I like to think that most of us like our pastors.
For many people, the pastor is the face of the church: the first person we meet, and the first person we hear speaking at length. It’s natural that to some degree the pastor is a determining factor for people deciding whether or not to attend a church. For my husband and I, the “teaching” style of our current pastor was a big draw; we liked his thoughtful lectures and the way we learned something new every time he stood at the pulpit. Others might be drawn by a pastor’s emotion, by his ability to evangelize, or by his ability to lead the flock outside the church as well as in.
And that’s all well and good. The danger, however, is when devotion to a pastor supersedes devotion to a church.
When I was young, an older woman in our congregation slowly but surely stopped attending. When people asked why she stopped, she said she preferred watching Charles Stanley on television; he was surely better than the church’s pastor! By that standard, I’m sure a lot of pastors would have failed to pass muster: I’m not sure “better than Charles Stanley” or “better than Billy Graham” or “better than Rick Warren” ought to be the standard we’re holding church leaders to.
But I’ve seen people leave churches when the pastors do, when they retire or when they resign – as though the pastor was the only thing that mattered about the church at all. I’ve seen pastors surrounded by what I can only call “the cult of the pastor”: starry-eyed members of the congregation who willingly participate in anything, so long as the pastor’s leading it, who shield the pastor from all unpleasantness, and who generally respond to everything the pastor does with unwavering enthusiasm. I’ve seen congregations in which the pastor is treated, to some degree, like a rock star: charismatic, adored, supported. In these congregations, the pastor is untouchable and largely deaf to criticism. Anyone who doesn’t immediately jump aboard the love train is dismissed as a critic or as someone who wants the church to fail.
Ironically, those same churches crumble when the untouchable pastor falters, or leaves, or loses their luster. There’s nothing left to hold the center once the pastor has become the main focus of the church.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t like our pastors, nor that we shouldn’t appreciate them. The job is a tough one, and a lot of pastors face discouragement, disillusionment, and the overwhelming task of managing the sometimes-demanding expectations of a lot of people. If you’re church-hunting, finding a good pastor is a part of that process. If you’re a member of a church, having a pastor that you can speak to, that you can call on, and who is there to minister to you and your family matters enormously. Be sure to encourage them and support them in prayer. Because of their structures, churches need leaders. The New Testament church recognized this and responded accordingly. But the pastor is not, and should not, the entirety of the church itself.
At the last church my husband and I attended before our current one, our much-loved pastor retired not long after we joined. There was widespread sorrow in the congregation over it, and a bit of confusion as to how to proceed; the process of acquiring a new pastor would take some time. So in stepped an interim pastor, a man once local to the area who, quite frankly, was one of the few willing to show up on such short notice.
This man was in his 90s, and largely deaf. He required help walking and sometimes had to be assisted to the pulpit. But he was sharp in Biblical knowledge and willing to make the effort, and the congregation met him halfway. What the interim pastor couldn’t do, the deacons managed in his place. The congregation, still aching over the loss of their longtime, eloquent shepherd, nevertheless soldiered ahead determined to get something out of the message each week. The church was a body of believers unto itself; as such, it kept on going even when the seemingly perfect pastor departed, and survived the bumpy interim period until a new pastor could be found. The church is still going strong: there was, if I may use the phrase, a there there, a core of the body that endured beyond the shifting of leadership.
Pastors are human. They are not always going to be “on.” They are not always going to be perfect. They will make mistakes, they will at times be worthy of criticism, they will at times be deeply unlikable as we all are, and they will falter. Yes, we deservedly hold them to a higher standard – God has called them to a higher standard – but we must never forget that Christ, not a human, is the “head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18).
If we center our church experience around a pastor, then we’re not experiencing church; we’re joining a cult of personality. And that is not what God intended for His flock.