Pastoral Survival Guide: Part 1 by Rowland Croucher
Introduction: Pastoral Challenges Today
1. Relationship with God
3. Mentors and Networks
4. Leadership and Interpersonal Skills
5. Home and Marriage
6. Stress Management
8. The ‘Vision Thing’
9. Professional Growth
10. Institutions and Creativity
REVEREND JOE’S STORY
Reverend Joe was a boilermaker in a factory, but he had a gift with words. One of his elders said he should be a preacher, so he went to Bible College, and served a term as a cross-cultural missionary with an interdenominational organisation. His ministry in Papua New Guinea was ‘ordinary’ according to the mission-people, and his wife developed some health problems. The doctors suggested that a tropical climate would not be good for her, so the Mission Society asked him to do some ‘deputation’ – which he did very well. He had only three talks to offer, but that’s all he needed as he journeyed around Australia, preaching in evangelical churches every Sunday. The General Superintendent of one of the Baptist Unions heard him speak, and was impressed.
When Joe intimated that he was thinking about entering pastoral ministry, the G.S. said ‘I think we can find a place for you’ and Joe began the process of theological training with a view to ordination. He struggled to pass his exams, but eventually made it. He then served two rural churches, but both pastorates ended badly. In the first, he ‘fronted’ a couple of the powerful people, and they virtually drove him out. A second pastorate finished abruptly after a couple of years when he had a breakdown. There was no farewell from either church. When he felt a little better, he asked to be put on the Baptist Union ‘list’ for another pastorate. The meetings of the ‘settlement committee’ came and went and Joe’s name would come up each time. But there wasn’t a ‘suitable’ church. (One of the members of that committee said to me, ‘We have to be efficient, because there’s always a lot of business each month. But these names. they’re people! This is their vocation, their livelihood, we’re talking about. We don’t pray for them, or even meet some of them. They’re mostly just names. I feel very uneasy about the whole process.’)
I met Joe when I preached at the Baptist church he attended. We made a time to talk – at the local McDonald’s. He got there early and was waiting for me, with a cup of coffee. (I learned later he found a used styrofoam cup, and asked for a ‘refill’, as he couldn’t admit to me that he was penniless). His wife was supporting them both with some ‘agency nursing’, but her health was still not good, and she could only do about two shifts a week. After mortgage payments, and other bills, they had about $50 a week for food. He couldn’t find a job – and his old trade wasn’t a possibility any more.
He told me, in an hour-and-a-half, the ‘headlines’ of his story. He had a brutal, alcoholic father, and a mother who suffered ‘nervous breakdowns’ regularly. His childhood was unhappy, and he was a lonely kid. School was always a bad experience, and he left at 15 to work in a factory. A Christian work-mate befriended him, took him to an evangelistic meeting, ‘and I was gloriously saved’. His life from then on was focussed on serving God and winning others to Christ.
After a while, I asked him to give me a rough assessment of his missionary and ministry careers. He did some things well, he said, but he couldn’t cope with people who ‘crossed’ him – either by making comments about his beliefs/ preaching, or by challenging his leadership. ‘I got into trouble regularly because I would stand up to people. That’s the only way I survived as a kid. They’re not going to squash me. But I think I made a lot of enemies each place I served.’
We then talked about ‘where to from here’. I summarised John Mark Ministries ‘ research into ex-pastors like him – and me. There are about 41 responses to the question ‘Why did you leave parish/ pastoral ministry?’ Most leave in a context of conflict – with the powerful people in the church or denomination. But underneath all this there’s always a story of ‘unfinished family-of-origin’ business. His story was not unusual – indeed he’s a classic!
He told me he felt ‘the Union’ had washed its hands of him. He was in the ‘dead wood’ category that institutional people talk about. ‘The G.S. who encouraged me to enter ministry has gone, and no one there now knows me.’ The Baptist Union had recently developed a system to encourage the personal and professional growth of its pastors, who now are required to renew their accreditation regularly. Joe felt threatened by all this. ‘I’m not a reader, ‘ he said. ‘But I still think I could be useful somewhere in the church.’
INTRODUCTION: PASTORAL CHALLENGES TODAY
Now, what should happen to Joe if he’s to realise his potential and make it back into pastoral ministry again? Is he a hopeless case? I personally don’t think so, but it will certainly be uphill. Non-tertiary-educated/ Bible college trained ex-missionaries have generally had problems adjusting again. The society they left has moved dramatically in their absence. They often lack the vocational skills to compete on their return and the sending mission societies have often failed to provide for their retraining and economic wellbeing after ‘years of sacrificial service’. Even pastors that never went overseas, but were trained in the 1950s/ 1960s, are often similarly disadvantaged.
I meet quite a few pastors still leading churches because they can’t think of any alternatives. They’re burned out, struggling on, and their churches are suffering.
Then, too, there’s another category: pastors who feel they’re ‘mediocre’ in terms of effective leadership, but who do a faithful job. until some powerful people in the church insist on their ‘getting their act together better’. Then there’s trouble.
Another group is committed to ‘church growth’, but their people often feel they’re pawns in a triumphalistic chess-game. ‘Our pastor doesn’t listen: he suffers from an edifice complex. We’re OK if we bring friends to church, but not if we struggle.’
Some older pastors feel they’ve passed their ‘use by’ date. One told me: ‘I don’t understand all this post-modern stuff. I seem to be preaching about things the educated young people aren’t interested in. A university student said to me: “You preach at us. Our teachers encourage us to come to our own conclusions.”‘
Today it’s both easier and harder to be a pastor. Easier, because we have more resources to help us – like the World Wide Web for sermon-material (ever used the search-engine Google as a concordance?), more support-groups to encourage and pray for us, better access to the world’s practical theology experts, and a higher standard of living, on average, than pastors have ever enjoyed.
But it’s also harder. Many of us can identify with the apostle Paul who said, ‘Who is equal to such a task?’, about his own call to pastoral ministry. These days the expectations of our people are higher – and more likely to be expressed vigorously. Up-front leaders and speakers compete with dynamic personalities on television. There are more ‘religious’ people not attending churches (in the West) than ever before in history. Our people are likely to be better-educated – and differently-educated than we are. ‘One size fits all’ doesn’t work any more: people are more mobile, and brand-loyalty doesn’t work for Generation X’ers (those born since 1965) – or even Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964).
The role of the clergy is by not as clear as it was. Nor is there clear public affirmation of their role in many instances. Most people see no need for religious professionals. And there’s a lack of confidence in institutions. Why waste precious time propping up ineffective institutions? Indeed, the very way in which people are approaching spirituality is that community involvement may be helpful at some points in time, but is certainly secondary to the individual spiritual journey.
In the past 40 years I’ve preached in about 700 churches in Australia, and they’re becoming more varied each decade. The single most common question in our ‘Marks of a Healthy Church’ seminars: how can we cater for old and young with their different tastes in one worship service, particularly in smaller churches? This centres particularly on the issue of modern vs. older music. But then, we’ve argued about music before: some churches in 17th century England and Scotland forbade all singing, others said we should only sing Psalms. When new hymn-books are produced, there are mixed reactions. (In 1691 when the first Baptist hymn book appeared, many Baptists refused to use it!).
Back to TV: most church-attenders have watched almost 20 hours of television the previous week. Not only is the medium the message, but if communication in church isn’t dynamic/interesting (and cognisant of an assumed 45-second attention span), the music excellent, and the themes life-related, people will go elsewhere – even back to the TV. (See Tony Campolo, 1995, chapter 4 ‘The Television Challenge’ for one of the few writers-about-churches to underline the significance of television for churches).
Baby Boomers and GenX’ers have grown up with television – that’s why they’re less-than-committed to a particular church/denomination. They’re part of a consumer culture in which choices/freedoms dominate their lifestyle.
They want ‘value for money/time’ and won’t hang around a church that’s boring, irrelevant to their questions, or stuck where it was. (Tradition is a good servant, but a very bad master).
Baby Boomers still have a disproportionate influence over our entire society, consuming (in the U.S.) 51% of all the goods and services and comprising 81% of journalists. Again, they don’t share at all the ‘brand loyalty’ of their parents: indeed they scoff at it – hence the decline of denominations that have ‘expected loyalty but neglected needs’. Baby Boomers and GenX’ers see the church they’re in as a ‘way-station’ for their ongoing spiritual journey rather than the final destination. (This is partly because they’re open to upward job mobility, which may require changing location). They’re more likely to be loyal to a pastor than to a church or denomination. They’re also more tolerant of change, and more comfortable with diversity and ambiguity.
GenX’ers got the best of everything: they’ve never had to wait for the good things of life, so don’t understand ‘deferred gratification’. They listen to music privately, and grew up in the first generation that devalued children as having less social and economic value. They finish their education later, marry later, have kids later and enter the job market later (hence the term ‘the postponed generation’). They’ve been even more influenced by television than have the Baby Boomers: but their concern for global issues often tends to be unfocussed, even shallow. They face an almost overwhelming array of options, and tend to be indecisive. Said one: ‘We search for a goal, and once it’s attained, we realise it has moved farther away’.
So an important question at this point is: should we surrender to the ‘I/me/myself’ selfishness of the consumer culture? Two excellent books on this are Philip Yancey’s Church: Why Bother? and Eugene Peterson’s The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends. The point these two books make: ‘church is essentially in rebellion against selfishness and is committed to diversity’.
Another contemporary issue: most Christians believe that a society which loses its commitment to certain core moral values, where most ‘do what is right in their own eyes’ is ‘on the skids’. Post-modernism rejects absolute ways of speaking of truth. Post-modernism, as the clich puts it, is essentially a rejection of ‘meta-narratives’. So religion is pushed out of the public arena into the private domain and such relativism can have disastrous consequences. Christians believe that to claim a morality which is purely self-referential is to claim a freedom which ends up as being no freedom at all. If there is no point of reference beyond ourselves, then reason, justice and law become exploitable by the powerful and the influential, and the weak have nothing left to appeal to. If we have no word for sin we shall soon find we have no words left to describe responsibility. As the ancient Roman adage puts it: ‘What are laws without morals?’
An Indian pastor was excited he was about his up-coming marriage. A Western missionary asked a few questions about the bride-to-be and it soon became evident that the young fellow had not yet even met the woman to whom he was betrothed. It was an arranged marriage. With as much cultural sensitivity as possible, the missionary asked how did they know if they loved each other? The Indian pastor’s response: ‘We will learn to love each other.’
The Church, whether we like it or not, is like an arranged marriage! We don’t determine who is or is not part of the Church, God does. We won’t get on with everyone. In one sense, when we give our lives to Jesus, we actually don’t have any choice in the matter, for we are called to learn to love even those we don’t get on with.
Back to pastors: please note that we are not here judging the effectiveness of a pastor’s work simply in terms of cleverness or measurable success. I know some faithful ‘Jeremiahs’ whose congregations have dwindled; there were often factors at work beyond their control. Generally, however, well-led and healthy churches grow, spiritually and numerically. There’s a climate of love and expectancy and competence and relevance in them which encourages people to come back again!
Over the next weeks we will look at the characteristics of pastors, women and men, who ‘make the distance’.
Featured Images by Attila Shia, you can view his amazing work on: https://www.flickr.com/photos/77967821@N00/sets/