A Pastor-Proof Church?

This is a phrase I’ve noticed cropping up lately in conversation as well as blog posts: The Pastor-Proof Church. It’s an attractive idea at some level and certainly appeals to our Wesleyan, itinerant roots.

If I understand it correctly, it’s the idea that, regardless of who the pastor happens to be, a particular church will keep moving forward and making positive progress because the pastor isn’t that essential to what they do. The pastor is important, mind you, but not irreplaceable.

Pastors may come and go, but the laity are the backbone of the church. The key then is to develop a strong laity who know who they are as a church, why they exist, and where they are going with a strong vision, mission and purpose guiding them.

That way, when a new pastor comes in, they simply say, “This is who we are, what we do, and where we’re headed. Get on board, or get out.” Mind you, they may say it more graciously than that, but that’s the bottom line. The pastor is a piece of the puzzle, a member of the team, not the crucial missing piece.

Like I said, it’s an attractive idea. The only problem is, I’m not sure it’s realistic. The more I’ve served as a pastor and watched other churches change pastors, the less I believe the “pastor-proof” church is a sustainable model.

For one thing, it highly underestimates the power, influence, and position of a local church pastor. Whether we like it or not, the pastor by very virtue of position is the most influential person in the life of a church. The pastor is, in essence, the CEO of the local church. Most day-to-day decisions come across the pastor’s desk, not the chairs of various committees.

Likewise, the pastor is the chair of the nominating committee that selects and puts forward all candidates for lay leadership. That is, the pastor has a huge say in who gets elected chair of the board or any other committee. Certainly, other people have a say as well. There are strong laity with significant influence. But, the pastor by position alone has the most influence on who all the other leaders are. Long term, it’s hard to circumvent that influence.

(Side note: As a pastor, I can usually tell what kind of leader the pastor preceding me was by looking at the leaders he or she put in place. Weak leaders nominate weak people whom they can influence and even manipulate. Strong leaders tend to put the strongest, best people in power possible. Good pastors aren’t intimidated by talented, influential laity. Bad ones are, and they act like it. This in itself exemplifies how hard it is to pastor-proof a church.)

On top of that, the pastor is the face and voice of the church in the Sunday morning worship service. Regardless of what the laity believe, it’s what the pastor believes that will be articulated publicly on Sunday morning. The laity may believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but if the pastor has other views, guess what’s getting preached in Sunday worship? The average visitor has no way of knowing that the pastor’s views may not really represent the views of the laity. And how often is this a real problem in UM churches?

Secondly, though, the idea of a pastor-proof church tends to overestimate the influence and power of the laity. Especially in the United Methodist Church. Think about it. When the lay leaders of a church all come together and decide it’s time for the pastor to get with the program, what can they really do?

They can officially critique the pastor in a PPR meeting. But what real effect does that have? They can go to the DS and ask her or him to intervene. But, if the DS backs the pastor, then what? They can’t fire the pastor. They can’t withhold pay. About the only recourse the average UM church has is to withhold apportionments, which will get the attention of the DS and Bishop. However, it probably won’t result in a better appointment next time around. Bishops tend not to appreciate that kind of move.

So what can the lay leaders of a church really do when the pastor is a problem? They can make his or her life miserable and pray for a move. They can circle the wagons and block the pastor’s every move. Or they can simply leave the church and go join the Baptist church down the road where their vote against the pastor actually means something. That’s about it.

Pastor-proof church is a nice idea, but it’s not realistic in the current United Methodist system. All the power is in the pastor’s court. Those who ignore that do so to their own detriment.

The upside, though, is that at least a good pastor can have enormous influence in a positive direction. The key then in our current UM system isn’t to bypass the pastor. It’s to get the best possible pastor one can and make the most of it. I suspect that’s part of why most Annual Conferences are moving to longer pastoral appointments. Keep the good ones in a place of positive influence for as long as possible.

That’s my take at least. What’s yours?


3 responses to “A Pastor-Proof Church?

  • John Meunier

    All the power is in the pastor’s court.

    This is not a sentiment I hear a lot of pastors repeating; maybe I’ve only heard the weak ones talk.

    I think the idea of pastor-proofing is more an appeal for a strong laity church that can survive a bad pastor than a denial that bad pastors hurt the church. They just hurt some churches more than others.

    • Lauren

      I admit I may have worded it a bit strongly, but ours is a clergy-dominant system. It’s what we mean when we say that we’re free to preach prophetically without fear of immediate backlash. The UM system is designed to empower and protect the pastor first, the laity and church second. Sometimes it happens otherwise, but not often.

      Pastor-proofing as you describe it sounds like little more than a church in survival mode. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. In my limited experience, strong, active laity are often the result of a deep collaboration between a pastor and church in which the pastor has intentionally worked with the church leaders to create an environment in which lay ministers are freed and encouraged to do their ministry.

      The pastor plays a pivotal and irreplaceable role in that collaboration. In essence, from where I sit, a good pastor is the most important ingredient in developing a strong laity. Any other kind of pastor slowly erodes it.

      Strong, active laity will not long put up with bad pastors who stifle their ministry. Instead, they just move on to a congregational church in which they can have more say. To be blunt, I know too many good Methodists who are now strong, active practicing Baptists. The pastor was the inspiration for that change of membership in every instance. The quickest way for us to reverse that trend is to develop and employ better pastors.

      • John Meunier

        You point to a flaw in my logic. I’m actually a Methodist because I value some of the distinctiveness about Methodism. Most laity are not interested in such things, so voting with their feet is a viable option.

        I have no objection to developing more strong pastors. But the way all human systems work not everyone is going to be the top 20 percent of performers. You need systems that can function without everyone being a top tier performer.

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