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Thursday, June 30, 2005

When Loving You Is Killing Me: Thoughts On Pastoring The Small Church (Part 2)

Smallchurch_3 Yesterday, we looked at part one of Pastor David Hansen's story.  Today we'll hear (as Paul Harvey would say), 'the rest of the story'.  David writes:

I became bitter, and occasionally angry. (Once when the length of a service was criticized in a humiliating deacon's meeting- I went 10 minutes past noon- I ended the service the next week after 40 minutes.) I fought, and lost. Tried and lost. Prayed and heard nothing. I talked to my fellow pastors endlessly. They just looked at me and bought me lunch. They had heard it from this church before and were going through it at their own.

I wanted this pastorate to be everything I ever dreamed my church would be. Instead, I was frozen out by one family, and as soon as my failure became apparent, the rest of the church looked on with a familiar shrug.

(I want to say a huge thanks to all the good people who stood with me in those years. You were precious friends, and I am sorry that I couldn't be the pastor you needed.)

A major church debacle over ball caps? You better believe it. THAT is the reality thousands and thousands of pastors live in, and it is horrible way to live. My marriage was brutalized in these years. My parenting was deeply affected. It was in this time that I failed to finish my doctorate. I gained weight. I wound up catatonic in a corner at one point. I spent a week in the hospital with my heart arrhythmia.

Thousands of pastors are going through this. Thousands.

This story comes to you from Michael Spencer's Blog.  Michael makes these comments:

Hansen says something wonderful in this essay. He says that you must decide if the church is a church, or a collection of individuals. It is, of course, always both.

Individuals and their needs, quirks, and demands dominated my life as a small church pastor. We were 30 minutes outside Louisville. I spent half of each week visiting in the city's many different hospitals. Such pastoral care was expected, but because the dominant family opposed me, it bought me none of the credit one hopes will accrue from faithful pastoral care.

Disgruntled members were the recipients of much of my time. One family was unhappy that we included some worship choruses, rather than all hymns. I visited them several times, to only be told that if we did not do what they wanted, they would leave. Why didn't I just smile and say, "OK. Leave. Sorry to see you go, but I'm not changing for you." Instead I begged, pleaded, negotiated and bribed. I wanted them to stay. I wanted to prevail on their sense of what was best for the congregation, and not to simply assert personal preferences. I wanted to believe that the church would prevail over this collection of individuals. I was wrong in that instance. It was a waste of time.

I counseled anyone with even a distant or past connection to the church, spending hours and hours with people who would never darkened the door of a worship service. I tried to start neighborhood Bible Studies, and spent hours knocking on doors alone. When I found a receptive family and they came to church, they were ignored. When our youth minister proved incompetent, I tried to fill the bill, and nearly got fired. I worked with members to start a clothes closet and a ministry to alcoholics. Some leaders supported these things, but the key players simply looked past these things, and waited for me to wear down.

It was a collection of individuals and families; a collection of preferences, traditions and political realities. My vision of being a church was the tie, and that tie was fraying, or was being cut. I kept looking for the church to show up. I kept hearing about it. I kept dreaming of it. But it never showed up for me. After four years, I left.

The church is on its third pastor since I left 13 years ago. You do the math. God has blessed in many ways, and I rejoice in much good that has been done. My failures and mistakes were overwhelming. I was an immature and troubled person. Still, it seems that few pastors can stay for more than four years at many small churches such as this one.

I understand young men who want to skip all of this and start from scratch. I can see the allure of training all the leaders yourself; of attracting people to a vision that is foundational to the existence of the church. Fighting over ball caps and hymnals and whether women can lead singing is a terrible way to spend your short life. Spending your days laying aside the work of growing the church or studying for preaching in order to keep dozens of disgruntled and demanding people happy seems foolish. Is this the church? Or something else?

Some of my readers condemn me for my sympathy with the emergent church. I understand the problems and concerns you have with many emergent writers, and I am opposed to churches that are so generationally specific they would have no idea what to do with a senior adult. Still, I believe we need thousands of new churches. It breaks my heart to know that there are so many pastors living out there lives in small churches that are nothing more than "family chapels." Gatherings of family and cultural loyalty where the question of ball caps in church becomes a major division and an ugly testimony to the disunity of Christians.

Still, another part of me wants to love these churches. Many times, I wish that I could go back and try again. I still dream of seeing the small church becoming the church of Jesus, and not just a building where a few families gather a few hours a month. I sometimes long to preach the word and do pastoral labor among such people, and to plead with them to refresh their weariness and pettiness in the springs of living water.

The small church has probably killed more than a few ministers. Its antics and fights have discredited the name of Christ. Yet, it is the small church that nurtures and cares for most of the Christians in our culture. Should it die, or fade away in the shadow of the megachurch, Christianity in America would be greatly weakened. There are small churches everywhere that are wonderful witnesses to Christ and caring bodies of believers loving one another in Jesus name. These churches need pastors and elders. They need someone to lead and to love them.

I may find one again someday, and as an older, more prudent, mature person, I may succeed where previously I failed. Christ's church will never fail, and I hope in him. May churches new and old reflect the glory of the Gospel in the face of Jesus, and not the petty feuds and power plays that dominate so many churches.

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June 30, 2005 in Senior Pastors | Permalink

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I started a church 15 years ago in my home. 5 months ago, we moved into a new 50,000 sq.ft. building with ample children's facilities, youth facilities, cafe, and a beautiful 1,000 seat sanctuary. Starting a church afforded me the luxury of promoting the vision God gave me to reach my community. I didn't have to contend with deacon boards with personal agendas, or dominant families who wanted to keep the church small so they could maintain control. Jesus said it best, "you can't pour new wine into old wine skins." I'm glad I pioneered a church. It was hard in the beginning, but well worth it.

Posted by: Allen Nolan | Jun 30, 2005 4:07:51 PM

I pioneered a church 10 years ago. I began with about 10 people meeting in a pizza place. Now we run around 100 and are in a church building. My greatest blessing in the whole process is that I did not inherit the entrenched politics that David writes about...I started with convictions that the Lord had laid on my heart and I have been able to remain true to those...if people come and don't share the direction of the church they are free to go, but I am free to stay and remain true to the calling I have received from the Lord. It is a joy to see others of like heart and mind stay and grow in the Lord's call. Because I started this local church in this manner I am not beholden to nickles, noses or names.

I have been in David's position and I agree that it is time for a fresh start in many cases (although I disagree strongly with the emergent philosophy), just remember that these are the Lord's sheep and He would have us feed them only what comes from His Word...the rest is up to Christ.


Posted by: pdl | Jun 30, 2005 8:08:02 PM

I just read your "blog"
I just left a church where I had been pastor for 3 years.
Does every pastor experience the same things over and over?
I've pastored 4 churches and my longest stay was 3 yrs and the shortest was 9 months.
Every time I go to a church I go with my eyes open and heart ready to go.
only in one church did I leave to go to another church position.
If I could be happy at anything else I'd never pastor again.
The last church I was at we licensed a deacon to the preaching ministry. It went down hill from there.
For the last 2 years that deacon has been a thorn in my side.
His brother in law is the chairman of deacons and they did everything they could to undermind me.
His statement to me was "well pastor you know there just has to be tension between us"
"There always is between to ministers"
I told him I didn't think there "had to be" but he just knew there did.
After he was licensed he asked to preach occasionally. Now after 2 yrs of me letting him "practice" he said I had it easy and made easy money. They paid me $175.00 a week and he said that was for preaching 3 services. When asked about my going to the hospital or doing funerals ot visitation by other members of the congregation he said that was just part of the ministry and not included in the $175 a week.
Now I'm gone he is preaching but "not pastoring" just filling in every sunday.
There were 3 couples who wanted me gone but the rest of the church didn't step in or up and stop what was going on.
The same man would explode about every 4 months and then say he was sorry.
The people would say will that is just the way he is.
Thank you for letting me blow off some steam.
God bless

Posted by: Richard | Jul 5, 2005 4:08:07 PM

In a weird way, I find the bad news as uplifting. I'm starting my own ministry. It's slow, esp. working at it part-time (I have a full time secular job). If we expect immediate "success" (which is a topic in itself), real life can be discouraging. When we see reality and hear the difficulties, then it's not so bad to go thru them, as they are expected somewhat...

In other words, if you think you attend the perfect church, then it's easy to be let-down with trouble. If you see the frailness in it all, then it's easier to deal with it... and even expect it... be ready for it...


Posted by: bernie dehler | Jul 5, 2005 4:29:11 PM

I am not a pastor, but I have been the Director of Youth and Music Ministries for the past four years in a small congregation. Both ministries have grown during these four years, and I have recently stepped down from youth ministry and continued on as Director of Music ministries.

Our church has certainly had it's rough times as we struggled with adding a contemporary worship service to our Sunday morning schedule. We alrealy had two worship services (for 200 people!) and added a third, during the Sunday School hour. This decision was voted on by the whole congregation, but still caused much turmoil. We lost members, the organist (of 60 years!) left the church... it was awful. I took a lot of the heat because I was the one who made the contemporary service possible.

Now we only have two services, one contemporary, one traditional, with Sunday School inbetween. Some great things have happened over the past years, but I find myself feeling beat down. It has been a hard struggle, and I find people to be selfish and cruel. (Not all people, but enough, to have left me feeling guarded and defensive.) My personality has changed... I have lost the joy I once felt in ministry. I feel discouraged that I see the same things happening over and over again. People in our congregation are so stiff, and won't let themselves be free to worship... no matter how much I encourage them or try to set an example. I feel like a duck out of water, like I'm the only one (except for a handful of people) who want to truely worship God. Everyone else just wants to "watch" the praise team, or to just sing the old famial hymns that they like. I'm tired of trying to make everybody happy that wants to sing a solo, of dealing with those disgrunted choir members who don't get to sing a solo as often as they'd like, of worrying about who's unhappy and why. I'm tired of working so hard and long, and feeling like it's not making any difference.

I know God has called me to serve Him in this place... but I am weary in spirit. This congregation has zapped the life out of me. I feel so torn. I love God with all my heart and soul. It's just his people that I'm having a hard time with. It seems like it would be so much easier to go where people love to worship God with their whole heart. I just don't understand why after all this time, the people here just don't seem to get it?

Posted by: Paula Kay Gibson | Jul 5, 2005 5:04:48 PM

Interesting. I really DID think I was the only one out here dealing with the "stuff" that comes with small churches. Too often, the enemy has more of a hold than we can (or are willing) to see.

I was reading about Isaac in Genesis chapter 26. This story about Isaac re-digging each well, one by one, reminds me of God's provision for us as we do ministry. Perhaps we need to keep digging until we find that well that is free-flowing. That's where we set up camp.

At any rate, I am still trying to retain my patience, my calling, and my leadership in a difficult and trying situation. When there are fights for control, stories changing, lack of accountability, and frustration with little change, it's easy to give up and go work at Denny's.

But, if He called me to it, He'll get me through it, right?

Posted by: Monica | Jul 11, 2005 11:39:11 AM

My heart was really touched by your article and I learned a great deal. I recently graduated from Bible College, and while in school and holding down a full-time job, I helped plant a church in Virginia. People can be very tough on ministers. I got hurt a bit, and after graduation, found myself sitting on the sidelines, replaced by others. I didn't stay down though. I sought God deeper through long prayer walks and soon found myself working in two very different ministries. My friend, do not give up. Draw strength from Romans 11:29, and the life experiences of Elijah. I have been greatly encouraged by ministers like you and am pleased to finally be part of your team. God bless you for your sacrifices! We win in the end!

Posted by: roger | Jul 16, 2005 12:43:47 PM

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