15, 2011, 3:12 PM

      Nikole, I hope you don’t think I’m doing that here. Nevertheless, I think most American pastors would testify to the lure of defining their ministry (and self-worth) by numbers.

      • Nikole Hahn September 15, 2011, 5:56 PM

        No, I was responding to the comments. :o) I liked your beginning paragraph. It was very honoring.

  • Nikole Hahn September 15, 2011, 9:20 AM

    I’ve been sensing an anti-church movement for a long time on the blogosphere especially around the ages of 20-35 years of age like class warfare. I think this is a black and white viewpoint that isn’t realistic. Granted, there are churches that may only focus on numbers, but can we say that for most of the churches? Or are we so focused on our own ideas that can’t see the forest for the trees? Great blog, Mike.

    • Tim George September 15, 2011, 11:38 AM

      Thanks for those words Nikole. That forest analogy goes two ways doesn’t it? The post-postmodern generation has indeed made it quite in vogue to blame the church for all of their problems.

      • Nikole Hahn September 15, 2011, 5:59 PM

        They get into this feeling, these people, as if they are martyrs–the only people worshiping God right–and in their self-righteousness forget that we can’t ever take that view point. (Again, replying to comments…sorry for the confusion everyone).

    • Mike Duran September 15, 2011, 3:17 PM

      Nikole, I’ve written several posts on the Bash the Church Bandwagon. I’m definitely NOT part of that crowd and hope this post doesn’t give that impression.

      • Nikole Hahn September 15, 2011, 5:57 PM

        Sorry…no…I was again comment on the comments of which you have my apology. I answered this at work and forgot to say this is in reply to the comments. Sorry.

  • Katie September 15, 2011, 12:14 PM

    I think it’s interesting how one of the comments here says that pastors are paying too much attention to Acts 2, while another comment suggests that they ought to pay more attention to it.

    I think growing the church is admirable and biblical.

    But I also think it can’t be the primary focus.

    My own beef with the church isn’t with whether it’s trying to add members. It’s with churches who try to do that without the Holy Spirit and without preaching Jesus Christ.

  • Patrick Todoroff September 15, 2011, 12:47 PM

    “My own beef with the church isn’t with whether it’s trying to add members. It’s with churches who try to do that without the Holy Spirit and without preaching Jesus Christ.”

    BANG! And it’s Katie for the WIN!

    Given the aforementioned dynamic is in place, the church grows as the people grow. Sheep beget more sheep. A shepherd’s job is to protect, tend, and feed them.

    God loves people and wants to save them far more than we do. Best thing is to stop getting in the way with our fancy notions, schemes, and models.

  • TC Avey September 15, 2011, 1:44 PM

    Ministers have a tough job (it’s not a job I would want) and it’s not something I think anyone can understand unless they are in those shoes. All I know for certain is that we are to pray for our leaders and that is what I try to do on a regular basis.
    Thanks for the added insight, it will help in guiding my prayers for my churches leaders.

  • Beth K. Vogt September 15, 2011, 2:21 PM

    No comment. Yet.
    To busy mulling.

  • Bob Avey September 15, 2011, 5:33 PM

    You make some good points, Mike. Several years ago, a decision was made in my church to appoint church members to handle the bulk of the administrative duties of the church, which frees up the pastors to… well be pastors. I realize all churches cannot accomplish this, but it has worked well for us.

  • Tim George September 16, 2011, 4:30 AM

    Mike, I too was a pastor of over 20 years and I appreciate your thoughts. Most pastors are a reflection of their congregational makeup. We live in a phony, success driven culture. Bigger is better and yesterday’s ideas or, well, yesterday’s news. As Flip Wilson’s character used to say, “This is the Church of What’s Happening Now.”

    Pastors are driven by theology, personality, and culture. If their foundational doctrinal viewpoint is that the work of God depends on them and their efforts that will be reflected in how they lead the church. Some are driven by personality. Take their pulpit away and they would quickly be selling something else on the power of their charisma. We all are driven by the culture we live in more than we want to believe.

  • Brenda Jackson September 16, 2011, 5:54 AM

    Being a pastor is no easy task. I’ve been blessed to have wonderful pastors in almost all the churches I’ve been in over the years. I still pray nearly daily for my first and most impactful pastor from when I started going to church at age 17/18 (many moons ago now).

    I have found my pastors to work hard at both growing the church and spiritually growing the ones already there. They can’t please everyone, of course. No one can.

    The much tougher thing, to me, is teaching believers that if everyone plays a small part in the church, together we can meet the many needs out there. But too often, only a small percentage ever move from faith to service, therefore many needs go unmet.

    Conversely then, some, including pastors, are worn to a frazzle trying to do too many things, while some folks simply show up for service and then go home again–they never get past being milk-fed.

  • Katherine Coble September 16, 2011, 12:52 PM

    I have many considered, prayerful opinions on this topic but I hesitate to share them. It’s such an important conversation and I’m so harried at the moment that I don’t feel I can do adequate justice. I’ll try, but please don’t hesitate to ask me to clarify before writing me off. 🙂

    It’s an issue for me, as I come from a “lay-teacher” tradition, to even wrap my head around the concept of Pastor-as-full-time-paid-position. I wrestle with this greatly. I know it’s the culture and model of most churches, but from what I’ve seen it seems to cause more harm than good. The Pastor’s salary can only grow if the congregation either gives more or has more people giving the base amount. It’s in his best interest to either preach endless sermons on tithing (another touchy subject) or bringing in more bodies. Many people I’ve known are hesitant to approach their pastor because they fear they will be hounded for more money before or after they are counseled.

    At the most basic level I think it’s important to realise that a local congregation is first and foremost meant to be a spiritual watering hole for the believers who are themselves meant to be the tools of outreach to the lost. Mike, you point this out in your reference to Eph. 4:12. The biggest problems we’ve run into is when we’ve changed our philosophy of Church into a Seeker-Seeking model. Sfriendly or Sdriven, it makes little difference, I believe. You and I as individuals are meant to be the seeker-friendly and seeker-driven ones. Church is where we are supposed to get our fuel for those forays into that realm.

    Perhaps a move to lay-preachers and deacons would be the most beneficial way to address church problems. Yet I fear the current model of Professional Preacher is too entrenched to allow for this sea change.

  • Brenda Jackson September 16, 2011, 2:16 PM


    I too find the full-time-paid preacher concept hard to wrap my head around. NOT because I’ve seen any problems with that in my personal experiences with a pastor, but because, until the last few years, I was always part of a church where the pastor WAS bivocational so the concept is relatively foreign to me. The pastor I mentioned in my previous comment on this topic was bivocational–and ultimately it took a toll on him and he could no longer continue that pace (he worked the other job Monday-Thursday, and drove across the bay to the opposite shore to pastor the church Thur-Sun).

    But for the last couple of years, I’ve been part of a church where the pastor is full time and I’ve grown accustomed to it and it’s not so foreign any more.

  • R.D. Stanich September 27, 2011, 8:15 PM

    I’ve not been a pastor but have been close to a number for the last fifty years. I have a little different take on the problems they face. It’s not the forest or the trees but the type of soil they both need. Pastors are ministers and ministry is part of the problem. The Bible (Word) must be precept upon precept upon precept and any one congregation requiers cirtain precepts not always Gods. I’m not talking doctorin as much as perception of Truth.
    In that fifty mentioned years I’ve not found one man that teaches and preaches the full Gospel- they can’t even if they would. If they did, the congegation would scatter and God dosn’t want that. Graphically put, the forest always wants milk not meat, no matter how close the pastor gets to the trees.
    The problem is perception, we all mispercieve some of the gospel, and mispercieving is missing part of God and that’s sin. Example: If you believe God is everyware and he isn’t you are sinning, When have you heard a pastor say that? God cirtainly can be everware, But the Bible never says He is so if He isn’t and you believe He is, then you sin, and who cares, no big deal?

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