Don’t Expect Me to Grow Your Church

Photo Source: The Central texas Conference of the United Methodist Church
Photo Credit: The Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church

When someone is in the market for a call, he or she will invariably come across a number of church profiles that indicate a desire for a pastor to who will help their church grow. I think this is akin to a Hebrew family in Goshen painting their lintel and posts with the blood of a lamb;  it’s a sure-fire way for your church to get passed over.

This is a classic red flag for anyone who’s been in ministry for longer than a minute because it suggests your church might have unrealistic expectations of what a pastor does or can do. We get it — for whatever reason your church is clearly not happy with its size. Maybe numbers have dwindled in recent years (as is the case with most churches). But instead of doing the hard work of looking inwardly and outwardly for why this may be happening and maybe even accepting this trend may be around to stay for a while, you are looking for a person in whom to put an inordinate amount of hope and to ultimately blame when their presence doesn’t miraculously usher in a new era for your congregation.

This expectation puts the onus of church growth solely on the pastor. To be clear, it is God and God alone who gives the increase, but that increase comes at the heels of some intentional planting, watering, and tending on the part of the entire community of faith. A church can have the most gifted pastor in the world, but all those gifts cannot take the place of the congregation. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” In other words, the people must work! It’s simply unfair to expect a pastor to initiate and complete a work that could have at least already been started by the congregation.  A relationship between a pastor and a congregation is one of mutual ministry. Particularly in my tradition, we are all ministers. Pastors/Teaching Elders may be called to a particular service, but the work of ministry belongs to us all. No congregation should forget that, and no congregation need put its life on hold waiting for Superman — or Wonder Woman.

Yet, I understand that sometimes what’s needed to start said work is effective leadership, and I respect a church that can recognize it has that need. Even still, it can be unrealistic of a congregation to expect growth if it’s been reluctant to adopt practices that would open the door for growth. Definitely do not expect a pastor to grow your church if:

  • You’re not already consistently, intentionally, and lovingly inviting your friends, neighbors, and family to come — even if you think they’ll say “No.”
  • You’re not willing to come to church more than once a week when necessary.
  • You’re not willing to enter into deeper relationships with one another. Just because you’ve served coffee and pastries alongside each other after church for years doesn’t necessarily mean you know each other.
  • You’re not willing to welcome the new people who come through the doors as they are, not as you want to “help” them be.
  • You insist on harping on what the church doesn’t have and can’t do instead of what God has and can do through us. No church can grow from an attitude of lack.
  • You intend to bristle at any suggested change, small or large, because, “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Your church has had contentious relationships with pastor after pastor — and somehow it’s never  the congregation’s fault.

Not an exhaustive list, but you get the picture. And even if a church does all of this and more to encourage and welcome growth, it still may not see a growth in numbers. Perhaps the growth comes from within in the form of more mature and effective Christians. Greater numbers don’t indicate that a church is effective. Jesus did just fine with only twelve dudes and a handful of women!

If a church grows at all, whether spiritually or numerically, it’s because the entire congregation has caught the vision of what it means to be community, not a tribe. Tribes are necessarily exclusive and rigidly have their boundaries and cultural norms set and agreed upon with little interest in deviating from them. Some churches, whether they know it or not, are tribes.

Simply put, your church won’t necessarily be rescued from decline simply because you called the right person. The Church already has a Savior, and I assure you he’s not currently looking for a call.

The Question I’m Tired of Answering

No, it’s not when my husband and I are having another kid, though I am pretty sick of that one, too. I’m tired of being asked when I’ll be ordained.

In a denomination in which you’re not ordained until you receive a call, searching and waiting for that first call is often nerve-wrecking, heart-breaking, and can test the mettle of even the most resolute Candidates. My situation isn’t entirely unique. Right this second, there are a lot of gifted, anointed Candidates (and already-ordained Teaching Elders) who are fervently looking for calls with little to no success. Such is the nature of things in the Church today — it’s seemingly the laborers who are plenty and the “harvest” that is few.

Without sharing too much of what has happened in the year and a half since I was certified, I will say that this process of looking for a call has been one of the most emotionally taxing experiences of my life. It’s been full of delays, disappointments, dashed hopes, rebuffs, and entirely too much time and bandwidth spent on the Church Leadership Connection. It’s humbling to watch people who finished seminary after you get called before you. It’s awkward to watch well-deserved brothers and sisters get installed to positions you applied for, even if you are genuinely happy for them. And it’s downright frustrating to watch them interview with churches that took one look at your PIF and decided you weren’t what they were looking for.

"Put me in the game, coach!"
“Put me in the game, coach!”

Even still, it’s not so bad because I haven’t lost hope. In all of it I still trust God. I knew this wouldn’t be easy, though I honestly didn’t know it would be this difficult. But I think it would be much more bearable if I didn’t have to field the questions all the time.

How do you explain to people who see your work, who see the heart and soul you put into what you do, who serve on committees with you, who know you’re doing the work of Christ and operating in your call, that even after all this time and after all you’ve given you’re still not ordained? How many times do you have to turn down invitations to serve the Lord’s Supper from people who mistakenly thought you were already ordained before it starts to get under your skin? It’s a constant reminder of what hasn’t happened.

And, if I may be honest, I’m not a fan of this process. I find it a bit ridiculous that, after earning a Master’s degree, passing five of the hardest exams you may ever take in life, and countless conferences and face time with committees, all you’re working for is the possibility that you may be ordained one day. The possibility! Nothing concrete, just the green light to be further vetted. Can I at least get a cake and some balloons or something?

I recently did pulpit supply for a colleague who had to be at a conference. After a wonderful service, a very gracious member shook my hand and said, “I hope the church who calls you knows what they’re getting!” It was simultaneously a jab in my heart and a balm for it. It jabbed me in that it reminded me (once again) that I haven’t been called, but it soothed me in that it reminded me (once again) that I am called. I am called to do this. I was created to do this. I’m in the right place, doing the right thing. I’m exactly where I need to be.

And I know that the call is not an end. It’s only the beginning. The testing didn’t stop at the Senior Ords. It will continue, and this is all a part of it. There will be days like some I already have in which I’ll question why I’m even here, whether or not I’d correctly heard the voice of God when God said, “Go.” And then I’ll be reaffirmed, maybe by a grateful church member, maybe by a colleague, or maybe by some other means. I think a worse fate than not having a call is being in the wrong one. For that reason, I’m content to wait on the Lord, and I’m strengthened in that waiting.

But in the meantime, can you do me a favor? Don’t ask me about it. Trust me, when it happens — when it finally  happens — you’ll be the first to know.