An Open Letter to a Recent Seminary Grad
This is an article that I submitted to Grace and Peace Magazine. The idea came from a conversation with a former intern about dealing with difficult people in pastoral ministry.
There is no greater thrill than seeing someone you have mentored and discipled go on to serve God in full time ministry. James was part of our congregation as a college student. He was bright, inquisitive, and passionate about serving God and his church. When he decided to continue his preparation at my alma mater, Nazarene Theological Seminary, I was ecstatic.
James and I stayed in touch and I was privileged to officiate his wedding a couple years later at the Kansas City church where he served. When James emailed me about his first pastoral ministry assignment, I felt like a spiritual grandfather: proud and fulfilled.
A few months later, I got this email from James:
I hope all is well with you in Idaho! I am writing you for some wisdom. I really hope you can help me here because I just feel like I'm in over my head here!
There is a significant contingent in my congregation who are related to each other, who have known each other for a very long time, and most of whom have been a part of this church for decades. They are also the core members of this church who have treated Laura and I lovingly since we've arrived, half of whom are on the board, and most of whom seem to live within a few blocks of each other.
I've visited these folks, met with them in my study and invited them into my home to talk, and have done my best to love them and express my love to them in all the ways I know how.
It seems, when I'm with these folks, I often find myself holding back from speaking to or challenging what they say. Most of them seem to believe I need to be a “real preacher” and preach about Hell. There generally seems to be a mournfulness amongst them and in their Sunday school class about how so many people just won't go to church anymore and how younger folks just don't seem to get it.
Almost every time I speak with them, the conversation comes down to them complaining (“reporting to me,” as they understand it) about this member of the congregation who doesn't dress modestly who “has no respect for God or the church,” or about a member of the church who does this or that. I simply don't know what to do or how to interact with these folks. I feel like I need to walk on eggshells around them. I love the Church of the Nazarene, but these people baptize their judging by calling it righteous concern. Yet it’s this very aspect of their group dynamics that is causing a lot of division in the church.
I feel like if they actually knew me and what I honestly thought about things, they'd run me out of town for sure. Is this how all senior pastors feel?
Some of the folks simply don't understand the younger folks in our church and they prefer a legalistic understanding of the faith where the whole point of being saved is avoiding a checklist of sins to avoid Hell. The younger folks, in their evaluation, don't take church seriously, have too much fun in the sanctuary, don't dress up enough, and leave church and sin all over the place.
I love these people and they have so far been very receptive to Laura and I, but their understanding of discipleship and faith is driving me crazy. I don't know if this is normal for new pastors or if I'm just not doing well or what. I really could use your help and wisdom on how to best pastor this congregation that God has called me to. Also... how not to get run out of the church and town might be a good bonus too... : )
Thanks a lot in advance.
Reading James’ email gave me déjà vu from my first ministry assignment: a small congregation on the Washington Coast. My wife and I were the youngest adults by a long shot and the only people in the congregation with college degrees. They were good, well-meaning people who loved Jesus and often sacrificed for His church. But the experience seemed like a million miles from the exegetical discussions with Morris Weigelt and the theological musings with Rob Staples that I had been saturated with in the previous three years. The issues and questions that were burning in my congregation’s hearts were not the questions I was all that interested in talking about. I knew that “success” at this assignment was not going to mean making them into Wesleyan scholars or people who knew lots of Bible trivia. Rather, if I could get them to use a biblical framework to think about their decisions more and somehow guide them to be a little more like Jesus, I would be faithful to my calling.
According to studies at the Alban Institute and Fuller Seminary, 50% of ministers drop out of ministry within the first five years and many never to go back to church again.1 A Duke University study found that 85% of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within five years, and 90% of all pastors will not stay to retirement.2 Needless to say, the reasons for this are wide-ranging. Some of this has to do with young ministers who enter ministry with a vastly different view of the world than the people they are called to shepherd. But some of the reasons are nothing new. For centuries, pastors have struggled with how to measure progress in the people that they serve. A colleague once confided his secret desire to quit ministry and drive an earth mover. “At the end of the day, I could look back and see exactly what I did,” he mused.
As I hit the “reply” button on my computer software to James, I realized that my view of ministry over the years has become more tempered. I’ve learned that exponential and lasting change usually does not come from big decisions or sweeping changes, but rather from many minor and strategic decisions. Jesus often used the metaphor of farming to describe the Kingdom of God. Those of us who have never been farmers probably miss the significance of the slow, plodding rhythms of life on the farm. There is no such thing as an “instant plant” or a “quick harvest.” Farming, and by extension the Kingdom of God, is slow, steady and often undetectable. But it is nonetheless epic.
Here is what I wrote to James:
No, you are not crazy. At first glance it may seem like your situation is unique and that your congregation is unusually unhealthy. I can assure you, however, that while some congregations are healthier than others, all congregations have their own unique brand of dysfunction. To paraphrase John Ortberg, “every [church] is normal til you get to know them.” No, the grass is not greener. People and churches are messy everywhere you go.
Your calling as a pastor and spiritual leader is to be a servant of the congregation that God has called you to. But there is a big difference between serving a congregation and being the co-dependent enabler of a congregation’s changing desires, time-conditioned understanding of their needs, or their secularized hopes for something better. Being a spiritual leader is not giving people what they want, but helping them to change the wants themselves.
It takes an incredible amount of wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit to discern the best way you can facilitate healthy change in a group of people to take them from where they are to where they need to be. In the scriptures, the dominant metaphor for our spiritual life is a journey. Like Abraham leaving Ur, the Israelites’ exodus from slavery, or Jesus heading up to Jerusalem, people in the scriptures are constantly on a journey.
Jesus, in his amazing wisdom, was constantly calling people to the next step on their journey. What that next step looked like was as different as the variety of people that he encountered. To the rich young ruler he said: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). To the woman caught in adultery, he extended grace and love and then challenged her to take the next step on her journey: “…neither do I condemn you…Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). Jesus met people where they were, loved them as they were, and invited them to take the next step on their journey, whatever that might be.
The story of God’s revelation shows us this evolution of steps on the journey. When God gave the Ten Commandments to Israelites, it was a remedial lesson in morality. For example, when you have a dispute with someone, don’t kill them. Later in the scriptures, Jesus invites us to take the next step: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). At the end of Jesus’ life he tells his disciples to take another step: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). As the people of God, we journeyed from “don’t kill them” to “love them” to “lay down your life for them.” God meets us where we are, loves us as we are, and invites us to take the next step, whatever that might be.
The Ten Commandments also gave us a rudimentary ethical lesson in marriage relationships. The Israelites were told to only sleep with the people to whom they were married. Jesus invites his followers to take the next step and view marital fidelity not just as a physical act, but as a concern of the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). By the time Paul pens his letter to the church at Ephesus, he tells them lay down their lives for the one to whom they are married (Ephesians 5:25). God meets us where we are, loves us as we are, and invites us to the next step, whatever that might be.
Likewise, for the people who walk through the doors of your church on Sunday, your task as a pastor is to invite them to take the next step. For each person, that next step will be different. For some, maybe it is the first time ever at church service. An amazing next step for them might be the realization that there is a God. For others, it might be the experience that God is good and that his presence is among us. Those may not seem like very big steps to us, but to them they are huge steps on their journeys. God meets them exactly where they are, loves them, and through your words and the Holy Spirit invites them to their next step.
I wish it was a simple formula, but being a faithful pastor is complicated. It means understanding where your people are, meeting them there, loving them intensely, and inviting them to take the next step. For your people, the next step on some of their journeys is to understand grace in a theological way. The step after that might be to experience grace in an existential way. It will take time and patience. And they may fight you along the way because very few people intentionally choose change in their lives that they don’t have to choose. But there is no growth without change, no change without loss, and no loss without pain. There is an old saying in AA that goes, “People don’t change when they see the light, they change when they feel the heat.” In other words, for most people, we only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.
Sometimes when facing an issue in my congregation where I know the members have a long way to go, I imagine what it would be like to be the pastor of a segregated church in Deep South in 1954. The church would have a long way to go to realize God’s dream of racial harmony. They will need to think more biblically about race and power issues, they will need to choose to make decisions that will open themselves up to others, they will need to confront their fears, and they will need to repent of the past. In short, there will be many steps on the journey to get them from where they are to where they need to be. An impatient and immature pastor would try to get them to take the steps too quickly and would be, as you fear, “run out of town.” The people would remain entrenched and bitter. A wise pastor would love them, invite them to take the next step, and trust the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts.
My prayer for you, James, is that God will give you wisdom, a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leading, a deep love for the people that He has called you to, and the faith to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives even when it seems like nothing is happening!
Whether you are a recent seminary grad or a seasoned pastor wrestling with a changing cultural landscape, the slow, plodding process of shepherding people can be overwhelming. Change never happens as quickly as we want. Sometimes loving a congregant takes an extra measure of grace. Sometimes it takes courage to challenge people to move out of their comfort zones and take the next step.
As you spend time in prayer about the people that God has called you to, here are some questions that you might meditate on and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you:
What makes your congregation unique? What is its unique dysfunction?
What is the biggest struggle that your congregation is facing right now?
If you could wave a magic wand and change any one thing about your people, what would it be?
Can you outline the sequential steps they need to take get them from where they are to where they need to be?
1 Meek, K., McMinn, M., Brower, C., Burnett, T., McRay, B., Ramey, M., et al. (2003, Winter). Maintaining Personal Resiliency: Lessons Learned From Evangelical Protestant Clergy. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31.4(9), P. 340.
2 Kanipe, R. (2007, October). Clergy Killers Are A Problem For Our Churches Everywhere. Wesleyan Christian Advocate. Retrieved December 29, 2007, from www.wcadvocate.org.