The pastoral system in America is a professional system. A professional is one who is trained to perform a certain set of tasks according to a proven program of operation. Doctors are an example of this. They receive training at a professional school to perform tasks which others with equal training and skill should be able to perform. The actual person serving as the doctor matters little; it is the duty that he performs that matters. For many patients, he is interchangeable.
The professional pastor is trained to perform a standard set of tasks that anyone trained as a pastor could perform (depending on the denomination). For instance, in certain traditions, the pastor serves as a professional teacher who informs the flock in the right way of living. He would perform marriages according to that tradition, bury according to that tradition, and baptize according to that tradition. But his presence personally as the pastor is not required for the flock to effectively live what he teaches or receive any of the sacraments from him. The pastor is relatively interchangeable.
Whether he expects the denominational headquarters to transfer him or he anticipates a move to another church, he knows that his time with the people of the church is short in comparison to their time in the church. The average tenure of a senior pastor in North America is less than five years, not long enough to develop refrigerator rights. Therefore, a professional distance is created between the pastor and his people, promoting the image of the spiritual individualist who does not need people to speak into his life. As a result, the pastor is often the most isolated person in the entire church. He does not look isolated nor does he feel so. He is busy beyond belief meeting with deacons or elders, counseling with the hurting, and praying with those in the hospital. His life is full of people, but he has no refrigerator rights. On top of this, the expectations placed on the pastor by the people are unrealistic, thereby creating an even greater pressure to perform. Since he has only four years to get all this done—and he must do his job with enough success to merit the recognition of another church with greater opportunities for pastoral consideration—he is left with pragmatic questions of getting programs going.
As a result, the lonely, focused, workaholic pastor sacrifices his family and personal relationships for the sake of the call to ministry. In his book, Turnaround Churches, George Barna reports on his interviews of pastors who lead declining churches into success. He states, “None of these pastors was proud of being a workaholic, but most of them admitted that this was one trait that enabled them to lead the turnaround. ... A 60 to 80-hour work week was widely viewed as a job hazard for those called to this line of work.” The typical pastor is the super-human rugged individual, or what I call the “spiritual Marlboro man.”
What kind of model is the professional pastor establishing for the people to follow? Here are some typical ways of living that pastors set for others to imitate:
“If you really want to follow Christ, you will become a workaholic for Christ like me.”I pray that this does not describe you or your pastor. I pray that my life does not reflect these patterns either. However, the more I work with churches to help them establish groups, the more I discover that the model that people are following hinders actually doing groups well. My fear is that pastors are setting a model that operates according to the system of individualism and pragmatism, resembling the culture of the world. Miller states,
“If you really want to follow Christ, you will be alone and isolated like me, with no one to share your deepest needs and hurts.”
“If you really want to follow Christ, you won’t ever put down any roots because you expect to move within the next five years.”
“If you really want to follow Christ, you will establish a professional distance from the people you lead.”
The drift into individualism and isolation has not become so obvious that (at least to sociologists) American culture is unique. We are alone in the world putting such heavy emphasis on individual versus group identity. Ours is a culture of fierce, personal independence. We take pride in indi- vidual competition, mastery and achievement. We pay a steep price, however, as ours is also a culture of intense anxiety and psychic distress.While sociologists might see it, most pastors I talk with do not. I repeatedly hear the same thing that Barna found in his research, “None indicated that he or she was comfortable with the toll the job exacted on the family life. Yet, none of those who were workaholics in practice maintained that anything less than total effort and energy would have enabled the come- back.” I struggle with leaning this direction because I love my job and feel such a passion for what I do. But I also know that such a pattern will be counterproductive to the kind of life I want the people who follow me to lead. Henri Nouwen recognized this pattern 25 years ago. He wrote:
The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people’s fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.
Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many ser- vices to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying or doing.The relational way will only flow from who we are, the character we possess and our willingness to cultivate the kingdom according to patterns that do not reflect the patterns of this world. We must develop a new system of being the church, one that cultivates relationships through the practicing of spiritual disciplines, honoring the Sabbath, communing with God and developing community in which church leaders develop healthy connections. As we do this, we establish patterns worth passing on to others who will lead others into the relational way.
—Adapted from The Relational Way, Pages 37-40