Sometimes Only the Pastor Understands

by Dr. Randy White

**This article was previously posted by Dr. Randy White HERE and is used by permission.

It is President Harry Truman who is quoted as saying, “The buck stops here.” I do not know if the president was celebrating power or crying over its burden, but I do know that the president of the United States is in a unique position which only those who have held the office can understand.

When it comes to the work of leading a church, I have often noticed that everyone in the church (and most outside) think they know exactly what that church needs in order to thrive. They serve as the “arm-chair pastor” and solve all the problems of the body. “If we did this, then all would be well,” they proclaim.

Here is why they are wrong.

First, they assume that everyone thinks like they think. Since the “birds of a feather” principle is true in every setting of life—church included—we surround ourselves with people who think like we think. The personal tastes may vary, but the values are the same. This is true on a macro as well as a micro level. People joined the same church because of a shared value. Within the church, people joined a Bible study or particular ministry based on a different shared value. Not everyone is in the choir, nor is everyone a greeter. Within these micro-level value systems it is so easy to forget that others within the church do not hold the same values.

Some values are inherently Biblical and moral in nature, but many are not. I value personal space, while you may treasure crowds. You value loudness, I value silence. She values simplicity, he values beauty. All of these values can be deeply held by people who hold their faith deeply, even though the micro-values themselves conflict.

The challenge comes when these micro-units within the church begin to do macro-level decision making. Sitting around their fellowship table, they know exactly how to solve the problem. What they do not realize is that the people at the next table over would react strongly against their suggestions because these two tables do not interact on any level of depth.

Second, they assume that the problem they see is independent. We tend to simplify problems when we are not (as another president declared) “in the arena.” It is often not easy to see that one solution leads to another problem. Problems and activities in the church are not independent, but rather interrelated.

I have often said that the issues and agendas of the church are all tied together with an invisible rubber band. Think of it in terms of a living room that needs to be rearranged, but everything in the room is connected to the other items in the room by a rubber band. Everything currently sits in delicate balance, but what happens when you move something? Without a great degree of caution, it would be easy to create a real mess. Only someone with tenure and experience knows that when you do this, that happens.

Someone in the music ministry may not understand the implications of extending choir rehearsal. They do not realize that the nursery worker stays longer, which often means the budget is stretched further, which means the youth ministry may later find that there is not enough money for the back-to-school event, which is a favorite event of the ladies ministry that bakes the brownies for the event, etc, etc… For every solution, there is an offsetting result.

The pastor, perhaps uniquely among all church members, bears the weight of managing micro-values and interdependent causes and effects. The pastor is likely alone in his role of knowing and ministering to all levels of the church’s geological strata. This is why churches need pastors—and why individuals need to respect the tensions that the pastor manages.

So the next time you think you have the solution, try this. Rather than declaring to the pastor that you have this figured out, say to him, “Pastor, what would happen if we did this? Who would it upset? What would be negatively affected?” Then listen. And listen some more. And do not insist that all the implications are minor, especially when you are almost never going to be the guy that has to live daily with those implications. It may be easy for you to say, “Well, the youth department will just have to get used to it,” because you do not have to minister to and walk with the parents of the youth. The pastor does. Respect the weight of the Truman truth: “The buck stops here.”

A word to the new pastor is in order. As a new pastor, you are not too unlike the member who only knows the church on a micro-level. It will not take you long to know the interdependent nature of the ministries and missions within the local congregation, but it will take you a while. It is easy for a new, inexperienced pastor to come into a congregation thinking, “I have this figured out, I know exactly what needs to be done.” The church, eager to follow the new pastor, will go along. Soon you will realize that it was not so easy after all. Long tenure is a good thing in pastoral leadership. Stick around, and soon you will know best about the issues and agendas in the church, and will know best what needs to be done.