The “golden years” of the church, for many key leaders in churches across the US, were the 1950s. Back then “everyone” went to church – and if someone didn’t go to church, they knew they should! Back then, the pastor didn’t get caught up with trying to reach one generation or another. Everyone “liked” the same kind of worship – and if they didn’t it was because a Lutheran had stumbled into a Baptist church or a Presbyterian got lost and visited the Nazarenes.
Back in the ’50s, the pastor’s primary job was to ensure that everyone in the church was well cared for. They made sure there was a well staffed nursery, Sunday school was fully operational, there were adequate potlucks, worship was good, and that every member got some sort of personal touch on a regular basis.
A week in the life of a busy pastor typically found them in one of four places.
- In their office making sure the church was running smoothly (and writing their sermon in between).
- In one meeting or another making sure ministries and programs landed somewhere between adequate and excellent.
- In the hospital or the rest home visiting the infirm.
- In a member’s home visiting with them.
No one worried about church growth back then. No one was worrying about growing their church, because in the 1950s, the members pretty much took care of church growth. The nation was in the midst of a baby boom, and Mom and Dad saw to it that Baby and Junior and Teen came to church every week. There were plenty of kids, lots of moms and dads, and even grandparents were in church – and stayed in church. The church was on autopilot. The pastor took care of the flock and the flock multiplied biologically.
In many (most) churches, if 1950 ever comes back, the congregation is ready!
But 1960 roared into reality and most of those baby boom kids that filled the church’s youth groups turned into rebellious teenagers who fled the trappings of organized religion. The parents didn’t worry about it at first – they “knew” the kids would be back when they had children of their own. That’s just how it worked.
It didn’t work out that way. The Baby Boomers didn’t return to church – and their children were largely raised outside the church. Many of the Gen-X kids got some church experience because they had grandparents who’d take them and their parents weren’t really anti-church. Many of these families did the CEO thing – Christmas and Easter Only.
But Gen-Xers never caught the habit of their grandparents, so when they left home as young adults, they pretty much didn’t bother to keep up much church pretense. And so their children had virtually no church experience.
Today, over 20 percent of the US has no faith foundation at all – that means they’ve not been exposed to or attended worship services of any religion, let alone gone to a Christian church. And the younger the person, the less church experience they have.
So today, your pastor has a different job than the one many in the church remember. Today’s effective pastor is actually way more biblically grounded and faithful than the pastor in the ’50s, at least in the way they approach ministry. Today’s effective pastor understands that the biblical role of the pastor is clearly defined and demonstrated. In Ephesians 4:11–13 Paul defined the primary task of the pastor (and other church leaders):
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)
Notice that the pastor’s primary role is to prepare the church members to do works of service, that is, the ministry of the church. It’s the church members’ job to do most of the things the 1950s pastor took care of. It’s the pastor’s job to recruit, train, deploy, and coach other church leaders to do all those ministries.
Here’s what it looked like in the early church. First, in Acts 2:42–47 we see the results of a church that suddenly grew from 120 to over 3000. Of course the twelve apostles couldn’t take care of everyone, so the church members stepped up and took care of each other and of the church’s ministries.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47)
Notice that the apostles taught and the church members did everything else. But as in all churches, not everything went so smoothly all the time. It turned out that after some time, there was a problem with the first-century food bank. It wasn’t taking care of the Greek widows and their families. Acts 6 shows us how the apostles handled the problem.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. (Acts 6:1–5)
The apostles put the ministry back on the church members. They didn’t step up and fix it. They didn’t start a new program. They didn’t start managing the program or writing procedures. Instead they invited the church to choose some church members who would get the issue taken care of.
The primary job of a pastor today isn’t to take care of the church members. It’s not to manage administration. Today’s pastor has two primary tasks: (1) Raising up and training people like you to do the church’s ministry; and (2) Reaching out to the unchurched people in your community and ushering them into the church by building relationships and having spiritual conversations with them. And yes, that’s your job too – but we know by experience and by biblical example that this is a key pastoral practice.
With this in hand, it’s important for you to support your pastor in these practices – and it’s critical that you and other church leaders find ways to help your pastor hand off ministries that he or she shouldn’t be carrying (such as creating the bulletin and newsletter, updating the website, overseeing VBS, doing hospital and member visitation, etc.). This will allow your pastor to spend more time reaching others for Jesus Christ – and as he or she does, your church will experience increased growth.
Question: What tools and training do you need to be an effective church leader in today’s less-than pro-church culture? Let us know in the Comments section below.
This is a very interesting need and if it does nothing else, I hope that it will encourage Church Members that there are many areas where they could help in different areas of the Church. I have loved all my “jobs” at NLCC and have missed not being able to do them over the past 3 or 4 months.
This article raises some points that are interesting. Consideration needs to be given to the “job description”, or in the case of some demoninations such as the United Methodist Church, the published “duties and responsibilities” of their ordained ministers, that are appointed to serve a local congregation, because what you describe is very different from their role as itinerant pastors, charged with ministering to congregations. The UMC pastors are specifically supposed to visit – IN THE HOMES – of the infirmed and elderly. In fact, I think the description you give for a senior pastor of our churches misses the mark and point of the men that the Apostle Paul left behind in Acts altogether. A pastor of a local church should also model Christ-like servanthood, should model Christ’s love in caring for, and loving all, including the sick, grieving, and to be a spiritual help as people in their congregations go through their ‘valleys’, trials, and troubles of life. If a senior pastor does not posses this love and demonstrate it to his, or her, congregation, they will not be credible and will appear as hypocrites to the Gospel of Christ. This new generation does not want hypocrisy, they can spot it quickly. They crave for authentic Christian descipleship. They will be turned off by anyone who talks to them about their Ned for salvation, but does not demonstrate Christ’s love toward others. Christ couldn’t pass by the suffering or the hungry just to spread His truth. He fed. He healed. He even washed the feet of his twelve.
What you describe is a modern-day evangelist; not a pastor of a local congregation. Evangelists have a bad reputation with young people today because there have been too many inauthentic ones. An evangelist has altogether different gifts and talents than a pastor of a local congregation. The example you give is that of the few, very few, who, during the time of Acts, continued on to spread the gospel after leaving pastors there to teach and care for the new congregations. Not every modern day senior pastor has the gifts and talents to be used by the Holy Spirit to evangelize their communities, their regions, or their world. Senior pastors are not called to necessarily do that, but hopefully they do have the gifts and talents necessary to shepherd, to love deeply, to serve, and to teach those in their community and in their congregations, and by being an example of Christ’s love to others, and as a shepherd and leader in their communities, others will come to salvation in Christ, and many will follow them and also be the hands, the feet, and the heart of Christ in their churches and communities.
I agree, all of us lay people, should also be ministers too. However, this article and your thesis has already apparently mislead one minister of a lcal church that is serving as a local pastor and has confused the different rolls of a special, gifted evangelist, like Peter in Acts and like the Apostle Paul in Acts, and the pastors they left behing to watch over and continue teaching the new congregations of believers that had been planted. I am very troubled by any Christian, especially an ordained minister, that does not have enough of Christ’s love in their hearts to stop, put others first, and be a Good Samaritan, or to love his neighbor more than himself. The world is starving for the authentic, the true, the “Real Deal”! There is nothing more important, and no better way to reach others for Christ than to be the “Real Deal” and serve God by being a pastor of a local congregation, provided that God has called you and equipped you with the gifts and talents to love the people of His Church. I believe you need to rethink your hypothesis, and reconsider the different roles that the leaders actually played during the time of Acts, as compared to what a modern day senior pastor of a modern local church is supposed to do. God bless you, Bob Wood
My guess is you have never led a growing church over 200 or you inherited one over two hundred, but haven’t grown one. I don’t know of any pastor of a large church that visits house to house. The Discipline is part of the modern day problem. It is designed for very small churches. If every pastor did what you suggest there would be no churches like Ginghamsburg, Church of the Resurrection, Grace Church (Corel Gables), First Church Houston, NorthPointe, Northcoast, Fellowship … I could go on and on. Each of those churches takes very good care of their members, but not the lead pastor. Doing so would cripple the church and is one of the reason the UMC is in trouble. Their focus isn’t taking care of but transforming people. You can care for people and not transform the community, but you can’t transform someone without first taking care of them. These pastors show God’s love by their example of following Christ to make disciples … not take care of them. Jesus didn’t say “Go take care” of them he said “Go and disciple” them.
You have your priorities all mixed up. The Church isn’t here just to take of people; we’re here to change the world. That will never happen if a pastor’s primary focus in on the shut-ins.
I wish you God’s speed, but I’m not counting on you to be a part of transforming the world. My suggestion: Get on a staff of large church and be responsible for the door to door care of the elderly.
The majority of UMC’s (I’m a member) are stuck in the 50’s, from dogma to donated couches in the lobby… wait, I meant narthex… how dare I call the narthex a lobby. There’s a train of Gen X, Y and Mel. passing by, looking in, and saying “that place has no relevance to our world”. But, if the 50’s come back, it will for sure be ready.
I don’t belive that being compassionate is opposed to being focused on discipleship. A pastor can be caring and available to parisinors while equipping members to care for one another for day to day needs. The issue is that parishioners should not be looking for a pastor to be their personal chaplain, focused solely on the personal needs of members. That kind of pastor is effectively acting as a hospice chaplain for a congregation unwilling to look beyond themselves and preparing to die.
You make a good point. I try to be available when needed but many people feel the pastor’s role is to be their chaplain not their coach. To be their personal care giver. It’s all about their needs and not about helping the body live out its call to make Christ-like disciples.
Your article is directed towards church members, but unfortunately I think there are a great many pastors out there who don’t know this (or don’t want to acknowledge it) and continue to try to make their church work with the same traditions that got them this far. Most are NOT oblivious to their memberships declining, but seemingly would rather just keep things as they are because that’s what’s expected of them, rather than throwing outdated tradition out the window and getting back to what the Church is supposed to be.
Thanks for your kind words, Matt.
One of the reasons for this post, as you surmised, is to let the laity know about the changing role of the pastor. But never fear … we didn’t leave the clergy out of it. That’s why we wrote the eBook The Role of the Senior Pastor.
However, as you point out, the real problem isn’t that the pastors don’t realize there’s a problem … it realizing that they’re responsible for doing something about it by leading rather than by trying to manage the church and the congregation.
Bill: Thanks for this wonderful article. We linked to it on our Clergy Coaching Network Facebook page and since this morning at 8:15 it has been seen by more than 5,500 people, 790 have opened the post and 450 have either liked, shared or commented. That’s huge for an article on FB! Just thought you’d want to know that folks are significantly engaged with this post and the powerful ideas it presents. Rick
Thanks Rick. Much appreciated!
Yes, and in the south, white churches preached segregation and white superiority. (In my sarcastic voice) Yes, church in the 50’s was great. 🙁
i guess I’m one of the Generation X people you speak of. The ones that don’t go to church, not because my parents didn’t take me to church EVERY Sunday but because the church i.e ministers, gave up on GOD’s people and I would rather go directly to GOD. The distinctions of denominations, the focus on money to build bigger and more elaborate churches, the US Vs THEM mentality, the OUR congregations vs the Community of GOD’s children. The blatant refusal to pool their resources to together address the dire needs of GOD’s children in GOD’s world. I can’t believe that even Jesus would venture into most churches today!!! You act like the church is separate from the community – in a very real sense at least for “US” standing outside the church, the church should be the community’s foundation. How can you say, the minister’s job isn’t to visit the sick or weak, or destitute, or poor, or lonely, or those without hope? Christ would as he would expect his followers to do. Does the “job” require teaching others to do the same, in GOD’s name? Absolutely! Whether you gave ten or two hundred parishioners shouldn’t matter. You are focused on the wrong THINGS. Admittedly, I’m not a minister, just a child of GOD who thinks it is the church by way of ministers that has lost it’s way.
Article is so true . The timing on all generations is to the letter . Too bad , because I believe there was a lot less criminal activity then. Believing and faith is so important to all of us as a society . There is no respect of others or anything . So sad !
Good advice for the church today but not sure why there was a need to compare to the past in a gross oversimplification. In the church I grew up in in the 50’s and 60’s the people were doing exactly what you call for congregations and pastors to do today.
If your pastor was spending more time with the unchurched than the churched, then you had a rare pastor – especially for the 1950s. The practice of effective church leadership has seen a significant shift from member focus to non-member focus over those years. Your experience is rare … but awesome. The church wouldn’t be in the fix it’s in if that was the norm.
Excellent article. I appreciate that you ground your understanding of ordained ministry in Eph. 4:11f, “equipping the saints for the work of ministry.” This has been the theme of my whole ministry for 38 yrs. It was not always understood when I first went to a new parish. But the church leaders soon learned to appreciate it. I helped train district groups of pastors and lay leaders in the general ministry of all Christians. Spread the word!
I have found many pastors who see them selves more as chaplains to their congregation. In a parish where I was recently appointed pastor, the church began to experience rapid growth. The response: one of the prominent leaders of the congregation complained to me that there were too many people in the congregation that she did not know. And perhaps who did not know her well enough to defer to her.
This is a interesting and challenging article, but I wonder if really is an ‘either or’ situation. Or could there be a way to strike a strong balance between the 2 primary objectives stated along with adding in the visitation aspect. I know in the UM congregation I serve visitation is a big issue. There are many that are just like the folks described where they see visiting the elderly as the pastors job. BUT I also have some that are seeing the need t also be apart of this ministry. I also struggle with what truly constitutes a ‘home bound’ member. I have several older members who have no problem going to Walmart, dinner and other places, but coming to church…they just cannot sit there for an hour. That I feel in itself is a separate issues. I think my biggest struggle is what type of balance should I strike between the whole visitation issue and the leading, teaching and reaching out. Thanks for the great work you all do!
Most pastors of small to mid-sized churches are probably going to have to do some visitation now and again. However, regardless of what some members “think,” the notion that it’s the pastor’s job to do member visitation is misguided, non-biblical, and contrary to both Eph 4:11-13 and the way in which the early church operated (see Acts 2-4). When a pastor “does” the work of the church, rather than equipping the saints to do the work of the church, they not only rob the laity of the joy of serving, they tend to neglect the more important ministry of reaching people for Jesus Christ.
So, if a church is doing adult (conversion) baptisms regularly, visitors are becoming active participants, new and old Christians are fully engaged in adult faith development and intentional service in Jesus’ name, and if there’s some time left over for the pastor to visit, then great: let him or her visit. But if these aren’t happening, then somewhere there are some priorities desperately needing to be reviewed.
Jerry, I believe the issue is far more complex than “the role.” Society has changed dramatically and the church (pastors particularly) have not kept pace. We are losing members in significant numbers because of this. As a result many churches operate more in a survival mode than a mission one. They now “accommodate” members rather than challenge and equip them. My last book addresses this. If you would like a copy I will send you one free. It’s called “Following Jesus Beyond Traditional Christianity.” Check it out on Amazon. If it interests you, tell me. You’ll get a copy.
Intriguing comments. I agree that too often pastors try to do it all, and as a result are not able to make much of an impact on anything – ironically, it is their loving hearts that lead them to this. In a church which has strong full time staff support and more than one pastor, I agree completely with this article. Fewer and fewer churches are so well staffed. Regardless, in all scenarios, laity must step up and free time up for the pastor to do their specialized calling and tasks. And in the best possible situation it is the pastor that supports and/or trains laity to do other areas of ministry. I’m just wondering how many churches out there are like ours, tiny and elderly, where only a handful of lay persons are literally able to do anything more than give money.
When there is only a “handful of lay persons” then the pastor’s responsibilities should be so light that they can spend the vast majority of their time with the community’s unchurched. Most small churches simply do too much … they have too many ministries, and tend to do none of them very well. “Good enough” is the rallying cry.
In these cases, the pastor should exit virtually all ministries (shutting most of them down if no one can or will do them), spend minimum time in sermon and worship prep, and spend maximum time investing in meeting new people and embedding them in the congregation.
[…] recently read an article by a Dr Bill Tenny-Brittian called ‘Understanding the role of your pastor‘. Although it was written in an American context, some of the author’s observations […]