The Myth of Super-Pastor

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In my Ephesians 4 sermon from February 19th, I made reference to an interview a pastor friend of mine had with a CRC congregation when he was a candidate for ministry. He asked them the simple question, “What are your expectations for your next pastor?” Someone immediately chimed in, “We want a heroic leader who will fill our pews.” As I said in the sermon, my friend didn’t end up serving in this particular church. A statement like this sounds ridiculous and yet it sheds light on some of the unhealthy, unrealistic, and unbiblical expectations that churches and pastors come to expect from the role of pastor.

In the social worker/therapist’s world there is much discussion about the idea of “co-dependency.” This is a pattern that is seen in destructive patterns of life. This concept is more common with families in which one person struggles with substance abuse. Another member or members of the family are often “enablers.” An enabler is a person who by their actions make it easier for an addict to continue their self-destructive behavior by criticizing or rescuing. Often enabling comes in the form of failure to confront a problem in a direct manner. Sometimes enabling takes the form of doing something for another that they should do for themselves. It also takes the form of making excuses for someone else’s behavior.

On Sunday we got a reminder of one of the biblical portraits of pastor as “equipper” one who leads to people of God to carry out the work of ministry. This of course stands in stark contrast to minister as enabler. Instead, the leaders of the church are to empower others in using their gifts. Yes, this ought to include the axiom of “leading by example.”

The collective picture that Ephesians 4 paints of the church is one of both unity and diversity. Instead of a co-dependency or an independency we see a picture of interdependency. Everyone is needed. Every gift is vital. “As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love (v.16 NLT).

A few years back I read part of a book on ministry called The New Reformation: Returning the Ministry to the People of God. The author, Greg Ogden talked about how churches and ministers, readily use the language of equipping the saints and a congregation of ministers, but this is most often mere lip service. We talk and preach but don’t do as we say. At one point he says;

“The reality is that the dependency model of ministry is firmly in the place in the minds of most pastors and congregations. What is this model? Pastors do the ministry, while the people are grateful (or not so grateful) recipients of their professional care. Pastors are construed to be experts in things spiritual, while the people view themselves as objects receiving what they are not qualified to give one another. The experts take care of the uninitiated. In a different image, pastors are the all-knowing parent figures who provide the protection and nurture for their dependent children. But in this family, the children never grow up. Pastors are locked into a role that fosters dependency, because there are personal expectations for the role that have become integral to their identity. These expectations are then reinforced by a congregation who are so used to a pedestal view of their pastor that they cannot imagine any other role.”

The bottom line with co-dependency is that it is reinforced by a person’s need to be needed. The pastor does play a significant role, don’t get me wrong. But the last time I checked, most churches can get by for a good while without a pastor. That should be a healthy dose of kryptonite for Super-Pastor.

In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell talks about the concept of “Super-Pastor.” Bell tells the story of how his church Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI drew 1,000 people on its very first Sunday and then exploded to 4,000 people in the first six months. Two years later, they had 10,000 people to three Sunday gatherings. He writes, “in the middle of this growth and chaos was me, superpastor.” Here’s how he describes it:

“Superpastor is always available to everyone and accomplishes great things but always has time to stop and talk and never misses anyone’s birthday and if you are sick he’s at the hospital and you can call him at home whenever you need advice and he loves meetings and spends hours studying and praying and yet you can interrupt him if you need something – did I mention he always puts family first?”

Bell’s advice is simple; Super-Pastor Must Die.

As I begin ministry at Cedar Hill CRC, I come with great expectations. I place most of these expectations on myself. Super-Pastor has a certain appeal. My wife Kim’s cancer has been a healthy dose of kryptonite for me. I begin ministry here with the realization that I can only do so much as pastor. Everyone has been more than understanding and supportive. It is very difficult for me to accept these limitations. The truth is that is a good thing. Super-Pastor must indeed die. Already, the church has been doing much ministry on behalf of the new ministry family. While I hope this will only be needed for a short season, I also know that what we have seen so far is a fitting picture with a couple biblical snap shots that we have seen in the past couple of weeks of what it means to be the church (Romans 12 & Ephesians 4). As a pastor, I begin ministry here with a clear reminder how interdependent Kim and I are within the people of God. In an unexpected way, God is using our trials to unify this church and bring out gifts in a way that I would have never imagined.

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