Why Do Pastors Often Act Like the Parishioners They Complain About?

May 27th, 2014

Nearly any pastor can tell you the symptoms of an unhealthy church: members distrust their leadership and their pastor; they insist on voting on everything, even the color of the carpet; they threaten to leave or withhold money if they don’t get their way; they spread rumors and innuendo; they write anonymous letters and litigate everything.

Many of us also know the solutions to these kinds of problem parishioners: make them irrelevant. You have to learn how to bypass excessively bureaucratic processes. You work to empower the people who “get it.” You cast a vision for the folks who will follow you into a preferred future. In short, you lead.

The United Methodist Church on the denominational level often looks exactly like a small, unhealthy church. At the 2012 General Conference, we rejected visionary leadership and bold change in favor of mutual distrust which, in so many ways, is more comfortable.

Although I consider myself an ally in the movement toward LGBTQ inclusion, I do not believe this issue alone is at the heart of our problems in the UMC (I believe most allies, and most opponents, generally agree.) It is, however, a thermometer with which we can diagnose how unhealthy we are.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out: Last quadrennium, I was part of a caucus to elect young clergy to General Conference. We got within one vote of getting a woman under 40 elected to General Conference. At the last ballot, we asked another candidate to do the gracious, inclusive thing and step aside to let her be elected. This would be the first time since we began tracking it that a clergy delegate under 40 would have gone from our Annual Conference. His response was disheartening. He said that he couldn’t because he didn’t know how she would vote on LGBTQ inclusion.

Now, I know this delegate, and he’s a good guy. I think he’s a great leader and pastor. But he also couldn’t see how his response was exactly like the fearful reactions of problem people in unhealthy congregations: “We can’t let the teenagers use the new family life center, because they might mess it up.” Instead of helping us achieve an historic election and send young delegates to General Conference, generational suspicion and litmus-testing ruled his decision.

We can see this same kind of response on the macro level. Whether it is threatening to leave or split the church or withhold funds, some churches and church pastors mimic the behavior of our least committed and least healthy members. Letting their behavior run the way we create policy will not help us in the long run, whether we’re talking about the local church or the denomination. I’m sure they can give well-reasoned, articulate explanations for their behavior. They usually can. But people who talk this way demonstrate that they should not lead.

Let me make one assumption explicit, because I know it’s controversial: faithful churches are healthy churches. They may not all be megachurches, but they produce fruit. Generally, they will be growing churches (unless external circumstances prevent them from doing so). And you can find growing churches of all different stripes: liberal and conservative, urban or rural, oriented toward social justice or evangelism, and you can find them in every Annual Conference. Here’s what blows my mind and frustrates me about our denomination: we already know what makes churches healthy. When it comes to our denomination, though, we can’t seem to put it into practice.

Maybe this reveals my naivety. I know that systems and structures (like General Conference) can prevent us from doing as a group what we know to be right as individuals. But I believe we should be able to apply what we already know about healthy churches to our denomination. Perhaps it begins with us church leaders acting like the best church members we have. May God give us the grace to lead at the macro level the way we lead our churches.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at DaveBarnhart.net.

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