The Separation of Church and Pastor — Part One

kinnon —  May 16, 2012 — 18 Comments

This post was partially triggered by JR Briggs blog post, Devastating Statistics About Pastors. In that post, JR talks about church leader stats that Bob Hyatt shared at a recent Ecclesia Network gathering; stats which, in terms of pastor failures/problems/pain, truly are devastating.

JR has some suggestions for what you, the parishioner and/or elders, can do for your pastor. They’re all good.


Might I suggest the only way to actually deal with the problem is to recognize its root. Which I would identify as our predominant church leadership system — rather than how pastors are treated within that system. (And I need to note that I think much of what JR, Bob, Dave Fitch and the many others involved with what the Ecclesia Network is doing is critically important to the life of the North American church in a Post-Christendom context.)

DHayward Justlikethem

The separation of church and pastor is largely responsible, in my never humble opinion, for both the abuse of pastors, as well as abusive pastors.

When pastors set themselves apart from the people, or are expected to be separate from the people they are pastoring, the system breaks down into what we are experiencing today. Whether it’s the stats Bob Hyatt points to at one extreme or the systemic leadership abuses of organizations like Sovereign Grace Ministries at the other. (As an aside, please see this important post from former SGM pastor, Rick Thomas on the hurting people wounded in that particular train wreck.)

In the previous post, I wrote of how Jesus lived with and discipled his followers. He was in intimate relationship with those gathered around him. He ate with them, he laughed with them, he wept with them and he constantly modeled ministry for them. He was almost always with them. Yes, he separated himself to pray and seek the Father, but what we see in the Gospels is primarily Jesus hanging out with those he called. He wasn’t heading off to Messiah conventions to learn from or share his understanding with all the other messiahs. He was pouring his life into those around him.

Wander with me to Luke 10. What do we see? Well. Jesus sends the 72 disciples out in twos. No manly single church planters being sent out to the harvest. He tells them to take nothing for their journey. They are to receive hospitality from those with whom they meet. To pray for their healing. And they return to him shocked by what has transpired.

Note that Jesus didn’t tell them to choose the area where they would build their church, or to get their church logo designed, their website up or to find the perfect worship leader and team. Rather, he sent them out in twos to both receive from and minister to those who would accept them. (And yes, there is a lifetime’s worth of further teaching to unpack from Luke 10.)

The model is relationship. Jesus with his disciples. His disciples in pairs, establishing relationship with those they encounter on their journey. It’s not about setting up branch plants of the particular church model preferred by the individual disciples.

In scanning blog posts or reading tweets of late, I see lots of words about pastors needing to get together with other pastors. I see little about pastors and fellow Christians who are not pastors, needing to be in close and loving relationship with each other. The “us/them” attitude between church and pastor is simply a given. And it leads to a lot more problems than just the stats JR points to via Bob.

King in suit

Perhaps, the latest and one of the most egregious examples of the separation of church and pastor is the Chuck O’Neal story where he, a pastor from Bob Hyatt’s home town has begun a lawsuit against a number of folk who’ve written bad reviews of his hyper-authoritarian church. Chuck is a firm believer in the popular translation of Ephesians 3:17 as “submit to your leaders and obey them”. And it seems that Chuck simply adds to this, “if they don’t and they dare write publically about it, then sue’em” — which he claims he was advised to do by a leadership staff person working for a well known promoter/practitioner of authoritarian leadership. (For further discussion on the Eph 3:17 translation issue, see Lance Ford’s and Lin’s comments on my previous post.)

From the multiple media reports one can surmise that Chuck believes and practices what I was once told by a senior pastor of my acquaintance, “if it’s not my vision, it’s di-vision. And I won’t allow it.”

Mike Breen, whose latest book I will say again is a must-read, wrote this in a blog post published yesterday,

At the end of the day, what most pastors want (and have been trained to want!) is minions to execute the most important vision of all. Their own. In doing this, they effectively kill people’s ability to get a vision of their own. Nevermind that this approach is antithetical to the Gospel.

Christian leadership is about listening for vision from God within community and then being given the authority and power to execute that vision — to take new Kingdom ground. That’s the birthright of every Christian…to hear the voice of their Father. But in the way we do leadership, suddenly it’s like we are pre-Reformation where only the select and the elite who are given this privilege. And let’s be clear: Our ego has a lot to do with this.

Now I’m not suggesting we shift to a paradigm full of chiefs and no Indians. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t times where we leverage our collective abilities to deliver on a central vision. I’m saying that there are many places in your community where the Kingdom needs to be advanced. And if you want to take that territory, you’re going to need more than just a cadre of volunteers. You have to learn to operate in a model that releases leaders to take those fronts, or you’re going to stand still.

You may think your vision is big enough to all those cracks and crevices, but I’m telling you…it’s not.

More on the Separation of Church and Pastor in Part Two.

NB: Cartoon from the inimitable Naked Pastor, David Hayward.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

18 responses to The Separation of Church and Pastor — Part One

  1. Thanks, Bill. Many good points here. Can’t wait to read Mike’s book.

  2. Whatever happened to that “support-the-pastor” movement from 10-15 years ago that was supposed to help break down that wall of separation? I think this was the origin of Pastor Appreciation Month, but other than that, I suppose nothing ever came of it.

  3. Hey Bill. I’ve never been called inimitable before. You take that back!! (thanks for using my cartoon!). Good post.

  4. Why don’t we live closer? Glad to have a Canadian Kindred Spirit.

    The shift of expectation, both pastor and parishioner, requires a generation of mentors who will capture the necessity of relationship. I met with a young staff member at another church last week who told me that in the three years he had been on staff he had had a total of 45 minutes of conversation with the “Senior Pastor.” I fell out of my chair. And, this Senior Pastor is a youngish fellow. Younger than either of us to be sure.

    A mega-church pastor in the nearby metro area told his congregation years ago that he did not have time for them because there were too many. Others would have to do funerals and weddings. Maybe even other ministerial staff at other churches. These are those who get the stage at the Messiah conferences. (Nice reference by the way.)

    Looking forward to more on this important topic.


  5. I get what your saying here, but I think we have to use our vocabulary skills very carefully:

    I hear you saying that the pastor must be on par, sharing life, and interdependently co-existing with the * congregation* (by which we mean the actual flesh and blood, men and women that make up the local expression of the ekklesia of God).

    This is important, because we need to let the pastor be divided from the *church* (as an institution of practicing religious rhythms and presence). In other words, the church cannot become the vehicle by which the pastor enforces, spreads, and cultivates his personal “ministry vision”. If the pastor gets cozy with the church in this context (when it is no more than his personal platform), the people whose lives he is “pouring himself into” are going to only be the obedent goats and yes men that prove the pastor is the “anointed” (don’t touch me! I’m holy!).

    The pastor needs to divorce the church and hop into bed with the congregation… wait, that came out wrong. But you get the idea.

  6. dan macdonald May 16, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks Bill. By God’s grace my church won’t let me out of their loving arms. So glad they don’t let me hide when I want to.

  7. Dude. Well put. I might just copy this word for word and post it on my blog five years ago. What you are pointing out here is one of the massive splits I’ve seen within the Christian context and outside of it. This isn’t just pastors/churches but leaders/followers and bosses/employees – Christian’s seem to have adopted this model into the church and not thought twice about it.

    When pastors, Christians leaders are travelling around and applying to churches for jobs and hoping everywhere and never setting roots and making a home within a community for good then you end up taking who are supposed to be people with gifts and talents to share and ostracising them with the very people they should be serving by putting them above them or saying they are ‘different.’

    Thanks for this.

  8. To quote the hip hop culture, don’t hate the player, hate the game. What an appetite we have developed for strange food. I can’t help but think that Pastors have developed all manner of tastes for things that don’t, and will never… ever… ever satisfy. In enshrining the take charge expedition leader who’s *cough* VISION will lead the way, we’ve turned the subjective vision of men into a false god. And when provisions run low on the journey to utopia (literally “no place”) we turn on that guy and eat him.

    • Well said, Damian. We all become casualties in a system that chews us up and spits us out.

  9. Bill, I hear and wholeheartedly agree with your comments here (and elsewhere) on leadership and pastoring in evangelical churches.

    However, I gather from reading that you are Anglican. Doesn’t a similar situation exist there? Now, I can see several differences (historical hierarchy vs. entrepreneurial testosterone, for instance), but I’m interested in your thoughts.

    I’m no expert on Anglicanism, but on the rare Sunday when I do walk into a church these days, it’s an Anglican church. And the clergy/parishioner separation would appear to be pretty significant.

    • Tim,
      Cognitive dissonance reigns in me as well. Though, you might be shocked at how little I actually find myself passing through the doors of any church building at this point in time. The Anglican church, for however much I may love her, is just as screwed up as any other “brand”.

  10. This is hard, though. There are some people who want a pastor that floats above the crowd and so when that pastor is more real and down-to-earth, they find something wrong with that. Then there’s the issue of having boundaries because some people will inevitably cross those boundaries and think the pastor should be available to them all the time.

    I was not a pastor, but an elder and when I left the church, people were surprised because they saw me (apparently) as someone who would not do that. Presumably I should have just stayed in an abusive situation rather than move on after enduring quite a bit. Some people just seem to have a skewed view of the faith and faith leaders.

  11. This sounds good…but doesn’t work so well in reality. Too many people NEED their ministers to be better than them, and there’s only so much we can do to change that perception. And on top of that, too often the people in a church are more loyal to the church as an institution than to the ministers as people/friends. They might seem like friends – but if there’s a problem, they’ll leave the friendship and side with the church. I was idealistic once, and I learned the hard way. I hope I never act as if I’m better than the congregation or above them – I’m NOT!, but my closest friends are other people in ministry who KNOW that ministry does not equal perfection. We’re as human as the next person.

  12. But as for what you said about Jesus sending the disciples out in pairs – AMEN. Team ministry is so important. I wouldn’t do it any other way.

  13. Ironically, I don’t want what your post suggests most pastors want. This weekend I am preaching a message on the priesthood of the believer in response to an article I read by another pastor suggesting that pastoral ministry is the greatest calling. Poppycock! It is A calling for sure, but THE greatest…puhlease. That kind of theology stinks to the skies.

    But most of the folks I work with want a LEADER with VISION and who will make them the next mega-church in town. When I suggest that we simply follow Jesus together, loving one another and making disciples of other people (hmmm…how can we improve on the vision of JESUS???) I get accused of having no vision. They scream for programs and more programs. They are not content with the simple plan of Jesus.

    Perhaps I do suck as a leader and am a crappy pastor. I don’t know. It seems God uses me in the lives of many people in personal ways (at least many tell me this). But honestly, I am experiencing the opposite of this post. I’ve tried very hard not to put myself above the people and I have just gotten beat up for it. I’m tired and wounded. Another job sounds really good right now.

    • Scott, Never forget the Israelites begged for a king when God was their King and He gave them one. Saul.

      Try a sermon on that one. :o)

  14. Bill

    Yes – They are “Devastating Statistics About Pastors.” 🙁
    And Yes – Pastors do “set themselves apart from the people.” 🙁

    One suggestion to help “Separated Pastors” is – Check the scriptures…
    To see if the Title/Position of todays Pastor/Leader is even in the Bible?

    Isn’t it possible the reason “Burnout,” “Depression,” “Family dificulties,”
    (77% say they do NOT have a good marriage.)
    is such a problem for **Today’s** “Pastor/Reverend/Leader”
    is they have found themselves with a

    “Title” and “Position” NOT found in the Bible?

    And the only folks they can really relate to and feel comfortable with are
    others who have also taken this “Title/Position” NOT found in the Bible.
    (70% say they do NOT have a close friend.)

    When you believe the lie you start to die…

    Did anyone have the “Title” “pastor” in the Bible?
    Was anyone ordained a “pastor” in the Bible?
    Was anyone , Hired, or Fired, as a “Pastor” in the Bible?
    Were any congregations “led” by a “pastor” in the Bible?

    And every “pastor” I’ve met has the “Title” “Reverend.”

    Does anyone have the “Title” Reverend in the Bible?

    Haven’t you ever wondered – Why??? In the Bible…
    NOT one of His Disciples, had the “Title” and “Position”
    of Pastor/Reverend/Leader, leading a congregation?

    What is popular is not always “Truth.”
    What is “Truth” is not always popular.

  15. When I was a pastor, once upon a time, one of my biggest frustrations was that people didn’t WANT me to be normal. And when I refused to play the “pedestal game”, well… I’m not a pastor anymore. 🙂


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