How Congregations Can Sustain Pastoral Excellence

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Being a pastor is difficult. It goes without saying that pastors must do everything possible to equip and sustain themselves for effective ministry. This article focuses on what congregations can do to sustain pastoral excellence. Specifically, what are some healthy congregational practices that will help pastors and other leaders to flourish?

First, be body-focused, not pastor-focused. Many congregations put too much emphasis upon the pastor.The pastor gets too much praise when things go well, and too much blame with things go poorly. Of course the pastor's role is important in the life of a congregation. But protect your pastor from being the focal point of every good or ill in the congregation. Talk about the church and its mission in terms of the body as a whole, not just the pastor (1 Corinthians 12). Congregations that believe their congregational fortunes rise and fall upon the shoulders of their pastor alone set themselves and their pastor up for failure.

Second, be full of grace and truth with your pastor. Some congregations are quite gracious with their pastor but lack the courage to be truthful. Such a congregation wants to get along, to avoid conflict at all cost. It wants things to be smooth. But grace without truth doesn't work. Pastors need to be accountable. They need to hear hard things. When congregations don't give pastors honest feedback on their performance, they harm their pastor and perpetuate an unhealthy situation. Grace without truth helps no one.

Other congregations are brutally truthful, but have too little grace. Congregations too quickly forget that their pastor is a person who hurts and bleeds just like anyone else. Imagine that your pastor is one of your own children. Would you talk about your own child the way you talk about your pastor? Or would you go out of your way to protect the pastor's dignity and honor, while at the very same time taking seriously matters of performance that may need to be addressed? Truth without grace does not take seriously our calling to imitate the one who came to us full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Third, cultivate healthy congregational attitudes toward change. Congregations that accept adaptation and change as a normal, ongoing part of congregational life offer an environment in which pastoral leadership and excellence can flourish.

Healthy congregations understand that any living organism, including the church, is constantly adapting and changing. That's what it means to be alive! The New Testament makes it clear that the church in its essential nature is a living organism. Believers are members of a living body whose head is Christ (Eph. 4:12-16, 1 Cor. 12), living branches connected to the vine, bearing fruit in abundance (John 15). As a living organism, the church by definition is constantly growing, changing, and adapting to changing realities around it.

(Adaptation should be contrasted here with problem-solving. Looking for solutions to problems is quite safe and easy. Adaptation involves changes not to things around us but to us. Adaptation should also be contrasted with compromise. Adaptation is not compromising our beliefs or values; it's applying those same, unchanging beliefs and values to new and changing situations.)

John Ortberg tells a fascinating story that illustrates the importance of adaptation and change. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley decided to see what would happen if they put an amoeba into a perfectly stress-free environment and protected the amoeba from any changes that would force it to react. They kept temperatures, moisture levels, light levels and food supplies constant. There was nothing in the environment to which the amoeba had to adjust. One would think this would be one happy little amoeba. Nothing to give this amoeba ulcers or high blood pressure. But alas, the amoeba died! It had nothing to resist and in the process it died. All living organisms, including the church, are in a constant state of adaptation and change simply by virtue of being alive.

Of course the point here is not that all change is good, or that change for change's sake is good. In fact, churches do well to remind themselves that people long for predictability and constancy in their lives. In a culture where change takes place so rapidly and often thoughtlessly, churches do well to make sure they are not abandoning practices that should be preserved. Nevertheless, congregations must embrace, not begrudgingly resign themselves to, adaptation and change as a normal, ongoing part of congregational life as God has created it.

Fourth, accept differences as normal in a healthy congregation. "Churches with no problems have big problems," observes Haddon Robinson. Congregations must be committed enough to God's mission that they're willing to make decisions that will create resistance, even conflict, en route to accomplishing that mission. Congregations must not try to prematurely resolve healthy conflict. Working through healthy conflict is one of the ways a congregation comes to know itself and its direction.

I still remember a Saturday night social gathering in one of the congregations I served. It was five nights after a council meeting in which two elders had vigorously disagreed with one another on a matter before council. As a young pastor I had found the disagreement very unsettling. But at the Saturday night social gathering these two people genuinely enjoyed each other's company. They talked and laughed and had a great time. These two rock-solid saints taught me that members of a congregation can strongly disagree on things but still accept and love one another. Congregations where people can love each other at the same time they disagree with each other will probably also have such deep and strong relationships with their pastor.

Congregational health is not something that can be bought, or learned at a week-end retreat. Congregations develop the qualities discussed above as they live and worship together in a community forged over time by God's call, Christ's love, and the Spirit's presence. To put it in terms of Colossians 3, congregations develop these qualities as they die and rise again, die to those community-destroying practices of the old self including greed, anger, slander, and lying; and put on those community-building practices of the new self including compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Blessed are those congregations and pastors who can sustain one another because they are deeply rooted in the life of God.

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