Ministry, Money, and Power: What’s at Stake for Pastors

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While in seminary I read a lot of job descriptions for pastors and letters from search committees. They usually consisted of bullet point lists that were about as long as any other job description. However, as I read these lists I realized I wasn’t qualified for these openings.

In fact, I’m not even sure if Jesus would have been qualified for the positions at most churches.

I’m sure that someone was eventually hired, but I’m equally certain that whoever took on this mantle of “pastor” let his/her congregation down pretty quickly. Perhaps letting a congregation down is the best thing a pastor can do, since it forces everyone to talk about their expectations and abilities.

There are no simple solutions here that I know of. I wouldn’t dare offer a one-size fits all solution. However, I can offer a few thoughts on what we should aspire for in our pastors and some dangers to avoid.

What Pastors Must Do: Managing Direction

A pastor keeps a group of Christians pointed in the right direction. That applies to big picture stuff and to smaller groups and ministries in our churches. This is a huge task to fulfill, and I know many pastors who do this well.

However, some congregations expect their pastors to do a lot more than this. Whether they’re from a pastor’s personal expectations or a congregation’s expectations, these can contribute to burn out.

The Pastor as A Jack of All Spiritual Trades

Pastors are usually one of two kinds of people: leaders of people or managers of people, both of whom love teaching the Bible and praying for people. However, most churches want a visionary leader/manager/counselor/custodian/communications manager/whatever else needs to be done.

I grew up in a church that had a head pastor and counseling pastor, which struck me as one of the smartest things a church could do. 

The Pastor is Responsible for All Spiritual Growth

Most people go to church hoping to be “fed” in some way. We want something spiritually significant to happen each Sunday, and that is a huge burden that pastors have to carry. In addition, our church service formats place all of the emphasis on the pastor to make it happen.

That is one of the reasons why I don’t put a lot of stock in Sunday meetings. I prefer to view church as a bring your own lunch, with the pastor responsible for preventing a food fight.

Most Churches Want a Visionary, Big-Picture Pastor Who Does Stuff

You can spot a manager pastor by looking at his to-do list. Is he/she involved in every committee in a hands-on capacity? Does he/she take on smaller tasks that should actually be delegated? I’ve found that many churches want a visionary pastor who can see the big picture, but they may feel slighted if that pastor isn’t involved in a hands-on way like the manager pastor.

The visionary pastor and manager pastor are two very different people. A visionary pastor will be more hands off, while a managing pastor will be more hands on. Expecting both qualities in the same person will lead to burn out.

The Pastor Serves “Us” or Else

The hardest part of being a pastor is being placed in a position where he/she must challenge or confront a congregation to move in a new direction. When I look at the ministry of Jesus, he spent a lot of time telling his followers what they didn’t want to hear. Can you imagine what we would say to him today?

“Why do you keep talking about going to Jerusalem so you can put us and yourself in danger? Talk sense Jesus!”

Any pastor who suggested the possibility of death in Jerusalem wouldn’t have a salary for long.

And that’s the problem: our pastors serve US. If they don’t give US what we want, we can cut them loose. Even worse than that, if pastors don’t meet our unrealistic expectations, we may view them as failures.

Maybe some pastors have issues. I’m not here to discuss that. All that I can see for certain is we pay some very ordinary people very little to do some very extraordinary work—work that requires incredible dependence on God.

The fact that most congregations have some kind of financial power over their pastors is perhaps inevitable. I don’t know if there’s a better way to compensate pastors through freewill offerings or some kind of tent making hybrid—I’m sure there are advantages and disadvantages.

However we set up our compensation for pastors, we need to remember that we are putting quite a lot of pressure on the men and women who serve as pastors and that we hold tremendous power over them. This is a power we can use to bless or to curse.

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3 thoughts on “Ministry, Money, and Power: What’s at Stake for Pastors

  1. Jeremy Myers

    Money, authority, power, and control are the key elements, I believe, that drive much of the modern ways of doing church. This actually is the theme of the book I am working on, and your guide to getting published is helping me move toward publishing.

    Thanks for this post, and for your book!

  2. Ray Hollenbach

    You’re on such a roll, Ed. There’s much to admire in this post and several lately:

    * “I’m not even sure if Jesus would have been qualified for the positions at most churches.” We have mistaken academic achievement for spirituality. Neither Jesus nor any of his twelve would be qualified to teach in a seminary today. Only Paul might qualify, and he understood that his past studies had blinded him to Jesus–until he had an encounter with the Lord.

    * “The fact that most congregations have some kind of financial power over their pastors is perhaps inevitable.” Inevitable, but probably wrong. How can anyone shepherd the souls of those who hold the power to “hire and fire?” My favorite example of a free pastor was a man who had a good retirement package so he took no salary from the church. He told people, “I’m the chief volunteer.”

    We in the U.S. need to discover that the American Way (as much as I love it) is not fully God’s way.

  3. Tim

    I agree with Ray – some great writing there – nice job Ed.

    I feel as though I am among the many in the thick of it. While I do think there is a balance of vision and execution even for “big-picture” leaders, too many churches are organized in such a way that the pastor has no more time or energy left to vision cast or create any more than he already does.

    This is very much due to the whole consumer culture that has been created and that is your “pastor responsible for all spiritual growth and feeding the people” point.

    The compensation issue is one that we are struggling with right now, especially as it pertains to our health insurance (a very high deductible).
    That said, I have also seen in it work the other way where a senior pastor is well-compensated, well-positioned and leverages his authority against the church in so many words. As in the church is always serving him and his ego rather than his talents serving the church and the community for the sake of the Kingdom.

    I am not sure what the solutions are either but I appreciate the post and hope God can use our generation to do some good.

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