No Wiggle Room on a Church Staff
(This blog describes a problem I have never heard named. Unfortunately, I have not proposed a solution. I hope I am starting a helpful conversation, since I don’t have an answer. What are your ideas?)
Most churches are small. Compared to the government’s various definitions of “small business,” which can be up to 50-500 employees, our congregations are tiny. It is a rare church that has a dozen employees. Most have one (the pastor) or two (the pastor and an administrative assistant). Some have full-time or part-time employees with very specialized skills—financial secretary, minister of music, preschool coordinator.
If someone is a good employee, but in the wrong job, larger businesses can move a person to an assignment where he or she can succeed.
Churches can’t do that. We are too small. There is no wiggle room. Promotions and demotions are nearly impossible in ecclesiastical life within the same congregation.
In conversation with one of my friends who owns and manages a fried chicken franchise, he contended that one of the tasks of a successful supervisor is to get a person in the right job. My friend, for example, hires someone for a three-month probationary period to work the front counter. He soon discovers the new person doesn’t have the social abilities to work with customers face to face. The individual is faithful in attendance, shows up on time, and isn’t afraid of work. So my buddy makes the employee a dishwasher. The boss keeps a good employee and the worker keeps his job as a wage earner.
Most churches are too small for a similar scenario. A good receptionist does not necessarily make a good financial secretary and vice versa. An exceptional Minister of Music does not necessarily make an exceptional Minister of Youth. Like other businesses, churches enlarge and shrink. Change happens. Difficult choices must be made. What does a congregation do with a pastor when they discover the nice person they called doesn’t have the skill set required to lead a church? A “probationary” period in calling a minister would be extremely rare. What happens when, even after a time of magnificent ministry, it is obvious that an individual and a church’s current situation are no longer a fit?
The exceptions in ecclesiastical organizations are denominations with a Catholic or Methodist polity, where the system and not the local congregation is the employer. In those settings, clergy can be moved from one place to another without fear of being terminated for the “sin” of a bad fit.
Exacerbating the problem, most churches use pious language to describe a hiring as a calling. I like that language. We talk about a “call” being the will of God. It is hard to move from a deeply held spiritual conviction about vocation to saying, “We no longer believe you working here is the will of God.” But, to be fair, other jobs are also callings, and teachers and accountants are not exempt from forced career changes.
Furthermore, churches are volunteer organizations that depend on the generosity of members to pay salaries and meet the budget. Even an employee despised by 90% of a congregation may be loved by 10%. That ten percent might leave if there is an involuntary resignation. If the percentages are different, the results can be even more disastrous. Church sometimes lose members when a terminated pastor or minister of music takes 30%-40% of the congregation to start a new church.
Does anyone have a solution or even a suggestion regarding this painful predicament in our churches?
In the meantime…
As Christians we claim to be people of the Resurrection. We believe that life comes after death. Pain is not the end of the world. We say we trust the transformative power of God working in our lives, even when we suffer. Christians, when we are in our right minds, know that more growth happens in the valley of sorrow than on the mountaintop of pleasure. How many times have we heard someone eventually say, “They did me a favor,” after the unpleasant experience of being dismissed?
We know the Bible says, over and over and over, “Fear not,” but, when it comes to paychecks, we live fearfully.
“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Romans 5: 3
Most of us would prefer that the Bible not say such things, but it does. Still, my question is a serious one: Is there some solution to our vocational dilemma, within churches, that could be less painful for good people doing the wrong job or doing the right job in the wrong place?
God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Our Guide through the past and our Hope for the future,
We don’t have words majestic or glorious enough, sensitive or tender enough to speak adequately to God above all gods. Yet, here we are, gathered for worship, acknowledging our complete reliance on a Higher Power.
We are humbled by the Omnipotence of the Almighty and by the limitations of our humanity.
All we really know to do is to utter repeatedly the words, “Thy Will,” “Thy Reign,” “Thy Way,” “Thy Delight.”
May it happen on earth as in heaven. Let us not wait until we die. May a reign of justice and love surround us today and every day.
Today, especially, we pray for Sanchita Kisku, as we ordain her into the gospel ministry. We are grateful for the people and events that have brought her to this place and time. We ask that she continue faithfully to serve Christ and the church and individuals with the compassion we have already seen evidenced in her life. Help her to be a good listener, a good learner, and a good teacher of the Good News of Jesus.
We ask for your protection of her body, mind and soul as she engages in ministry. Help her avoid the temptations that so often befall women and men in positions of spiritual responsibility, whether deacons, pastors, chaplains or educators.
Bring her through the years, gracefully, to a good old age, where she will know the truth of the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Marion D. Aldridge on behalf of Kathwood Baptist Church, Columbia, SC
Frequently Misused Religious Words
Marion D. Aldridge
- Altar alter (Both are good words, but they don’t mean the same thing. An altar is a place of religious ritual. To alter something is to make a change.)
- Baptist Babtist (Babtist is not a word. Ever.)
- Baptists Baptist (Baptists is plural, meaning more than one Baptist. A Baptist church is not full of Baptist. It is full of Baptists. Our Baptist history professor had to teach this on the first day of class.)
- Calvary cavalry (Jesus died on Calvary. Cavalry describes soldiers who fight on horseback.)
- Counsel council (Pastors often counsel, similar to advise, people in their congregations. A council is a group of people.)
- Cemetery seminary (Some people make this mistake and think it’s funny. Probably not funny to men and women scholars who have invested a lifetime in fighting ignorance.)
- Episcopal Episcopalian (Episcopal is an adjective. You can attend an Episcopal church. Episcopalian is a noun. The bishop is an Episcopalian.)
- Hospice versus hospick. (Pure linguistic laziness, possibly complicated by low IQ. Some people say Walmark instead of Wal-Mart. There are South Carolinians who still believe their Senator was Strong Thurmond.)
- Pastoral pastorial (not a word)
- Prodigal prodical (not a word) Bonus: Prodigal means wasteful.
- Prostate prostrate (How many pastors have been asked to go visit a Dad who, the pastor is told, has prostrate cancer?)
- Psalm Psalms (Both are good words. They don’t mean the same thing. There is a book of Psalms that contains Psalm 23.)
- Revelation Revelations (There is no book in the Bible called Revelations. The final book of the Bible is The Revelation to John.)
Most newspapers and television stations aren’t really in the News and/or Information business. They’re in the advertising industry, making money by selling toothpaste and automobiles. Still, it drives me slightly nuts when so-called news programs and news channels use emotionally charged language to attract and hang onto viewers. Their hope is to keep you tuned in, so the really important thing you need to know is coming up in a few minutes or a few days. I’ve heard such enticements called “churnalism” because their goal is to stimulate readership and viewership, not to inform.
These words during a news broadcast or as headlines in a newspaper are a clue:
- Chilling incident
- Lashed out
- Leaked documents
- Power play
- Sparking outrage
A key component of democracy is an educated electorate. We need information. I have no objection to legitimate descriptive words:
- Nuclear power
- Suicide bomber
There’s enough news that’s important and interesting to inform us without adding the lurid enticements of charged language. I’d prefer to keep our news sources and our entertainment sources separate. (I hope you’ll find some humor in and be entertained by this blog title, even though I have no toothpaste to sell: Beware of Controversial Churnalism.)
“Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.” Ron Chernow
Honesty compels me to confess that Broadway piqued my interest in Alexander Hamilton. Family and friends who were fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about Hamilton raved.
My formal education in American history was deplorable. I took the required course in the eleventh grade. Probably made a “C” and probably didn’t deserve that. But I spent most of July 2016 overcoming that deficiency. I read all 738 pages of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. I loved it.
Somewhere in my under-utilized cranium was awareness of Hamilton versus Jefferson. I knew the name Aaron Burr. This volume remedied my early American history deficit.
Chernow covers Hamilton’s view of church and state: “The best government posture toward religion was one of passive tolerance, not active promotion of an established church.”
About mud slinging, Hamilton lamented that, “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” I’ve observed that in politics, religion, business and education.
Hamilton and George Washington often sided with one another against Thomas Jefferson and other “state’s rights” advocates. Hamilton and Washington “had drawn the same conclusions: the need for a national army, for centralized power over the states, for a strong executive, and for national unity.” When twenty-first century Americans want to interpret the Constitution according to the desires of our Founding Fathers, we would need to ask, “Which Founding Fathers?” They were no more homogeneous in thought than we are today.
Some of the issues our forebears wrestled with sound modern: “Hamilton had to combat the utopian notion that America could dispense with taxes altogether.”
Another twenty-first century conundrum: “For Hamilton, the federal government had a right to stimulate business and also when necessary to restrain it.”
Another current dilemma is mirrored from early years of our history: “It irked Hamilton that Jefferson claimed a monopoly on morality, and he made the following retort to his adversary: ‘As to the love of liberty and country, you have given no stronger proofs of being actuated by it than I have done. Cease then to arrogate to yourself and to your party all the patriotism and virtue of the country.’”
I love it!
Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor
(Second of two parts. Part one: Advice to a Young Pastor)
Marion D. Aldridge
- Don’t expect your new pastor to be like your last pastor—or any other pastor, ever. Not too many decades ago, seminaries produced cookie-cutter candidates to be pastors. Same theology. Same clothes. Same haircuts. Same gender. Their wives could play piano and teach Sunday school, two employees for the price of one. Your pastor could retire or move on, and your church could almost be guaranteed to get another man very similar to the last one. That is no longer so. Nowadays graduates of the same seminary vary theologically—from fundamentalist to liberal. They vary in worship style from traditional to contemporary. They may wear tee shirts to church on Sunday and have beards or shaved heads or both. Some of the best pastors are females. If you want an old-fashioned, twentieth-century pastor, you might as well put up a For Sale sign in front of your church building now.
- Love your pastor. Pretend he or she is your beloved grandchild. Invite the new pastor to your house for a meal or meet somewhere for coffee and a donut. Remember your pastor’s birthday. You are at least partly responsible for your pastor’s success or failure. All pastors need support and encouragement, especially young ones. I made mistakes as a newly-minted seminary graduate in my first church. I needed help, good advice, a listening ear, wisdom, and grace more than I needed judgment.
- The job of being a pastor looks easier than it is. Pastors don’t think jokes about working one hour each week are funny. Believe it or not, a twenty-minute sermon may take twenty hours of preparation. Make sure young pastors have coaches, mentors and support systems that can help them successfully navigate the inevitable challenges in a congregation made up of human beings—an organization that operates in real time with real money and with real problems. Make sure your pastor does not have to choose between vacation and continuing education. No pastor graduates from seminary with all the requisite skills needed to be a competent pastor. Allow them time and money for continuing education experiences.
- Most conflicts in a church are about power. Even if the conflict is about the color of the pew cushions, it’s about power. He said/she said/he said/she said is always about power. Power is often about change—a marriage, a birth, a death, a retirement, a hospitalization, a bankruptcy—something that may look as if it has nothing to do with the church. Pay attention. The issues under dispute are almost never the real issues. God advises patience. God advises listening more than talking. God advises kindness. Reducing anxiety is a worthy goal. Everything young pastors attempt to do won’t work. Make sure you, as a member of the congregation, are a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Blessed are the peacemakers.
- Every generation has new insights about Jesus, Holy Scripture, and the Christian faith. With a young pastor, be prepared to hear something different than what you were taught in Sunday school fifty years ago. The Bible is a Big Book. Every generation, every culture, every denomination, even every family emphasizes aspects of faith unfamiliar—maybe even anathema—to older ears. Many members of my first congregation after seminary, in 1977, deep in the segregated South, did not want to hear anything about race relations. Or, about peacemaking. Or, about an expanded role for women in the church. They heard it anyway. They grew (at least some of them did). I grew.
- The Christian faith, while acknowledging sin and failure, also highlights faith, hope, love, joy, peace, freedom, gratitude, being born again, resurrection, salvation, hospitality, rites of passage, baptism and blessing. Churches that find occasions to celebrate, to eat together, to laugh, to praise God, and to acknowledge successes are doing something right. Have you ever noticed how important festivals and holidays (holy days) were in the history of Israel? Milk and honey, bread and wine. Find reasons to recognize, honor and dedicate people, places, events, or memories. Your church and your pastor will, by doing so, not only be more faithful, but happier as individuals and as a congregation.
Advice for a Young Pastor
(First of two parts. Part two: Advice to a Congregation with a Young Pastor)
Marion D. Aldridge
- It won’t be like they taught you at seminary. That’s not always the seminary’s fault. They can’t predict the random realities of your life or our culture for the next thirty years. The past two weeks of my ministry have been dominated by trying to get the musty smell of mildew and mold out of our church building in the least expensive way. I am highly motivated because recently a couple visited our church and the wife told me she has allergies that respond badly to mold. De-humidifying a sanctuary was never mentioned in any seminary course.
- It’s a real job. Recently, I talked with a 26-year-old Dartmouth grad who wasn’t particularly thrilled with the nitty-gritty, unfulfilling duties of the entry-level job in her chosen career. But, she had been humbled by initially having to work as a maid—even with her Ivy League education. Every job involves grunt work. Nobody gets to do only things they enjoy. That’s why we call it “work” and why we are paid to do it.
- You are a meeting planner. You have pious thoughts about introducing people to God and counseling people in crisis, but what ministers spend much of their week doing is preparing for events—the big ones such as Sunday morning worship and the little ones such as the finance committee. You must become expert at convening groups. Some young pastors (like many laity) assume events magically happen and have no clue that hours are spent each week in coordinating schedules and planning activities.
- You are a fundraiser. No matter how big or small your congregation is, bills must be paid. Budgets and projects must be created that people will support. Call it stewardship, but the money must be raised. Emergencies happen. Heating systems fail. Your church’s best contributor dies. An unbudgeted summer mission opportunity needs to be financed or twenty teenagers will miss out on the experience of a lifetime. Jesus didn’t hesitate to think and talk about money.
- Preaching is the silver bullet. Your congregation will want your sermons to be lightening in a bottle. Every now and then a pastor is charismatic, charming and dynamic (one in fifty?). Have something to communicate, say it well, with humor, with drama, with clarity. Inspiring preaching will fill pews faster than excellent hospital visits. That may not be fair, but it’s reality.
- Your calling is crucial. There will be times when people criticize you. Sometimes you’ll doubt yourself. I never self-appointed myself to a pastorate. A congregation asked me to shepherd them. You’re not a pastor-in-waiting. This is your calling, your vocation. You could be led to a different vocation or the church could vote to rescind their call. But individuals or small groups of unhappy members do not have the right or the authority to alter what the church and the pastor have previously agreed to be God’s call.
- Take care of your own spirit, mind and body. Pastors who read scripture and pray only when desperate to prepare a sermon are sad, lost souls. Study. Listen. Learn. Exercise. Grow. Don’t get stuck in the theology or habits of youth. Change. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Pay attention to your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Pastors who are more-or-less friendless (and there are thousands) with no systems in place (outside their congregation) for encouragement and accountability are not modeling relationships of love. You need to have a life outside the church. Find faithful friends. Pastors who aren’t working to maintain their own family ties are to be pitied. First things first.
A few years ago, I discovered a book titled, The Gifts of the Jews, written by Thomas Cahill. Cahill argues that routines and predictability are pagan ideas, not Christian. I mean “pagan” in the classic sense of ancient religions that worship the creation instead of the Creator. Whether you are an anthropologist studying Stonehenge or an archeologist studying the Mayan ruins in Central America, the common theme is that life is circular, what goes around comes around, spring, summer, fall, winter, then again, spring, summer, fall, winter, this year just like last year, and next year just like this year. The earth’s orbit is predictable. The moon’s orbit is predictable. Round and round, no change, no change. Does that sound like the people in your Sunday school class? That’s pagan, not Christian. Next year is not supposed to look like 1950 or 1980.
God can intervene into history and God does intervene into history.
The gift of the Jews was to help humans understand for the first time, beginning with Abraham, the first hero of Hebrew story, that the events of this world did not have to be circular and predictable. We can break out and go in a new direction. That is what Abraham did, and the world has never been the same.
Of course people resisted that notion then and now.
Numbers 14: 4, while Moses was leading the people of Israel on an Exodus from 400 years of slavery to a new promised land, tells us that some said, “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.” Return to the familiar. That’s pre-Christian. That’s pre-Jewish. It sounds like a lot of churches.
“I never wanted any season but spring.” Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses
A passage can be a secret underground tunnel or a dark alley from one location to another. Walking out your front door to your neighbor’s front porch is not much of a passage. A passage is not a leisurely afternoon stroll in the park. Passages are Big Deals. There is something thorny or problematic about a passage. A passage can be a difficult river or sea route: The Northwest Passage. Passages are challenging.
Anthropologists use the idea of “rites of passage” to describe events that mark important transitions in an individual’s life.
High school graduation recognizes the end of one period of life and the beginning of another. Graduation probably involves leaving a familiar home and getting a real job.
A wedding ceremony is important, ultimately, not because of the joy and celebration involved, but because two people from different families are coming together to make a new family. That’s hard work.
We can talk about funerals being a “celebration of life” all day every day, but a funeral marks someone’s death and departure from this life. Tomorrow, when we wake up, our loved one will be gone. Our life will be altered.
In Islam, completing the Hajj, and in Christianity, completing a pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago, are significant rites of passage.
Many primitive cultures made sure adolescents were prepared for adult living by sending them on some sort of vision quest, requiring they live alone for a few days, or a few weeks, facing their demons and a maybe a few rattlesnakes. A lot of American teenagers grew up when they faced their first drill sergeant during basic training for the military.
Rites of passages differ from culture to culture and generation to generation. They can vary for men and women. A ritual for a teenager (e.g., a walkabout in Australia) will look nothing like a retirement dinner for an older person in America.
What is consistent is that rites of passage mark transitions, which means change! Usually, life before the passage will look different than life later. Life may be better, or it may be worse, but it will be different. A butterfly and a cocoon appear to have little in common, but both are vital creatures representing two expressions of the same being. Both butterfly and caterpillar are required for the cycle of life to be complete.
We may want our transitions to be seamless and painless, but rituals that mark our transitions remind us there is a “before” and an “after.” We don’t always get to choose what the “after” will look like.
Rites of passage let us know that others in our culture have been there before us.