In the introduction of 21st Century Strategies for Church Growth, my primary purpose is helping a pastor decide whether or not they can handle the heat in the kitchen of church growth. The following excerpt challenges each reader to question themselves about why they’re in ministry in the first place. It comes across as a bit harsh… but not nearly as harsh as what they’ll face if they charge ahead into the world of church growth.

Career or Call?

I suspect that if you’ve read this far [the former section that introduces church growth], you’re experiencing one of two phenomena. Either your adrenaline is kicking in and your heart’s racing, or your skeptic-meter has pegged all the way to max. If you’re of the former, let me invite you to dust off that skeptic-meter for a moment, because even with effective church growth strategies, growing a church is hard work and risky business. In fact, it’s such a daunting task, especially when you’re in the midst of successfully growing your church, that I’ve got to ask a core question before you launch a church growth initiative: Are you in ministry because it’s a career or because it’s a call?

When I’ve asked that question in clergy groups, I see dismayed faces around the tables with eyes that demand, “How dare you!?!” as if I’ve personally cast aspersions on everyone present. But I’m asking you nonetheless because if you opt in to the twenty-first century church growth strategies, you’re almost certainly going to singlehandedly launch a firestorm in your church. Things are going to get uncomfortable for your congregation, for your leaders, and especially for you. Effective church growth is a high-stress endeavor that will sap the life out of any but the most committed leaders. In fact, it often creates so much discontent in the church that the congregation’s leaders turn against the pastor. What happens next is the core of the career/call question.

Pastors who are confident that God has called them to the church to lead a ministry of transformation and growth will reach inside and find the strength and fortitude to buck up and continue the hard work. These pastors are willing to do “whatever it takes” (cf., 1 Cor 9:19–22) to continue effectively leading the church to faithful and sustainable growth that transforms the community. They turn to their mentor and/or their coach. They take a couple days off to heal. Or they dig in and hit it hard on the morrow. These pastors are so certain of their calls that they’re willing to risk their reputations, their careers, and yes, even their pensions in order to face down their opposition for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is a fact that some of these pastors may end up as denominational fodder while others may be sent packing by the church council, board, or session. But when they leave, they can do so with their conscience clear and their head held high.

Pastors who have come to professional ministry under the misguided and deluded notion that it’s a great way to make a living and/or those committed to climbing the “corporate ladder” by using smaller congregations as stepping stones to the next “plum” church handle the stress of church growth differently. Some simply leave. They dust off their résumé, call their bishop, or begin serious networking on LinkedIn. A few face their integrity, realize they made a bad career choice, and change their professions. On the other hand, some pastors capitulate to the church antagonists – the bullies, terrorists, and controllers who will move heaven and hell to maintain the status quo. These pastors generally end up “leading” the church from a comfy leather chair, sequestered in an office where it’s safe and the antagonists can keep them on a shorter leash. In either scenario, the pastor’s career is safe, but the church and the Kingdom have been traded for a façade of harmony and peace (Jer 6:13–15).

There is a third response that a few called pastors encounter. In these cases, the pastor engaged every possible resource available to lead the church to growth. They sought the support of their denomination, their coach, and their mentors. They immersed themselves in the art of effective, faithful, and sustainable church growth. They built alliances within the congregation and spearheaded well conceived and flawlessly executed plans and programs. And yet, the congregational leaders allow every attempt to be undermined and scuttled while the rest of the congregation stands by, offering little more than the occasional murmured objection while watching their church flounder on the rocks. In those rare cases, the pastor must make a decision. They can continue assailing the stone wall or they can take their skills, knowledge, experience, and wisdom with them and seek a church that is not only willing, but able to bear and embrace the labor and travail of transforming their congregation, the lives of the wanderers beyond the church walls, and the core of the community. In these cases, the words in Luke 10:10–11 are instructive.

But take notice of this. Those who are called into this ministry tend to continue in transformational church growth ministry.

 When they’re moved or removed, or when they shake the dust off their feet, they don’t quit. Instead they take what they’ve learned and apply it as they settle into transformational ministry in their next call. Yes, they may take a sabbatical to regroup. What they don’t do is take what they’ve learned and file it under “I’ll never do that again,” succumbing to the temptation of embracing a quiet, safe pastoral career.

All that’s to say this: pastor, if you’re not called to the ministry of transforming the church, there are plenty of congregations who have given up or refuse to let go of the 1950s and are marking time until the last one turns out the light.  But if God’s called you to the ministry of transforming the church for the sake of the Kingdom of God, then lead on.

Question: Have you ever viewed your pastoral calling as a career? Tell us what shifted your perspective in the Comments section below.