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Who Stole My Pastorate?

By Steve Ingram.

Jonas knew he was in trouble, but was confused about how it had happened. He was fifty-eight years of age and had been pastoring for the last twenty-three, but he was now feeling completely out of his depth. His church was unhappy with his leadership and his preaching. He had entered ministry, after a successful career as a shoe salesman, at the behest of his pastor and members of the church. His dad had been a pastor, a great orator, and Jonas had never pushed himself forward for ministry because he was gifted differently from his father. His gifting was more along the shepherding and caring line, and that had been embraced for much of his pastoral career. In the last few years things had changed, everything seemed to be moving faster and people were demanding more and more from him in terms of direction and leadership. People in his church came back from holidays and talked about how other churches were attracting large crowds, using multimedia and trying new and radical ideas. Some others talked about the sermons they were downloading and how he needed to modernise his preaching style. The final straw for Jonas was when a young couple, who sometimes came to his church threatened to take out a restraining order to keep him away from their son in intensive care. They accused him of poking his nose in where it wasn’t wanted. Jonas felt confused and like he was behind the times. He was worried about getting another position if this one didn’t work out. It felt as though someone had stolen his pastorate.

Apart from a few details which might otherwise identify him, Jonas’s story is true and he is not alone. Something has changed in the expectations people have of those in pastoral ministry. These brief musings are an attempt to reflect on the trends in pastoral ministry over the last fifty years.

Before we launch, this type of reflection needs to be qualified on two significant fronts. Firstly, the issue of bias: my personal memories and experience only span some of the period under consideration. Although I have thoughts of my own and second-hand experience of the preceding years, the limitations are obvious. The second issue is geographical. These reflections are centred on one locality and denomination. Although there are likely to be hybrid siblings to these thoughts in other places and denominations, they are based in one setting and people in other places will have to verify their wider validity.

With that having been stated, here are three broad changes which regularly affect the microcosm of local ministry:

  • A new type of congregational government.
  • Leadership now trumps pastoral care.
  • Everything is complicated now.

A New Type of Congregational Government

In the arena of congregational decision making there has been a significant change of attitude. In 1991 Barna reported that 72 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-five do not believe that absolutes exist.[1] Although this truth has been with us for so long, over twenty years later we operate in our local churches as though this has no relevance. The conclusion has been falsely drawn that because Christians do believe in absolute truth, society’s view is irrelevant to our faith and church practice. The problem that arises is one of cultural dissonance, with younger generations of church-going believers willing to accept the absolutes of scripture and faith, but unwilling to allow leadership to operate with the belief that it always occupies the high moral ground.[2]

Our local Baptist history is one of the modernist mindset, enamoured and defensive of rational truth, enacting decision making through the grid of robust, cognitive debate. More than one truth would be expounded by those of opposing factions and, through the power of rational debate, a congregation or group could decide future direction. This is only effective if your presupposition included the notion of approximating absolute truth. Although those in such a system will argue that it is simply a matter of finding a way forward through consensus, the mode of arriving at a conclusion relies on the principle of discovery through arguable truth.

Out of all the changes of thinking that have come with the recognition of postmodern thought, leading the list of conflict from early on has been the issues of education and moral instruction,[3] the lifeblood of what we practise in our expression of church. We need to acknowledge that the way we have practised congregational government is a small subset of how it is practised across the world[4] and, without compromising our core mandate, start to make some changes.

Our dilemma remains that the leadership of our local churches is representative of older generations (primarily Baby Boomers, born 1945-65 and their predecessors) and lacks the influence of younger voices and opinions. Although a generalisation, it remains mostly true that this has not been an issue of Boomers wanting to retain power so much as the following generation (dubbed Gen-X) being unwilling to commit to the discipline and rigour of leadership. The end result is that the Boomer leaders of our churches have defaulted to what has worked in the past and have practised a version of congregational government that has alienated younger generations.

This alienation has stemmed primarily from the nature and mode of decision making and direction setting. The notion that meetings are necessary for ‘members’ to gather and robustly argue differences of opinion is seen by younger generations as unhelpful and unnecessarily divisive. The preferred mode of decision making for those in younger age groups would involve consultation, informed discussion and collegial consensus. This is because most in the younger age groups have little or no interest in the micro-management of previous models. Rather, they lean towards newer governance models where decisions are appropriately made by those who have been elected or appointed for that very purpose.

Consultation involves the collection of thoughts, opinions and information relevant to the decision being considered. Doing this in the background, without the emotion often attached to congregational meetings, allows for a compromised outcome and avoids the manipulation and grandstanding of articulate individuals.

Informed discussion, although the aim of current practice, differs in two key elements. Divorcing discussion from the point of decision making is believed by younger people to give opportunity for giving opinions and inputs without decisions being made rashly or emotively. The other advantage of informed discussion is seen to be the ability to draw in expertise and allow individuals to speak in a less pressurised environment. We know anecdotally that the larger a discussion becomes (in terms of participants) the less people participate. Breaking into small groups, without the pressure of making a decision on the spot, allows for informed input to be heard and included in the decision making process. From the perspective of our underlying commitment to the notion of a theocracy, this allows time and space for prayer and the seeking of God’s will in a way that is sadly absent from most congregational meetings.[5]

Collegial decision making is the process by which a decision is made by those who are best equipped for the process, with a deep commitment to the best interests of the congregation or group. In a democracy each voice has equal weight, while in a theocracy one voice, the voice of God, has ultimate weight. Leaders who are called on to lead the decision-making process need to rely on the wisdom and direction of God, having been fully informed of the issues and implications of the choices before them. This is increasingly important in a world beset by compliance and complex issues, where leaders need a growing level of information and competency. In most healthy settings, decisions are made by competent, well-informed, congregationally elected leaders who act in the best interests of the congregation or group.[6]

For churches that are committed to keeping younger people involved in their ministries and leadership it will be necessary to take into account this seismic change in attitude towards decision making and direction setting. Those who choose to ignore this shift in attitude will likely pay a sizable toll in future participation and attendance.

Leadership Now Trumps Pastoral Care

People still want to be cared for and they still insist on good preaching, but the dominant expectation of most churches is that their pastor will lead them. In a bygone era, oration was valued more highly than in current times. In a social setting which saw Martin Luther King orate his famous speeches and when political debate was more than a sound bite, churches embraced the necessity for their pastor to have oration skills. Many social issues were not part of public discussion, understanding of mental health was still emerging as an area of science and the world seemed more straightforward. For most pastors, practising ministry in these decades, the expectation was that they would visit congregational members in their homes and hospitals when needed, and although they were on the frontline of grief and death, most other issues faced were relatively uncomplicated. In this environment, churches naturally looked for a key leader who could articulate biblical truth and reinforce that which was understood (by those inside and outside of the church) as being the moral fabric of society. In the 1960s, great oration was seen as inspiring leadership.

Michael Quicke states that the decline of belief in preaching began in the 1960s[7] and

“during the 1970s there was a greater emphasis on counselling ministry, followed by an emphasis on church growth and leadership skills through the 1980s and into the 1990s.” [8]

The progression from preacher to counsellor, and then to leader, has been an issue of great consternation for those in pastoral ministry. For those who trained with the primary role of preacher in mind, it is difficult and unfair that, during their tenure in ministry, the expectation should change so radically without re-training or help with the re-orientation. In our present situation, it is mostly those who were trained in the era where counselling or pastoral care were held as high values that are struggling with the movement towards leadership. In the 1980s in particular, there was a push for those in frontline ministry to expand their competency by adopting church growth principles while others, in a more defensive mode, refused the transition and continued to point out the shortcomings of the church growth movement.

If it is true that the emphasis moved during the 1980s and 1990s towards leadership, it would be fair to assume that this should have become a straightforward training issue and our institutions and other leadership training would account for this move. Although this has happened to some degree, it has been slowed by the subtle shift in expectation around the type of leadership that is most helpful. This movement of expectations further complicates a local pastor’s ability to discharge the duty expected of them.

The embracing of church growth principles in the late 1970s and 1980s brought with it the notion of ‘leadership competency’, with most people believing that learning designated principles would translate into successful ministry. During this era, books like Callaghan’s Twelve Keys to an Effective Church[9]gave the impression that it was a skills-based exercise. Authoritarian or expert-driven leadership was more highly prized as churches struggled with their environment and discovered they were lost. This concept began to change in the 1990s and has led into a new type of leadership that is valued in the 2000s. Mediating leadership[10] which directs through influence and draws on experience and knowledge as background tools has become the new standard. This type of leader has emotional intelligence and is able to draw people along without having to resort to authoritarian force. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence writes:

“The artful use of humour typifies effective leadership. That doesn’t mean that you should avoid disagreements or conflicts. But the best leaders have a sense of when spending time airing grievances will be useful and when it will not.” [11]

This raises the question of what will be valued in the future. An answer begins to emerge as we examine not just the observable change through these three eras, but try to appreciate what underlies these changes.

Haddon Robinson ascribes some of the decline in interest in preaching to the introduction of new modes of mass media,[12] while Stott notes some of the cause as being anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional sentiment.[13] Well known futurist, M Rex Miller, concurs with Robinson,[14] claiming the changes in ministry style and opportunity closely follows technological advances. There are obviously a myriad of external factors that go part of the way towards explaining these changes, but there does appear to be some overarching commonality in the shifts.

In the 1960s, when old rules and traditions were being challenged, it was natural for people to look towards authoritarian, articulate figures for oration to help them deal with their changing world. The 1970s saw the introduction of technology in new and expansive ways, issues of psychological and relational wellbeing were surfacing and people looked towards the church for care that allowed them to cope and adapt to the changes they faced. The 1980s saw the rise of technical competence and the doors were open like never before to missional opportunities on the home front. This was compounded into the 1990s and 2000s when the growing complexity of life and the plethora of competing voices increased and people looked for clear leadership from the church to help make sense of a rapidly changing world and new expectations and roles. If the working hypothesis encapsulated in these thoughts is correct, we can start to predict the next role of the church by asking the question: “In what mode will assistance with change be delivered in the future?”

Advocates for preaching, like Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Manhattan and well-known author, might argue for a return to oration as the answer. It would seem the answer is slightly more complex. Anecdotally, current generations are responding to the clarity of purpose and meaning that preachers like Keller bring. This clarity brings about life change. Keller asserts that revival happens through prayer, understanding and applying the gospel and allowing the Spirit of God to act.[15] It is interesting that, even in Keller’s thought, the underlying function is about revival and change, not about the preaching per se.

The hypothesis, then, becomes that people will look for purpose and direction through clarity and application to help them adjust to change. The medium through which that change will take place should inevitably reflect the societal change happening around them and the transformation that God’s Spirit leads them through as disciples. Although the hypothesis needs more road testing and rigorous examination than given here, it may provide a starting point for looking forward.

Everything is Complicated Now

Closely related to the last transition is the concept of dealing with complexity. Pastoral ministry is no longer a simple proposition. From changing expectations of church attenders, to the complexity of law and government regulations (tax, employment, building codes, licences, insurance, public liability, professional liability), to the changes that multimedia brings and the growing complexity of personal issues, the role of pastor is undergoing significant change and growing complexity.

So, how do we lead in a complex environment? We know that we can’t eliminate complexity (it is intrinsic to the world around us); we know we can’t settle for simple answers (they don’t work); and we know that ignoring it will leave us out of touch with those we are leading and trying to reach.

The solution: aim for clarity rather than simplicity. The ability to explain the complex in simple, clear terms is an essential leadership skill. Complexity can actually provide much satisfaction and flexibility when combined with clarity.

Church leadership is complex by nature.[16] Mostly, we lead through influence, not power, and so we spend much of our time investing in relationships, collaboration and processes that allow large amounts of diverse input. Joseph Badaracco, professor of business ethics at Harvard Business School, characterises successful leaders this way:

“As individuals, these men and women were modest and unassuming, sceptical or shrewdly realistic, and had a healthy sense of their own self-interest. They weren’t charismatic, had little power and didn’t see themselves as leaders in the conventional sense. Their idea of taking action was working behind the scenes—patiently, carefully, and prudently.[17]

To make our leadership sustainable and enjoyable, we need to work diligently at introducing clarity. Power, charisma, and conventional stereotypes are far less effective when compared with clear, patient intent. We need to think about how we can make our decision-making processes and people’s roles and responsibilities clear. Clarity is the best remedy for complexity.

Leaders who can operate in the midst of complexity, and can articulate and plan with clarity, are now highly sought after by churches and other ministries. This higher-order thinking has become not just a luxury for leadership roles, but a necessity.


For each of us who identify with Jonas and his disappearing pastorate, we remind ourselves that ministry is given by God to all believers and as we listen to his voice and give up our sense of ownership and control, God’s Spirit will guide our vocations and the details of our daily steps.

The three changes surveyed here are not the only ones in the last fifty years of ministry, but they are certainly significant. Each transition requires that those who now take up the mantle of frontline pastoral ministry need to be lifelong learners more than ever before. Learning new skills, adapting old skills and being led by God’s Spirit who urges constant transformation, pastors need to commit to managing change in their own life so that they might be effective in leading others on a similar journey.

Steve Ingram spent 24 years in pastoral and denominational ministry, and now offers training, coaching and consultation, specialising in leadership and organisational health.

[1] George Barna, The Barna Report, (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1991).

[2] This inconsistent appropriation of postmodern truth is a symptom of the fact that postmodernism is not entirely aligned with Christian thought, in the same way that modernism falls short. But like all secular frameworks it does influence the practise and at times, the belief systems, of those who hold to Christian thinking. See Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, Turning Point Christian world-view Series (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1994), 43.

[3] Walt Anderson, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990).

[4] Edward Le Roy Long, Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 118-119.

[5] This may be a product of the underlying attitude that congregational polity is derived from the notion of democracy rather than theocracy. Theocracy is built on the concept of ‘the priesthood of all believers’ which leaves democracy as a poor second cousin at best.

[6] Well-known mediation ministry PeaceMakers have stated that ‘thousands of churches in the USA are sued every year’ Another American lawyer has made the anecdotal quote that ‘37 percent of discrimination cases filed are against non-profits such as a church’.

[7] Michael J. Quicke, 360-Degree Preaching: Hearing, Speaking, and Living the Word (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 2003), 40.

[8] Ibid., 41.

[9] Kennon L. Callahan, Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983).

[10] Mark Gerzon expands on this type of leadership and gives examples of the changing nature of acceptable leaders. Mark Gerzon, Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, Leadership for the Common Good (Boston: Harvard Business School, 2006).

[11] Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results (London: Little, Brown, 2002), 41.

[12] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 16.

[13] John R. W. Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), 55. Many people argue similarly to Stott when trying to make sense of the postmodern mindset change. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls this the bias of ‘accessible memory’. Our mind tends to create the story which is most comfortable based on the facts that come most readily to mind. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 1st ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[14] M. Rex Miller, The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).

[15] Timothy J. Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 73-76.

[16] Although books like Simple Church purport to have simple answers they actually help because they create clarity and streamlined ideas that can help to organise and reframe complex issues. They bring clarity not simplicity. See Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 2006).

[17] Joseph Badaracco, Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing (Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 7.

Steve Ingram

Free-lance Baptist church consultant in Western Australia

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You are reading Who Stole My Pastorate? by Steve Ingram, part of Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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