Raising the pastor-church relationship bar

When pastors and churches enter into a relationship, both parties arrive with their own set of expectations. Some of these expectations are spelled out in the letter of call, but in fact these often use broad brushstrokes which leave significant room for interpretation. But this simple reality is not the real challenge. What makes these relationships such a challenge is the fact that expectations are often unspoken, unwritten, sometimes unrealistic and often unmet. And while the expectations we have for pastors or churches are often not communicated well enough, sometimes we (and this includes pastors, church councils and congregants) have not even articulated the expectations for ourselves. They function as the undercurrent, informing our thoughts and feelings and judgments without benefitting from being thought through.

The official letter of call has remained relatively unchanged for many, many years. Long ago, a range of expectations applied rather consistently to any Christian Reformed situation. A pastor would prepare two sermons each week, preach Sunday morning and evening, visit the sick, teach catechism classes and chair Council meetings. It was also understood that after four to seven years, the pastor would receive a call to another church and move on. If a pastor and congregation did well together, there was the understanding that the relationship would not be forever; if a pastor and congregation did not do so well together, there was the understanding that the relationship would not be forever.

Gradually, short-term tenures grew longer: the accepted wisdom was that staying longer allowed for time to work through challenges, rather than simply walk away from them. It provided more continuity and stability. It would allow both pastors and congregations to grow and mature. Indeed. But the pendulum has now swung the other way, and one of the challenges which has become evident is pastors and congregations discovering that the “best-before” date has expired during a longer stay together, and though a call is desired by a pastor or congregation, it may not be forthcoming. The willingness of pastors and congregations to be patient enough to endure the wait for a call has decreased. This is but one example of what has changed for pastors, churches and the relationship between the two.

Expectations of all kinds have been shifting among pastors and within congregations. And the culture we live in is also shaping our identity, language, thoughts and desires. See the sidebar below for some observations of what has changed for pastors and for congregations over the past 35 years.

A key expectation challenge experienced in the pastor-church relationship may be summarized in a single word: leadership. Does this have to do with shepherding, with preaching, with casting a vision or with directing an organization? Is it about substance, style or both? Unspoken, unacknowledged assumptions give birth to expectations of many kinds. Another background change impacting this relationship is that familiarity with Christian Reformed history, practices and church polity has diminished and is often disregarded. Council Executive committees often function as de facto Councils, which is a nod to business efficiency rather than sound ecclesiology.

The past 35 years have seen massive changes in culture as well. Christian Reformed congregations are so much more diverse than they were. Technology has impacted worship in terms of singing, announcements, preaching styles. But even more, technology in the form of social media is impacting the experience and nature of community, blurring the line between virtual and real. There has also been a persistent and insidious impact of a consumer and narcissistic mindset: faith and church have been reduced to commodities. It’s as if the church must now earn the loyalty of its members by providing adequate services. The local church has moved from the centre of societal life to the outskirts.
Great expectations/expectations grate
The impact of these changes is that there is less patience all around in responding to pastoral deficiencies and congregational deficiencies. Pastors are less patient with congregations, and congregational members are less patient with pastors and also with each other.

The point is this: because so much in our lives as individuals, families, congregations and society has been changing, the matter of expectations is a key way to engage the challenge of all these changes. When expectations are unspoken, unwritten, potentially unrealistic and often unmet, the way to sort this through is by way of conversation. We need to talk.
We’ve actually always needed to talk about these things, and there have been provisions for such conversation right in our church polity. But we haven’t always had those conversations, and when we’ve had them, we’ve not done them well or regularly. We need conversations that are gracious, candid and ongoing. And given the increased pressure on pastor-church relationships, we need these conversations more regularly, with greater grace and with greater candor than ever before. As much as the bar has been raised for what we expect from pastors, and from congregations (and for what we seemingly expect from ourselves and for ourselves), the bar needs to be raised in terms of how we tend this relationship.

Sometimes when we speak about expectations, we frame the conversation in terms of rights. What may I/we rightfully expect of each other? The challenge is to identify our expectations together, to hear each other well and then to discern how these expectations may be honoured and/or adjusted. Developing communal practices of prayerful discernment and an atmosphere of hospitality towards each other is key, right from the moment a relationship begins. What if pastors were also asking what they should expect of themselves so as to help a congregation flourish? What if congregations and church councils were also asking what they should expect of themselves so as to help their pastor flourish?

How might we expect much of ourselves, and much of each other, with the underlying desire to love and bless each other? Hard conversations will still be necessary, but when they are part of longer, more frequent conversations that are persistently gracious and candid, we all benefit. Relationships are never simple. They require tending, and an alertness to the Spirit’s stirring. There are beginnings and endings, and rewards of blessing each other, and being blessed by each other along the way – even if sometimes, when iron sharpens iron, there is friction.


  • Cecil Van Niejenhuis works for Pastor-Church Relations, engaging the stories of pastors, councils and congregations where they intersect within the still greater Story.

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