Tell the truth while the pulpit is empty

In my youth, pastors moved every five to six years. Their job descriptions were to preach, teach catechism and make pastoral visits. Today, pastors often stay in one church longer and their job descriptions include managing staff, casting vision and attending meetings. The Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of today is hardly recognizable from 50 years ago.
With these changing times come new blessings and new hazards. One of those hazards is the increase in painful separations between pastors and congregations (“Fractured Flocks,” Feb.  2013 CC). A growing body of literature is attempting to address this difficult reality. There is no easy answer, nor one program that will fix things. Longing for the good old days won’t do any good either. Instead, it’s an issue that we need to keep talking about and exploring together.

Even though I will add two articles to this conversation, I have only one point to make. Both the congregation and the pastor have to be intentional about working harder on their relationship. A healthy relationship between pastor and congregation should not be taken for granted, just like a good marriage.

My conviction that hard work is required comes from Ephesians 4, in which Paul argues that holiness and unity are both a gift and a calling from God. A healthy relationship between pastor and congregation is at once a gift of God’s grace in Christ to his church and a result of living out the Christian life. Thus when it goes well we ought to thank God for the gift while we recognize that there is no health in the church if we are not pursuing the Christian life. Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 ought to be chapters read frequently in light of how to live together as church.

The time to start developing a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation begins during what we call “vacancy.” Significant things can happen while there is no pastor. Most importantly, it can be a time of self-evaluation for the congregation. The Pastor-Church Relations Office in Grand Rapids and the Home Missions Office in Burlington have resources for this. Let me suggest two things to keep in mind.

Address the difficult chapters
First, self-evaluation is a time of listening for congregations – both to God and to your fellow members. Listening to God requires examination of the scriptures, particularly what scripture says about the church and the kingdom of God. The church lives out the kingdom of God on this earth, so it is essential to reflect on what the Bible says about both.

As we listen to others in our congregation, we hear their hopes for the church but also their pains and sorrows. Listening binds us together and leads us “to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Many churches have been rent asunder because members are unwilling to submit to one another. Submission begins with listening. Congregational meetings guided by this principle will also remind talkative people to listen.

Secondly, the transition time is a time for truth-telling. Most congregations have unresolved issues from the past – difficult chapters that most people know about but few are willing to address. Why not begin a vacancy period by reviewing the history of the congregation, naming both the good and troubled times? This can also be helpful in the search for a new pastor. Believe me when I say that truth telling is very attractive to pastors. Many pastors will perceive when a search committee and council are not being honest about congregational life.

Listening and truth telling can lead a congregation into new territory. It is possible, by the grace of God, for congregations to develop healthier cultures. Of course, this will take some effort and possibly help from outside, but if we persevere the benefits can be enormous and the kingdom of God will grow.

When the new pastor arrives
Both the congregation and the pastor usually come to the table with their unwritten (often unconscious) ways of doing things. Pastors also come to new congregations with expectations (see adjacent article), some based on their childhood experiences, others learned in school or developed in a previous congregation.

Unwritten rules are not self-evident. They may take several months or even years to surface. A council and pastor do well to pay attention to these things and understand what they are. Don’t let such things become a hindrance to ministry. As a congregation builds its relationship with its pastor, the job description and expectations need to be hauled out and reviewed. I think it is self-evident that the job description is part of the calling process, but once ministry has begun it will be necessary to review and evaluate. A pastor’s ministry is as much rooted in personality as in skills and gifts, thus adjustments will need to be made along the way.

Some churches are working with an annual pastoral review process. This may work, but I suggest that it may be more helpful if there is an ongoing process of evaluating ministry. In my current congregation I give a detailed report to the elders each month and they have opportunity to give directions for the month to come. We built this into our monthly meetings when I arrived and it has worked well for us. An annual evaluation seems odd to me because it suggests some distance between the pastor and the rest of the church leadership. We have tried to build a sense of communal ministry between myself and the council, especially the elders.

In 2005, the Synod of the CRCNA approved “creating and sustaining healthy congregations” as a denominational priority for the decade ahead. As we near the end of that decade, the number of acrimonious separations between pastor and congregation suggest that we cannot cross this off on our to-do list yet. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, as we continue the conversation and encourage one another towards congregational health.

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