A Letter to the Pastor With Little Authority
I hope this letter finds you well.
As you likely know, there is a focus on leadership at the forefront of most church growth initiatives today. As there should be! The value of consistent and strategic leadership should be prioritized by every organization. As John Maxwell taught us decades ago, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
While I certainly believe this with all of my heart, I also want to acknowledge the situation of thousands of leaders who have the title of leader but haven’t been given the authority to function as the leader.
I find this is especially true in the vast majority of our small and mid-size churches throughout America. Many pastors, or shepherds, spend a great deal of time in a state of frustration and discouragement because their church’s organizational structure basically strips them of the ability to bring about positive change.
Maybe you’re in that situation yourself.
In some cases, the pastor is quite content to carry out the expectations of their congregation in order to maintain the status quo and not rock the boat. The passive pastor is not who I’m referring to today. Jesus alluded to the non-engaged shepherd in John 10:11-14:
“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He's only in it for the money. The sheep don't matter to him. I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me.” (MSG)
The New King James Version calls this pastor a hireling. A pastor with a hireling mentality will allow the church to eventually run off the cliff of irrelevancy. They are more concerned about job security than Kingdom advancement!
Sadly, religious tradition has erroneously perpetuated the concept that true biblical shepherding is best exemplified by appointed leaders who carry out the will of the people. However, nothing could be further from the truth! According to Ephesians 4:11 -12, the number one responsibility of a pastor is to equip the saints:
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (NJKV)
Simply put, if you are called to be a pastor, then you are called to be an equipper.
What Can I Do?
So let’s bring this to your context.
What should you do if you find yourself in a quandary of knowing what you are called to do but serving a congregation that has expectations in the opposite direction? In other words, you want to be an equipper, but they want a hireling! What can you do?
Here are some practical suggestions to help you navigate this situation in order to bring about a positive outcome:
1) Pray before you proclaim!
Many pastors move too quickly in attempting to change a church’s organizational structure. Announcing your intention to be the “new sheriff in town” most likely won’t work. Typically, using this approach will lead you to be looking for a new job soon after arriving at the church.
I’m going to assume that you and your spouse prayed diligently before you accepted the new church position. As difficult as it may be, I encourage you to stick it out before automatically sending out your resume and emotionally checking out! Consider that Jesus sent you there to bring about change. However, He is the only one who can change hard hearts. Cry out to Him to use you to help the church in becoming healthy and reaching your community. Then, follow through with what He tells you in humility.
2) Cultivate relationships with the main influencers.
The immediate pushback that accompanies this concept is the assumption that I’m asking you to be a manipulative politician. However, this is simply not the case. Manipulation and politicking flow out of an agenda to get your way at all costs. Cultivating relationships, however, requires communication from an open heart with the authentic motive of wanting to develop a team.
I imagine that many of the leaders who oppose pastoral authority are driven by one of two things:
- They have always done it this way! They likely aren’t even aware that the current system isn’t biblical. (I wrote an article titled “Can Congregationally Led Churches Be Healthy” that speaks to this in more detail.) These leaders hold to the mantra of “we’ve always done it this way!”
- They have been hurt by abusive leadership in the past. Like it or not, the consequences of division in the church has long-lasting effects. When a church goes through a division or split, the pastor moves on. But the congregation is left to try and hold things together. Naturally, the congregation looks to the influencers in the church for stability and answers.
So, in some cases, the current opposition to releasing pastoral authority to you today is grounded in a situation that happened decades ago. Churches often don’t remember why they do things the way they do. But some intensive research may reveal a deep wound from the past.
Cultivating relationships with the main influencers provides an avenue for you to reveal your heart as well as an opportunity to develop key friendships necessary for effective leadership. Trust is a must! However, it will not happen without intentionality.
3) Help the church define its mission.
Nothing creates more of a win/win than the leader helping the congregation discover its purpose! Take the time to help your leaders discover “why” their church exists. Show them they have a specific purpose as a whole as well as individual gifts that help the church accomplish its mission. There is much greater “buy-in” when everyone understands the mission of the church.
4) Strategically begin implementing the equipping leadership model.
Start slowly, but strategically, helping the congregation to make the shift to become an equipping church in how it operates. Begin assuming the “equipper” role in one area. I suggest you pick an area such as leadership development, defining a clear discipleship path, or effective evangelism as a starting point. You want to pick an area that can create positive momentum as soon as possible.
To help you know which area to pick first, answer this question: “Where do we need the greatest W.I.N.?”
W - What’s
I - Important
An example of a W.I.N. would be developing a great children’s ministry or creating a great website. The W.I.N. will help create the momentum necessary for change as you address the most urgent issue you are facing. Simply put, those you lead will tend to follow you better when they experience the benefit of the leadership win you led them to!
5) Model growth!
You will earn great credibility when you set the example of learning, changing, and growing. Far too often, I find that we as leaders ask our followers to do things that we aren’t willing to do ourselves! It’s alright to let people know that you don’t have all of the answers. However, it’s not alright to avoid doing anything about it! There is more information available today to help your church than ever before.
Let me suggest a few items we have at 95Network:
1st - Consider taking your team through VisionBox. VisionBox is designed to equip the pastor as the facilitator of the materials. Taking your leadership team through VisionBox will help create conversation around important topics necessary for growth.
2nd - Consider hosting a VisionDay planning retreat. This is a great opportunity to gather your leaders together for one day to discuss things like mission, vision, discipleship, who you are trying to reach, and many more important topics. The facilitator of VisionDay serves as a conversational guide to help you navigate these important issues in a healthy and productive way.
3rd - Join 95Network Membership. 95Network members have access to materials designed specifically to encourage and inform leaders of small churches. All of the content is designed with the small church in mind!
4th - Listen to The 95 Podcast. We are producing podcasts each week covering a variety of topics pertinent to problems in small churches. The leaders we interview offer a wide range of perspectives that come from decades of experience.
6) Love and lead your family well.
There is nothing you can do that will gain more respect from those you lead than to put your family first! Paul says to Timothy in 1 Timothy 3:4-5,
“He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?" (NIV)
In his book, The Success Journey: The Process of Living Your Dreams, John Maxwell describes success as “having those closest to me love and respect me the most.” This is such a great definition of success! However, there’s an obvious problem here. The problem is that most small churches have unrealistic expectations for their pastor’s time that actually competes with a pastor having a healthy family! This reality is why you have to make your marriage, children, and physical health an absolute priority in your life. Failing to do so will not only result in eventually losing the respect of those you lead, it will also lead to losing your family! It’s not worth paying that high of a price.
You may be in a situation today where you have the title of leader but not the authority to lead. Yes, this is a tough situation. However, it’s not impossible! The situation will not resolve itself if left unchallenged. Navigating your way through it will require an intentional plan that has been heavily prayed over, thoroughly strategized, and slowly implemented.
Consider today that Jesus may have placed you in your current situation for such a time as this! Please don’t hesitate to respond to this letter if we can be a source of encouragement or guidance. We are pulling for you more than you know!