I was asked this essential question by a member of PHCC”s pastoral search team, and I am thrilled to answer it. In 20 years of ordained ministry, no church member has ever asked it of me.
What exactly a pastor should be in our kind of church is something everyone thinks they know but nobody is particularly clear about. Even Disciples clergy themselves suffer from nebulous thinking about their own role. This results in churches and their pastors borrowing ideas from other sectors such as business, entertainment and medicine without reflecting on whether they are appropriate for a church. In a time when anxiety is high over dying churches and pressure is on for clergy to be superheroes who save the day, it is no wonder rates of ministers leaving the profession are skyrocketing. Taking time to think about what a Disciples pastor should be and should not be is more essential than ever.
The Christian Church, Disciples of Christ began as a movement of reform and reaction against denominational differences and structures. In the roughly 200 years since its beginning, there has been (in my opinion) shockingly little prescription of what a pastor should and should not be. Only relatively recently with issues like the clergy abuse scandals have Disciples set up boundaries regarding what a pastor should not be, but things remain vague about what a pastor should be and do.
From its beginning, the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ has been crystal clear only about two things when it comes to the role of the pastor. 1. The pastor should preach and teach the Bible. 2. All members of the church are ministers, not just the pastor. Who can be a minister, how educated should they be, what is their job description, what theology and ethics should they hold and more have shifted over time and continue to evolve. In my opinion, the only real definition of the role of the pastor that matters comes down to who holds authority and power in a Disciples church?
The average member of a Disciples church may not realize it, but all power and authority in a Disciples congregation resides in the church members. There is no pope, bishop, presbytery, diocese or authority over the local congregation. All matters regarding practice, calling of clergy, hiring of staff, owning property, programming, event planning, outreach/missions—every darn thing a local church can do is decided by that local church. Note that the nowhere did I state that any of these things get decided by the pastor. The pastor only gets a say inasmuch as the congregation decides to give her or him one. The pastor can express their point of view until they are blue in the face, but ultimately the congregation decides.
If one thinks of a typical leadership chart, it looks like a pyramid in most organizations including churches. A CEO or president is at the top. Below that position is a board of some type. Below that are committees or task forces. Below that are staff of various kinds. Below that is the larger membership or employees. In a Disciples church, this power structure is turned on its head.
A local church may have a board and committees with members elected by the congregation at large because holding a congregational meeting for every decision is unfeasible for lots of reasons, but ultimately every member is expected to be responsible for being engaged and invested in those decisions. The reality unfortunately is most members in our increasingly busy and distracted times are far from it and only weigh in when something upsets them, if they don’t just pack up and leave. This low commitment level is prevalent everywhere, not just in churches; ask a leader of any voluntary group in any sector. Nonetheless, the buck stops with individual members not with the pastor. The responsibility a Disciples church asks of its members is radical and demanding, which is why so many destructive shortcuts are attempted by churches and clergy.
In my experience, I have fallen into many traps as a minister, but the greatest of them all is acting as if I have the power to change a local church. Like most clergy, I’m a helper and a pleaser who doesn’t want to disappoint, so I have given in to congregational expectations that I would be the CEO or the change agent who would transform the church’s culture. What I’ve discovered at great cost to myself and my family is that the pastor is neither of these things. In fact, despite common perception, the local pastor may be the least powerful position in a church like ours.
A pastor can be immensely gifted, but no local congregation with our power structure will go anywhere unless the membership wants to do so. I have worked myself to the bone trying to make local churches change with two results: 1. I’m out front leading the charge with no one behind me or 2. I’m pushing the church from behind until it moves as far as feels comfortable and then snaps back with a vengeance. The only role for the pastor in a Disciples church that I can see which works is for a pastor to equip a congregation to do what it wants to do—hopefully what it wants to do resembles what God calls it to be and do.
What this comes down to is a pastor can do and be lots of things but none of them will accomplish much unless a congregation knows who it wants to be and then takes responsibility for being whatever that is. The pastor is not a CEO, a nanny, a surrogate parent, a boss, a guru or a flunky. The pastor’s role is to provide spiritual and guidance to the congregation as it actually does what it feels called to be.
No matter how talented a preacher, gifted a provider of pastoral care, brilliant an administrator or inspired a networker, a pastor can only accomplish what church members are committed to, invested in and responsible for making happen. A Disciples church is not a spectator sport or a movie to be streamed on one’s couch; it is a community to be constantly created by the believers who make it up. The pastor is present to assist the congregation in making that reality happen.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851