I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.
Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.
When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.
When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.
When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.
So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.
How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.
The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.
May the peace of God be with you.