- Maybe it’s because Gary and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary last Thursday…
- Or because that same day I hosted most of the 15 new clergy on the Grand Rapids District for lunch…
- Or because Gary and I had the privilege of attending Garrison Keillor’s 25 city Summer Love Tour last week, where he told stories about pastors and churches…
- Or because of the coaching that I do almost every day for pastors and/or Staff Parish Relations Committee chairs related to “issues” in the church…
- Or because of the August 1 New York Times article that my daughter sent to me, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work…”
For whatever reason, I’ve been pondering lately the mysterious and marvelous relationship between pastors and congregations, which is sometimes compared to a marriage. When the bishop and cabinet’s appointment of a pastor to a church turns out to be successful, I find myself saying, “This is a perfect match.” A pastor’s first year is often referred to as the “honeymoon” period because everyone seems to be on their best behavior. I’ve even heard clergy spouses lament, “I feel as if my husband/wife is married to the church instead of me!”
There is a real sense in which pastors and congregations covenant to be in ministry together in order to build up the body of Christ and bring in God’s kingdom on this earth. In denominations with a call system, pastors and local churches actually court each other and usually sign a contract to seal the relationship. In denominations with an appointment system, like The United Methodist Church, congregations and pastors reply on the bishop and cabinet to be the matchmakers. Almost never does the relationship between pastor and congregation last “until death do us part.” Although some clergy serve successfully for 20 or more years in one church, other times the “marriage” never even gets past the honeymoon stage.
As a district superintendent, I’ve discovered that the pastor/congregation connection is quite delicate and needs to be treated with great care and grace. There is potential for immense joy as well as deep heartbreak in such an intimate relationship. Four years of listening, mentoring, mediating, coaxing, and doing “marriage” counseling for pastors and churches has led me to believe that this elusive dance between partners is an art, not a science. Of course, it takes two to tango, which implies that both pastors and congregations are responsible for the health of their relationship.
How can church members and friends endanger the relationship with their pastor:
- They often have unrealistic expectations of pastors
- They expect pastors to preach like the polished religious entertainers on TV but don’t want them to spend time preparing because they have 100 other things to do as well
- They expect pastors to be available whenever there is a need, even on their day off
- They want the pastor to be their personal chaplain rather than a visionary spiritual leader who equips the laity for ministry
- When they are dissatisfied with the pastor’s “performance,” they won’t speak to the pastor directly because it’s too difficult, so they stir up trouble by talking to everyone but the pastor
- They try to make the pastor into someone he/she is not
- They unwittingly bring their own “stuff” into their relationship with their pastor
How pastors can endanger relationships with their parishioners:
- They respond to the tyranny of the urgent, thus neglecting the most important aspect of their call, which is cultivating their relationship with God through the practice of spiritual disciplines
- By not taking intentional time away for renewal and professional development, their creativity is stifled, and they get into ruts, doing the same old, same old
- They practice poor self-care and boundary-setting because they work too many hours and don’t take adequate time for family, Sabbath, or self
- They become complacent and are not willing to periodically reinvent themselves, especially when they move to a new church or stay in the same church for a long time
- They are not aware of how others perceive them and do not seek out those who will be honest with them and speak the truth in love
- They become defensive and touchy so that others are hesitant to approach them with concerns
- They’d rather “do it myself” than teach and empower lay people to do the church’s ministry and not be dependent on the pastor
- They fear the consequences of Jesus’ call to “afflict the comfortable” as well as “comfort the afflicted”
Healthy pastor/parishioner relationships are like a marriage: we can’t take them for granted, so we have to work hard at them. By practicing good communication skills, seeking first to understand, then to be understood, and continually working to cultivate trusting relationships, we create an atmosphere of love and respect in our congregations, which is the springboard for effective and outer-directed ministry.
I saw great signs of hope last week as our new district pastors described the gracious way in which their new congregations have welcomed them, how they are implementing their 90 day plans, and how they intend to take care of themselves. The pastors talked about walking every day, practicing yoga, doing morning devotions separate from sermon preparation, meeting with a spiritual director, building a wooden sailboat, gardening, writing their children’s activities into their calendar as non-negotiable, and not checking email on their day off. One pastor passed on this advice from her grandfather, who was an active pastor for 79 years: “You have to have something to go home and pound on.”
Most of our new pastors are on their honeymoon right now. But the honeymoon won’t last, and the reality of life together will set in – probably sooner than later. The pastor is not perfect; neither is the church. Yet we have been matched together, for better or worse.
What can pastors and laity do to ensure their covenant stays strong when the honeymoon is over?
- Take care of our own spiritual formation and relationship with God and encourage others to do the same
- Honor differences and give each other space to discover our unique spiritual gifts
- Work hard to become approachable, open, vulnerable, patient, and flexible
- Embrace changing roles in a changing world, including the roles of pastor and laity
- Covenant to work together through the tough times so that we can sing confidently, “Through many danger, toils, and snares, we have already come; ’tis grace has brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home”
- Employ good conflict resolution practices; if reconciliation cannot be achieved, don’t be afraid to seek “marriage counseling”
- Keep your eye on the prize, which is the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:14); a.k.a. don’t sweat the small stuff
- Remember that we cannot change others. We can only change ourselves. And when we change ourselves, we become more effective and faithful clergy and lay persons.
These wise words from the German author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), summarize well the essence of every healthy relationship, including that of pastor and congregation. I invite you to pray this quote as a prayer every day this week.
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”