Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Pressure To Be a Heroic Pastor

As I sat around the table over lunch with the pastoral staff of a large church in Tennessee, I asked them to share how they practiced sabbath. The senior pastor started off by saying, "I enjoy my job so much. I find that I don't need one." As I consulted with the leadership, it became clear that the life of the church revolved around him and his gifts. He was always speaking, always leading, and always setting the agenda.

When I landed at the Kansas City airport to lead a weekend of training, the pastor was there to pick me up. He told me that he could not spend much time with me outside of the formal meetings. He had to make some hospital visits, lead a wedding rehearsal, officiate the wedding and then preach three times. He confessed, "I'm so glad my wife and kids are so patient with me. I never see them."

Such stories, sadly, are not uncommon. As I work with churches, in most cases I find that pastors are pulled in impossible ways to accomplish impossible tasks. To meet expectations would require superpowers. While this is not new in the history of the church, the current situation adds additional pressure. Churches are struggling. What once worked great, and the things we learned to do in seminary are no longer working. Then there are all of these great leaders of mega-churches telling us how we can become like them.

And one more thing: the missional conversation. Now pastors must not only lead the church organization, but they must also lead their people into mission because people don't come to church any more.

Pressure, pressure, pressure.

Last week, I wrote a post on problem of heroic Christian leadership. I first reflected on this a few years ago while reading Improvisation by Samuel Wells. In this great book, the author writes about the difference the nature of a hero and contrasts it with the New Testament word "saint" (pages 42-44). He names five distinctions between the two. I want to uses these distinctions to help us understand some about the pressure to be heroic.

First of all, the hero is at the center of the story because the hero is the one who makes the story worth reading. Wells writes, "The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right." On the other hand, a saint does not make the story work because he is not at its center. At best, he is a peripheral character as the protagonist or the primary agent of action is God.

The second difference between a hero and a saint is found in the story itself. The story about a hero is told to celebrate the greatness of the hero and how he or she rose above the crowd to overcome horrible circumstances and do what no one else could do. According to Wells, "The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith." The saint may not have any great qualities that causes him or her to stand out or to accomplish great feats. The saint is merely faithful.

On a third level, the hero's story is distinct from that of the saint because the hero fights over a limited resources. The hero is trained to fight over competing goods, to defeat others who will lose out on those resources. Violence and the power of controlling others is core to the activity of the hero. Wells comments, "Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The soldier faces death in battle; the martyr faces death by not going to battle." The word martyr is also the Greek word translated as "witness" (see for instance Acts 1:8). The hero wins the war; the saint merely points to one who has already won.

The fourth contrast comes to light when weaknesses surface. The hero, being the source of victory, cannot fail and must eschew weakness. The saint knows that failure is part of the journey and takes solace that the victory lies in the hands of God, not in his or her actions. "A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation."

And finally, the hero "stands alone against the world." He or she is the one of great virtue that stands above the crowd. The hero must fight alone because no one understands their calling; no one can relate to their plight. In fact, the hero depends upon himself and does not need the crowd or close friends. A saint, lives in community, knowing that he depends upon others.

If the expectations of Christian leadership—both by leaders and followers—is that the Christian leader be a hero, then increased pressure is the only option. The future of the church falls on the shoulders of the pastor. If he or she does the job the right way, then the church will succeed. If the pastor is a better preacher, then more people will come. If the pastor organizes the church in the right way, then more people will get involved. If the pastor gets out into the community, then we will reach more people with the Gospel.

The pastor is the agent of action, the hero who rises above the norm and makes the church great.

Something must change. We are called to pastor others out of who we are as saints, not as heroes. But this won't change simply because we want it to. We have long been shaped to lead through practices of hero. And churches have been shaped by practices that cause people to expect their pastors to be heroic. We do these practices without even thinking about them. These practices shape our habits and these habits form our character. In order to operate in a different way, we need new leadership practices, those that align with our identity as saints.

What might that look like?

Photo Credit: Bill Spence via Flickr

1 comment:

Brad said...

very helpful. thanks!