Solutions to the Problems with Pastor/Church Management
It seems, whenever and wherever you care to look, the news is full of terrible stories of churches and pastors and their foul deeds. Whether it be financial exploitation to the point of a pastor owning multiple private jets, or sexual exploitation, or very unChristian attitudes to church members who question some of the church and pastor’s statements and views, there are abundant examples to look at and feel awful about.
We’re truly not certain whether this trend is truly a trend; we don’t know if there is a growth in such abuses, or merely a growth in the reporting of them. Sad to say, some of the most disturbing reports are of events dating back decades, and there are even plenty of stories dating back centuries of unGodly behavior by priests and other church officials. So we hope this is not a growing trend, merely more searching coverage of a topic that, in years past, was overlooked by everyone, including the news media.
Whether it is growing, staying the same, or maybe even reducing, it is clearly utterly unacceptable to allow such appalling betrayal to occur, ever, under any circumstance. We have invited the devil into the most sacred and vulnerable parts of our lives, and have allowed him to wear the mantle of the lamb and have chosen not to see beyond that, to the ravenous wolf underneath.
In allowing this to happen, we have complacently ignored the warning we were given about this, when Paul spoke to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28-31) (AMP)
28 Take care and be on guard for yourselves and for the whole flock over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd (tend, feed, guide) the church of God which He bought with His own blood.
29 I know that after I am gone, [false teachers like] ferocious wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
30 even from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse and distorted things, to draw away the disciples after themselves [as their followers].
31 Therefore be continually alert, remembering that for three years, night or day, I did not stop admonishing and advising each one [of you] with tears.
While of course there is nothing that can excuse the actions of the malefactors involved, there’s another group of people who must shoulder and share much of the blame – the enablers. All the people – church members and church officials – who could have interceded, but instead allowed such abuse to occur, and to continue.
And perhaps therein lies the solution and a way to stop this happening in the future. The solution is in equal part getting better pastors, and in holding them more accountable. Both the improved recruiting and the improved monitoring are issues and responsibilities that flow ultimately to all of us as members of our churches.
We suggest there are three areas of improvement to consider.
Better Recruiting of Pastors
This might seem to be a strange problem. Contrary to what some people might perceive, there is an over-abundance of potential pastors out there. Any church that advertises for a new pastor receives a flood of applicants.
Unfortunately, we suggest that while the quantity of applicants is great, the quality is perhaps more variable and uncertain. And, unexpectedly, the abundance of applicants has caused churches to adopt worse rather than better selection processes – they’ve started becoming very obsessive about some aspects of a potential pastor’s background, and using these points of focus to screen out and reduce down the large numbers of applicants.
But are they using the right criteria? We fear, in many cases, they are not.
We are told in the Bible how to select pastors, elders and deacons. Passages in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5 list various attributes. Here are some of the attributes that are mentioned :
- Upright in character
- Respectable and respected
- A good example
- Sexually and maritally faithful
- A good manager of the household
- Financially responsible
- Skillful in teaching
That’s a list of 13 different attributes. Do you notice a curious omission from this list?
You can work your way through all 13 of these attributes, and not a single one of them says “an expert in Christian teachings and Church doctrine holding a relevant Master’s Degree from a recognized institution”. Well, in part, that is because the list is incomplete, but our first point is to note that many church employment committees are overlooking these 13 attributes while focusing in on the easily measured attribute of “Must have a Master’s Degree from a theology college/seminary” or some similar requirement of abstract “book learning” of the Christian belief system.
If we add the Christian type attributes that are mentioned in the Bible, we can add
- Spiritually mature
- Committed to holiness
- Male rather than female (controversial, and we’ll discuss that in a separate article)
Unlike the hierarchical nature of the Jewish church, there was little importance given to being able to recite chapter and verse from the Bible (which of course had not yet been written), or being able to find platitudes and homilies to attach to life’s various challenges, and so on. There was no formal education requirement, and neither does the Bible tell us of a rush to set up seminaries and formal teaching classes in how to become a Christian rather than Jewish priest.
Instead, the Bible seems to suggest the focus should be on finding good people who are comfortable and settled in their faith; people who can humbly lead by example and who can be trusted to honor the responsibilities of their position.
We fear that these days, recruiting committees place too much faith on empty “pieces of paper” – degrees that confirm the person named on the page has attended and successfully completed a course of Bible study and has been tested to conform to some other person’s opinion of how and what they should now interpret their studies. But it says nothing to the character of the person, to his moral probity, to his decency and kindness. It just says that he has managed to earn a degree.
We don’t mean to denigrate degree holders at all (and we have post-graduate degrees ourselves), but we also note that many theology degrees contain a lot of content that has little bearing on what is required to become a pastor. Does one really need to take classes in other religions when we know there’s only one true religion, and all the others are wrong and distractions and irrelevancies? Does studying a couple of years of ancient languages mean that a person can create a better Bible translation than the many translations created as a result of tens of thousands of man-hours of study by people who have studied the original languages for a lifetime?
The other mistake hiring groups make is to overvalue experience. That might sound like a surprising statement to make – we’ll explain. There is a world of difference between a person who has spent, say, ten years in their career, continually evolving and learning and improving in their work, and another person who has also spent ten years in their career, but has not learned a single new thing, and who has been totally closed to benefiting from experiences or adapting/evolving in any form at all.
One person might have learned more and gained more wisdom in ten months – maybe even ten weeks – compared to another person after ten years. But many recruiters don’t test for what the result of time spent in a job has been (that is difficult to do and subjective), merely for the simple calculation of years spent (very simple and seemingly objective).
Churches aren’t recruiting the right people. They are placing too much reliance on formal qualifications and “experience”, because these are things that are easily measured.
Talking about easy measures, some churches also place way too much importance on a pastor’s ability to grow their number of church attendees. This fails to acknowledge the difference between quantity and quality. The emphasis on quantity has seen too many churches focus on growing their audiences by creating entertainment, rather than by growing the number of good Christians, by teaching and preaching the Word of God. We’d rather be in an almost empty and quiet church with five or six good fellow Christians, than in a noisy stadium filled with 15,000 people attending a “Sunday Show” and not a single one of them having accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. And we’d treasure growing a congregation of five Christians by one more equally good Christian to six, than we would increasing the concert attendees from 15,000 to 16,000.
There is a danger that more time and focus is spent on staging and music than on prayer and message, and sadly one of the outcomes of this “entertainment” approach is that the pastors overseeing these shows become like movie stars – and sometimes may become similarly demanding, willful, capricious and unaccountable. Rather than glorifying God, some churches instead glorify their Pastor.
Do you even know how your church recruits its pastor? Or does a new pastor just sort of “magically appear”, having been appointed and transferred/sent to you by a regional bishop or archbishop or some other senior church member or committee?
That leads to the second of our three points.
Better Church Management in General
The world is full of examples of professions that, while requiring great intellect, training, and skills, sadly can’t be trusted to manage and discipline their members. Some of the most “sainted” of professions, where the expectation of highest standards of workmanship are the greatest, are the worst at this. The problem of proving malpractice against a doctor, against an attorney, or of proving wrongdoing against a policeman (not a profession but still a good example) is all well-known. Although in theory you’d think the idea of being tried by one’s peers in matters of professional malpractice would see them as a demanding and restrictive body, the reality is quite the opposite. The peers of a doctor/lawyer/policeman (and so on) tend to be more permissive and lenient than a lay group would be.
This is unexpected, and unfortunate, but it is also clearly true. Sadly, it seems to sometimes apply in religious orders, too.
Another contradiction where reality is the opposite of expectations is that larger church groups often have less “quality control” than smaller ones. Yes, the larger and “better established” churches generally also have larger and more controlling hierarchies, but these hierarchies tend to be comprised of fellow ordained priests, to the point where there is little or no participation in any element of church governance or control of priestly behavior by the lay church members.
We see no support for this type of structure in the Bible. The Bible talks about pastors and elders, but nowhere talks about a multi-layered hierarchy of priests. Instead, as Paul exhorted to the church elders in the quote above, it was the elders of a church who were directly charged with caring for their church and the quality of the teaching and preaching within it.
The elders were not senior priests, located in another town or even another country. The elders could be priests, but as likely as not were simply ordinary members of that local church, not necessarily ordained priests at all.
The Bible both lays out some qualifications for elders, and also obliquely talks about their removal from office (1 Timothy 5:19-25).
Our point here is that each church should be primarily self-governing. We see no harm in central bodies with more resources to coordinate and clarify on major matters of policy, but at an operational level, and when it comes to interactions between the pastor(s) and the church members, these are things that need to be managed locally, by elders, not by fellow priests and senior priests, whether within the local church or in other locations.
We would suggest that the more layers of control and bureaucracy and the more complexities of church doctrine, dogma, and procedure, the more distance the church is placing between their members, their priests, and God. Do the senior church leaders have so little confidence in their frontline priests and in God and his empowering through the Holy Spirit, that they feel they need to get between the Holy Trinity and the priests and parishioners?
If that is indeed the case, the solution is in better hiring of better pastors, not trying to create elaborate structures to compensate for bad pastors.
Which leads to our third point.
Better Monitoring of Pastors
There are two very common elements in many of the scandals that are now surfacing. The first element is that the inappropriate activities – no matter what form they took – were known about by some people within the church hierarchy. Maybe only one or two people knew, maybe many did, but a “conspiracy of silence” seemed to still anyone who wished to denounce the behavior, even to the point that “whistle blowers” risked graver personal consequences within their church community than the person who was doing the bad things.
The second element is that the church hierarchy did not act decisively to stamp out the problem. We can understand – not agree with and not accept, but we can understand – how this sometimes came to pass, and why unacceptable practices and behavior was overlooked and in some form, allowed. When a person is in charge of dozens of churches, their perspective changes.
We have prayerfully tried to understand how this happened – how can “men of God” go so far astray to start with, and how can other “men of God” condone and allow such behavior? We find no easy answer to this other than to realize that neither the person who committed the misdeeds nor the people who allowed it truly are men of God, no matter how elaborate and ornate the ceremonial clothes they wear, and no matter how fancy their titles. (We also see little to support a love of finery and gold are necessary adornments of religious office in the Bible to start with!)
Paul and the other apostles called for churches that were accountable to themselves and to God, and which were in largest part self-managing by their elders. Elders may have been priests and/or teachers as well as church members, but this was not a requirement of becoming an elder.
In the Bible, and in reference to the Christian church in the New Testament, there appears to be very little hierarchy in the church groupings that are described. We’ve found 13 different terms used to describe people participating in the church, plus a number of other terms that are generally synonymous with these 13 terms.
These terms are, in alphabetical order, apostles, brethren, deacons, disciples, elders, evangelists, members, ministers, overseers, pastors, prophets, saints and teachers.
Ephesians 4:11-12 is helpful for listing five of these categories (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers). The other eight terms (brethren, deacons, disciples, elders, members, ministers, overseers and saints) are cited throughout the New Testament. We’re not adding the additional terms that appear only in the Old Testament and in relation to the Jewish faith.
Some translations may use different terms. For example, the term “bishop” in 1 Timothy 3:1 is used in the KJV and some other translations, but is also termed as “overseer” in the ESV and NIV and as supervisor, church leader, or other terms in other versions.
Our point here is that these terms do not represent a hierarchy of different levels of seniority and management. It isn’t like an army with privates, corporals, sergeants, 2nd lieutenants, and so on. These terms/titles are sometimes synonyms, and other times more a case of referring to different specialties or groupings, and a person could sometimes be described by two or three or more of the titles.
In Biblical times it seems that church elders were the leaders and most knowledgeable members of each church group. They have also sometimes been described as overseers, a term which seems to be synonymous with the generic “church leader” term and “elder”. For example, in Titus 1:6-7, and in Acts 20:17, 28 the terms overseer and elder are used interchangeably.
We therefore suggest that a local church should be accountable to its local elders, not to a distant remote bishop or archbishop. When the local church’s overseers/elders/leaders focus narrowly on what is best for their church, and their congregation, it becomes harder to hide behind the fake fiction of “for the good of the church as a whole” as a reason to look the other way and accept extremely damaging behavior by priests. A local church is focused on “the good of its churchgoers as a whole”, and that is the way it surely should be.
The cruel irony and outcome of overlooking some unacceptable behavior “for the good of the church” is that it (of course!) ended up not being good for the church organization as a whole. Quite the opposite; it was and still is much more harmful to the entire institution of the church organization and the trust and credibility it can command in the communities it wishes to be active in.
Even though the Bible is clear about the attributes and qualities that pastors should have, many churches are using the wrong criteria to choose their pastors – criteria that are not only wrong but also without clear Biblical authority or support.
Some churches are now being run like businesses, complete with “business training schools”, and pastors are being processed through the training schools (ie seminaries and theological colleges) and subsequently given jobs and promotions based on measures that have little to do with their Godliness and their pastoral qualities. We mean no disrespect by acknowledging that deacons and other business manager roles benefit from type type of training and structure, but pastoral activities in general seem to us to be different, with the control and checks on pastors coming from the local elders, who are best suited to understand exactly what is happening and why.
A combination of “strong” pastors and “weak” oversight by passive elders is a recipe for disaster. It needs to be replaced with more effective oversight and management.
Just as large monopolies have been found to be harmful to society in general, we find ourselves wondering if large churches might not also have some unavoidable problems too. We’re not saying that large church groups/denominations should be “broken up”, but we are saying that local member churches should be given much greater autonomy and that the regional and national bodies should be reduced to providing support and coordination services only.