There seems to be the perception among some pastors that when faced with the established leadership in a congregation, there are only two options:
1. Give up and let the established leaders continue to run the show.
2. Fight and defeat the established leaders to win the right to lead the congregation.
Unfortunately, neither option does much for either church or congregation. In the first option, the pastor generally becomes an ineffective spectator in the life of the church, unable to do much more than bless the newborn, marry the couples and bury the dead. Unless the established leadership has a strong desire to move the church in God’s way, the congregation will stagnate because it isn’t able to assimilate and act on any insights the pastor might have.
In the second scenario, the church and pastor also lose. Pastors tend to forget that they are outsiders and in the vast majority of situations, the congregation will follow the established leadership, no matter what. Remember, the small church is built on relationships and the relationship web is stronger than theology or the pastor’s insights. Basically, when the pastor fights the established leadership, the pastor will lose. The church will also lose because it will continue in its established path, which probably isn’t helping it all that much.
But even if the pastor wins the battle, the church suffers because the causalities of the battle will include: members dropping out of church completely; members going to other congregations; a serious loss of credibility in the wider community; the possibility of a church split–none of the results of the pastor winning the battle are positive.
But there is a third way:
3. Develop a strong relationship with the established leaders that will lead to sharing the leadership of the congregation.
I know that many will dismiss this third way as a wasteful fairy tale option but in the end, it just makes sense. Neither of the first two options will work. This option will work–maybe not always but it will at least do less harm to the pastor and the congregation than the first two options. It will take a serious commitment of time and a willingness to compromise but it can be done.
Developing the kind of relationship that will lead to shared leadership will take at least a couple of years work–getting to know the people, letting them get to know the pastor, proving the pastoral commitment to the congregation, learning to understand and appreciate the history of the congregation and so on. It will also require that the pastor surrender ideas and plans that he/she arrived with. Congregations are like people in that each one is different and it is only as we pastors learn to see them as individuals that we can really know them. Ideas and plans conceived before the pastor sees the real congregation must be changed in the face of real congregations.
In this slower third way process, the pastor, the established leadership and the rest of the congregation have an opportunity to get to know and appreciate each other in ways that bring the pastor into the relationship web in a positive way. As part of the relationship web, the pastor will hear and be heard and out of that hearing and being heard will develop the ability to share in the leadership of the congregation.
This process will not always work–there will always be some congregations whose established leadership will want to go in ways the pastor cannot support. But since both the other options are bound to do serious harm to both pastor and congregation and the third option will do some good even if it doesn’t work, it seems to me that it is always the best option. It also has a certain inbuilt integrity–we were called to be a pastor to the congregation, not a combatant or leader so this option is actually allowing us to do what we were called to do.
May the peace of God be with you.