Thursday, November 29, 2012


"For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ."
1 Corinthians 12:12

This is a hardcore Christian post full of theology and inside references, so it might not be of much interest to some readers.  Fair warning at least.
The Christian church has two meanings.  The first meaning is the church in general, the body of Christians worldwide through the centuries; everyone who is a child of God through the grace of Jesus Christ.  This means every Christian ever has been part of the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, of whom he is the head.
The other meaning is more local: a specific congregation.  This sense of the church is generally understood to be a family, a body created by God for fellowship, worship, learning, exhortation, and aiding the needy and broken in their community.  It is a place for prayer, teaching, hymns, and healing the wounded soul.
In the 90s, I attended a conference by Ligonier Ministries in Seattle with the great R.C. Sproul and luminaries such as Rod Rosenbladt, Sinclair Ferguson and so on.  The topic was about the church in both senses, and one of the best talks was about when to leave a church.
R.C. Sproul said that there were three options:
  • You must stay in a church if it is faithful and teaches the gospel and is faithful to God, regardless of how much you like the pastor, how well you get along with the other people, or whether the people there do what you demand they do or not.
  • You may leave a church if it is theologically troubled, but is generally orthodox; has discipline, sacraments, and the word of God.
  • You must leave a church if if abandons the basic faith and teaches total heresy; a church that rejects the Bible, rejects the triune God, and so on.
This is for the layman, the person in the pew.  In other words if you're in a good church but like another one better nearby, you should stay where you are.  Why?  Because you're part of a body, you are part of the family there.  You should only break up that family for very good reason, properly, not simply for personal problems or some whim.  Yes, that lady sitting in the nearby pew might sing off tune or the pastor might not visit as often as you like.  They might sing songs you don't like so much or too slowly, they might not have the certain specific ministry you want, but you're part of a body, and tearing that apart should be done only for a better cause than personal dislikes.
There are other circumstances, of course.  A couple from two different churches might marry, which means at least one person must necessarily leave their church for another.  Someone might be in a job that moves a family around often (the military for instance) and thus they have to change churches. There are valid reasons why people can't stay at a given church.  The conference was more targeted at "church shoppers" who keep moving around to find their ideal congregation, though.
As a Christian, being part of a church body and regular attendance means not only that you become part of a community and fellowship, but that you place yourself under the visible discipline of that church.  If you do wrong, they then have some leverage, so to speak, to help push you back on the path.  In addition you'll be both in the witness of other saints around you, but be a positive influence on the others.
The talk, and Sproul's later writings and talks are very helpful for people dealing with a problematic or annoying church.  In modern culture where everyone is so self-focused and selfish these days we need reminding that our lives are about more than just ourselves and how happy we are.
However, there's a bit of a problem with all that.  Its not that what he says is wrong, its that it is incomplete.  So much so good for church members in the pews, but what about the pastor?
I attend a Christian Reformed Church, a denomination with a heritage of great theology and truth that is falling on bad times theologically.  The local church is very good still, like many scattered across the nation even if the denomination is falling.  It is a typical pattern for the church to swap pastors every five to ten years, each pastor moving on to another church after a short term.  Since I started attending the chuch in 1975, I've seen six pastors, plus all the interim ones between.
Although some churches retain a pastor their whole lives, the typical pattern is for them to move around between congregations.  The Anglican church, for example, will often swap out a pastor after a few years, with some Bishops alternating between a more liberal (theologically) pastor with a conservative one.
And this brings up the question; what about all those arguments for why you should stay with a church?  What about the church being a body you wound when you leave?  What about the fact that you're part of a congregation, a family, and should only leave that reluctantly, and for very good reason?  I understand pastors are a special sort of bird with a different calling than others, but that doesn't negate all the reasons to stay at a church?
So how about it pastors?  Why this exemption, why is it suddenly okay to break up the body, why is it fine to tear part of the family apart for job reasons?  Why shouldn't the pastor be encouraged to stat at a congregation as much as an ordinary pew sitter?
I bring this up because it seems like any time a pastor gets a better offer they "feel the spirit move them" to move on.  This one always wanted to be a missionary and suddenly got an offer, so they go.  That one leaves to head up a school because they always liked the idea.  Another moves on to be at a bigger church.  Still another moves on to be in a church in an area or state they prefer.  A church closer to their family, a church in a climate they prefer, a church with greater opportunities for their talents, a church with more room for growth, on an on.
I am sorry if I sound cynical, but it seems to me that too often this "calling" business is an excuse rather than a cause for moving on, and pastors just get to do it whenever they want.  And if one guy leaving the church hurts it by their loss - and hurts that one guy by his leaving - doesn't it hurt far more to massively disrupt the congregation by a shepherd leaving his flock?  Does a pastor not have an even greater burden to stay with a congregation?
In the end it seems to me that pastors are at least as guilty of "church shopping" for the ideal congregation that bends more completely to their vision of the church and career than even ordinary paritioners.  Individual Christians are guilty of moving about churches for petty reasons and selfish whims, but so are pastors - and when a pastor leaves, its a serious problem for a church.


Anna said...

As a pastor's wife since 2001, I would say that, at least in our household, it's not as simple as that.

I would submit that the average congregant is not aware of all the opportunities for their pastor, only the one the pastor acts on.

We've been with this congregation since 2007 and have had offers that either we've turned down or didn't work out. Those are generally kept quiet by the pastor. It's rare for a congregation to know if a pastor is actively looking to change calls, for many reasons.

The average congregant that isn't on the session (not sure what the CRC calls its body of elders; we're ARP) also may not be aware of issues going on within the leadership. If there is not unity within the leadership, is that a valid reason for moving on? As much as we'd like to move back closer to our families (we're now 10 hours from home), we have a unity here that's worth keeping rather than starting all over again with a new church.

Eric said...

C_T, even as a non-churchgoer I share this frustration, as I've befriended no less than three local pastors over the last 10 years only to see them move away after our friendship developed. I worked with one guy on some community issues, we became friends, our daughters became best friends, and it was just kind of amazing for me to see his devotion to our community wane away as he became convinced he was being called somewhere else.

Methodists seem particularly bad about shuffling their pastors around every 5 years or so. The only preacher who has ever come close at all to getting me to bring my family to church in this town was a Methodist minister who was reshuffled by the church the week after we had this conversation.

Christopher R Taylor said...

I tried to indicate that there may be valid reasons for a congregant or pastor to move on. However, it does seem that pastors are far more willing to move on than they are wiling to agree with in their congregation, and I just wanted to point out that apparent contradiction.

And since in my short life I've seen far too many pastors move on for what looked like pretty poor reasons, that is an issue that I've never yet seen even touched on by anyone.

It is a problem, at least in some churches.

Marie said...

We had a visiting pastor today. He preaches and interrelates with the church members differently.

Both our regular and visiting pastor are very valuable. They are just different.

So, I like when we have a visiting pastor, or perhaps a new pastor (?) once in a while.

This is because I get new perspectives on things, and so forth. All within biblical orthodoxy, one hopes.

So there could be an argument for a new pastor every few years, to gain different perspectives and teaching from different experiences or areas of expertise.

But the same could be said of members coming and going. It seems one standard should be applied to all.