A Pastor’s Relationship with the Church

We typically describe a pastor’s relationship to his people in leadership terms, such as shepherd or overseer, and rightly so, but leadership authority Ronald A. Heifetz offers us a new description. He claims that leading institutional change is a process of “disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” This is a profound observation. In our rapidly changing time and culture, a pastor must lead change, and change inevitably disappoints people. The challenge is to lead the church through the changes necessary to bring it back to health and, at the same time, survive the process of disappointing people so the church is not harmed and the pastor is not fired. In my view, the most common mistake new and often young pastors make is disappointing their people at a rate they CANNOT absorb. The result is usually not good. Successful pastors will learn to lead in such a way that their people choose to follow. The whole world, the church included, is in a “not-in-Kansas-anymore” moment. Much is being written on the qualities of leadership that pastors will need to exercise in these tumultuous times. With Heifetz’s phrase as our guide, here are a few of my thoughts.

Accept the Role of Leader

First, we must accept the role of being a leader of change. Not change for change sake, but change to intercept the process of institutional decline that afflicts 80 percent of churches in America. Clearly, how we are “doing church” right now is not working very well. For many years, it was generally believed that only the liberal church was in decline while evangelical churches were doing fine. We can no longer deceive ourselves that this is true. While the liberal church is on death’s door, the evangelical church is also hemorrhaging members and failing to reach millennials. The long hard journey back to health and life of the local church rests with the local pastor; he is God’s human agent for leading. The Apostle Paul calls leadership a spiritual gift (Romans 12:8) and says that if this is your gift then “lead diligently.” I believe that the Holy Spirit has distributed the gift of leadership widely to pastors. While many of us do not feel particularly competent as leaders, nevertheless if we are called to pastor, we must “lead diligently.” The good news is that leaders are made, not born. Granted, some pastors naturally gravitate toward a leadership role. However, for most of us, leadership is a skill we acquire over time, with the endowment by the Holy Spirit, as we willingly embrace the role.

I clearly recall the moment as a young pastor when I knew I had to lead. I had been a pastor for about two years. Before my call, the church had been in decline for some time and was even considering closing its doors. Decades of liberal theology had nearly killed this once thriving church. I spent the first two years getting to know the people and preaching a simple gospel message. My “Aha!” moment around leadership came at a deacons meeting with about eight of us seated at a table. The perfunctory agenda items had been dealt with, and it seemed the meeting was about to adjourn when one of the deacons turned to me and said, “OK, Pastor, you’ve been here for a couple of years now. What are we supposed to be doing as church?” In a flash, I realized that no one was steering this ship. These competent men and women had guided the church through rough times of failed pastoral leadership and now were waiting for me to take the helm. They must have intuitively known that a church cannot lead itself and that, while a group of people may lead for a season, eventually every church needs a shepherd to lead it. It was a frightening moment for me because I was young and clueless as to how to lead. In fact, it was years before I felt comfortable in that role. That memorable meeting made me realize that I—and no one else—was called to lead and if I didn’t take the wheel, then the church would flounder. Accept the fact that if you are called to be a pastor, you are called to lead.

Expect Resistance to Your Leadership

Second, understand and accept that the normal human reaction to change is resistance. It is normal because change upsets the equilibrium of an organism or organization. The late Edwin H. Friedman, in his classic book on church systems Generation to Generation (2011), uses the scientific term homeostasis to describe the state of equilibrium that all living organisms seek. When we introduce change, we disrupt homeostasis, and the organism—in our case, the church—fights with all of its resources to reestablish balance. Don’t underestimate how powerful a force homeostasis is. Consider the fact that, before your arrival, your church spent years or even decades establishing routines, traditions, and patterns of activity that enable it to function. It may not be functioning well. In fact, it may be quite dysfunctional. Even that very dysfunction is the homeostasis that enables it to survive. The dysfunction is its normal. As pastors, we are often surprised by how fierce the resistance to our leadership can be. We shouldn’t be.

It is interesting that the first parable recorded in the Gospel of Luke, the Parable of the Wineskins (Luke 5:36-39) deals with change and people’s negative reaction to it. I had preached this text many times before recognizing its most practical lesson. The story compares new and old cloth, new and old wineskins. The main point is that Jesus’ message of the gospel is not a revision of the Old Testament but something entirely, radically new. Jesus is declaring at the outset that His ministry is not a reform movement like that of the Pharisees or even John the Baptist. Jesus explains in this vivid story that the gospel cannot be “patched” onto the Old Covenant. While the New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, it is not simply a repair to the garment of the Old Covenant; it would be a new garment altogether, the new garment of the New Covenant. The image of the wineskins conveys the same message. To take Jesus any other way, the parable says, would be destructive. His message must be received as something completely new, and Jesus Christ must be newly received by each person.

I had understood and preached the parable this way for years before the ending finally hit home. The last verse (And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” v. 39), although somewhat enigmatic, is actually profound. It surprises us. One would expect Jesus to say that once people taste the “new wine” of the Gospel, no one will want to go back to the “old wine” of the Law. That would make perfect sense because it is true. Once people discover the living truth of Jesus Christ and all that it brings, they certainly wouldn’t go back to the empty forms of religion. But that’s not what He says. He says just the opposite: once people drink the new wine, they will long for the old, believing it better.

Here is the simple meaning of the end of the parable: Because the Gospel is radical, it is unfamiliar, even scary, as it challenges everything about our lives. Historically, this parable predicts the wholesale rejection Jesus knows will come from Ancient Israel. Personally, however, it reminds us that as pastors seeking to lead change, our people are going to long for the old wine of the good old days. Jesus guarantees it. He is declaring that no one likes change and that, given a choice, people will invariably reject the new in favor of the old. Every pastor who wants to see his church renewed should prayerfully listen to this warning from our Lord that we will face resistance. The parable is realistic but also hopeful, in that while much of Ancient Israel rejected Christ, many did believe and became the Apostles and the Early Church. We too can have hope that the Holy Spirit is restlessly and relentlessly leading His Church forward, that time is on our side, and that if we are skillful in leading change, the new wine will eventually turn into a fine old vintage. People can adjust to and embrace the change, but only if we lead, in Heifetz’s words, at a rate they can absorb.

Earn the Right to Lead

Third, while resistance to change is inevitable, earning the right to lead change will make all the difference in whether our people ultimately accept our leadership and follow our lead. The first ministry God called me to as a twenty-something youth pastor was with Young Life. Founded in 1938 Young Life continues to be a remarkably effective parachurch organization reaching and discipling unchurched youth in many countries around the world. One of their unofficial mottos was “Earn the right to be heard.” Because YL leaders work outside the walls of the church as missionaries to middle school and high school students, they realize they have no institutional authority to speak. Therefore, they must win that authority by earning the trust of teens. How? By entering, as adults, the students’ world and offering genuine, unconditional friendship. It is a patient, slow, and deliberate strategy of incarnational ministry. As a result, over time, trust is built and the right to speak the gospel into a young person’s life is earned. This truth, learned young, greatly influenced my entire life of ministry.

Pastor and author Tod Bolsinger explores this idea in his excellent book Canoeing the Mountains (2015). He agrees that the right to lead a church through change must be earned. It starts by being what he calls “technically competent.” He means competent in three specific areas.

  1. A pastor must be a “workman who . . . rightly handles the word of God” (II Tim. 2:15). He must be competent in preaching the Bible and upholding the theological traditions of his church. This is the first task entrusted to us by God and our flock, and there is no reason why we should not fulfill it competently. We have been trained in the Scriptures, set free from earning a living, endowed with the Holy Spirit by faith and through ordination. There is simply no excuse for sloppy, superficial, and ineffective preaching. 
  2. A pastor must be competent as a shepherd in the soul care of his people. As pastors we must be present with our people in the trials, tribulations, and passages of their lives. While others can and should assist in soul care, pastors must not entirely delegate this ministry to others; it is simply too important.
  3. A pastor must be competent as a manager of the institution of the local church with all of its facets. Most of us feel least competent in this area and will inevitably need the talents of others, but the buck stops with us. The buildings, the finances, and the ministries must not fail on our watch.

Technical competence in the functions of ministry is the first quality that earns us the right to lead our people through the change of the uncharted future. Bolsinger goes on to say that pastors also need to be relationally congruent. He defines this as “the ability to be fundamentally the same person with the same values, in every circumstance and especially amidst every crisis” (p. 67). In other words, our relationships with those we shepherd must be clear, characterized by integrity, godliness, good boundaries, communication, and emotional health. We must learn to be aware of our own emotions and those of the people we are relating to. Some refer to this as being “self-differentiated,” or having high EQ (emotional quotient). This is an area in which we can all grow, especially as we minister to increasingly anxious flocks. It is a daily challenge for us to navigate the turbulent waters of local church relationships.

Pastoring a flock of God’s people in these days of COVID and rapid cultural change is not for the faint of heart, but God is faithful. There is a watchword among pastors here in New England where I serve: PREACH, PRAY, LOVE, STAY. As you lead your church through change, may that summarize your relationship to your people in this time.

close slider

    Sign up for our newsletter

    We promise not to spam you!

    Are you a Pastor: