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Barbara Walking in the Valley
A bi-weekly column, featuring one Christian's (a)musings on life's journey

by Barbara Dahlgren


The Perfect Pastor
Column for the weeks of October 16-31, 2006

October is designated as Clergy Appreciation Month. I’m not sure who comes up with these months, perhaps Hallmark. But hey, being part of the clergy via marriage, I won’t balk at any form of appreciation.

Statistics show that 6 out of 10 Americans say religion is “very important” to them in daily life. What a marketing opportunity! But I’m sure that wasn’t the total intent when Clergy Appreciation Month was established in 1992. Its mission is to “encourage pastors, missionaries and religious workers by providing physical, emotional and spiritual support.” There are more than 1 million full-time Christian ministry workers in the U.S. alone, including 350,000 senior pastors.

Appreciation for pastors is not a bad thing, especially considering statistics from Focus on the Family. In the U.S., 1500 pastors leave assignments every month due to conflict, burnout, or moral failure. The Barna Group, a marketing research firm that conducts polls on religious issues, says the average pastoral career lasts only 14 years. Not long ago it was at least double that.

A portion of those 1500 may not have truly been called to ministry and some burn out, but what would be the cause of so many others leaving? Some leave by their own decision, others are ousted. Christianity Today found that 9 out of 10 pastors know 3 to 4 others who have been forced out of pastoral positions. Their research shows the most common causes are:

  • Conflicting visions for the church
  • Personality conflict with board member(s)
  • Personality conflicts (not with board members)
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Lack of clear expectations
  • Theological differences

Finding a good replacement may not be that easy. According to Maranatha Life-Line for Pastors, 4000 new churches begin each year, but over 7000 close. In fact, I heard a story about a man applying to be a church pastor. Although he was a loving man who cared for the flock, he was turned down for the following reasons:

  • He was too young – only 30ish – so he wouldn’t be able to relate to the elderly.
  • He was single, so he wouldn’t be able to relate to married couples.
  • He didn’t have children, so he wouldn’t be able to help with child rearing troubles.
  • He associated with those outside the church, so some in the church would feel neglected.
  • He had some close friends, so he would be considered cliquish.
  • He got angry occasionally, so some would say he lacked self-control.
  • He valued a woman’s opinion, so he would be perceived as a wimp.
  • He liked solitude once in a while, so some might think he was aloof.
  • Some of his messages were hard to understand, so he would not be a good speaker.
  • Some of what he taught was progressive, so he might be considered a heretic.
  • He taught basic principles, so he wouldn’t be innovative enough.
  • He didn’t jump every time someone said “froggy,” so some might think him inaccessible.
  • He favored the poor and needy, so the ones who could really give money to keep the church afloat might be offended.
  • He drank wine, so some would think he was an alcoholic.

Do you recognize this man? His name was Jesus.

Qualities of a good pastor have changed through the years. Somewhere in time the line between “shepherding a flock” and “managing the people” blurred. No longer are the qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5 enough. It’s fine to teach through a loving example what Christianity is all about, being prudent, kind, concerned, humble, balanced, gentle, hospitable, doctrinally sound, temperate, reputable, respected, devout, and so on, but what about administrative skills, church growth strategies, raising money, and keeping everyone happy?

I have my own theories about why so many leave the ministry. We live in a people pleasing society. We aren’t content to have just one kind of water, orange juice, or shampoo. We like to have many choices and keep our options open. We want things done perfectly, which means “our way.” We’ve listened to so many deceptive commercials that say, “Have it your way,” we think it applies to more than just hamburgers. This fosters a kind of discontent Satan preys upon which can be particularly dangerous in the church sector. Why would Satan be so interested in ministry leaders? One answer may be found in Matthew 26:31. When shepherds are smitten, the sheep scatter. Flocks looking for shepherds are finding the grass is not always greener in someone else’s field.

Any kind of ministry is hard, especially pastoring in today’s society. Unfortunately church has morphed into more of a business organization than a gathering of people learning more about Jesus. On the surface it may appear that all the pastor does is marry couples, preach the dead into heaven, and give a sermon once a week. Actually, his is an endless job of counseling, evangelizing, communicating with church leaders, visiting the sick, making people feel loved and valued, appeasing ruffled feathers, conducting Bible studies, being on-call, community involvement, cleaning the toilet when the janitor doesn’t show up, sharing sorrows and joys, listening to the disgruntled, and oh yes, trying to pray and study so he will have something spiritual to pass on to others.

Are we looking for the perfect pastor? Just goggle those words and see what you get – something like a one blue eye, one brown eye man or woman with half straight and half curly hair who condemns sin without offending anyone. I have my own version of the ideal pastor. He wouldn’t need a salary, yet willing to be on call 24/7. He’d have a spiritual reply for a member who says, “Just remember – I pay your salary.” He wouldn’t get a little ticked when he had been out until 2 in the morning at the hospital with an emergency situation and someone calls at 6 a.m. saying, “Were you asleep?” He would be able to deal with statistics like the majority of pastor’s wives say the most destructive event in their marriage and family was the day they entered full time ministry and 80% of adult PKs (pastor’s kids) seek help for depression. He could cope with the myriad of helpful, conflicting suggestions from congregants. He would understand why people want the benefits of a local church, but choose not to contribute financially or send their money elsewhere. He could deal with feelings of discouragement, disappointment, and defeat.

Yet, those called to pastor – and being called is most important because no one in their right mind would want to subject themselves to this kind of scrutiny unless they felt compelled to do so from a higher power – do their jobs lovingly, because they truly want to serve others. They want to help others grasp the greatness of God. They want people to know that God is the answer to all their needs, hopes, and desires.

If Jesus himself would not qualify to pastor a church today, then chances are your pastor is not perfect. But does he err on the side of giving, loving, and serving or abusing the flock? Of course, flock abusers should not be tolerated. Other imperfections may not be as bad as you think on reflection. Maybe a Clergy Appreciation Month is the catalyst members need to make their imperfect pastor feel a little more “perfect.”

Showing appreciation through notes of encouragement and being supportive is (excuse the pun) much appreciated! However, do not neglect the weightier matters. The most important thing you can do for pastors today is pray! Loosing 1500 a month is not a good sign. Pray for them all! Prayer is the perfect appreciation present! It’s a priceless gift that costs the giver little. So I urge you to pray for all pastors – the perfect – and the imperfect, too! The fields are ripe. The laborers are few – and getting fewer each month.

 

 

Be sure to visit this page often to read the next edition of Walking in the Valley. You can write to the author at bdahlgren@wcgsouthbay.org.

 

 

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