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  • Writer's picturePaul Mahon

Getting People Back (part II) : The Pastoral Connection

Joining or rejoining a local church is a huge decision for anyone!

It is a decision to invest your emotions (particularly in new relationships), to invest your finances (through regular giving), to invest your sacred time (through a commitment to regular attendance and serving), and putting your trust in others to help mentor you and your families spiritually growth.

And while a godly person will make this decision based on prayer and the leading of God they will also base it on whether they genuinely feel a connection with the church.

I have been proposing in this blog series that it is not 'one thing' that helps us feel connected to a local church but rather there are potentially at least six. When a person decides to become part of a local church there will be need to be at least two or three things about the church they can connect with out of a potential 6 or 7.

In my last blog we looked at two possible areas people are looking for connection.

  • They are looking to connect, through local church, with God's presence.

  • They are looking to connect, through the local church, with the WORD.

Today, I would like to look at a third area that people may, consciously or subconsciously, be looking for connection when attending a church..

3. They are looking for a connection with the Pastor.

In the past, the need to connect with the pastor or priest was a very low expectation for church goers. This was largely because liturgical churches had very little emphasis on a personal connection with the minister and all the emphasis was on the liturgy itself. Equally, people were committed to the denomination or the local body more than the minister. If they didn't like the minister then they would just 'wait it out' and hope for a change in the not to0 distant future.

In the modern evangelical church, however, the dominant and outsized role of the lead pastor means that if people struggle to feel a connection with you it will cause them to seriously question their continued attendance. When I left a pastorate some people also left because they couldn't connect with the new pastor. And to keep me humble, others (and probably more) came back to the church because I was gone!

We attended an Anglican church recently because some unbelieving friends of ours had held their daughters funeral at this local parish. They did not attend church at all but the vicar did a fabulous job of pastoring them through this tragic event. It was this 'connection' with the minister through an emotional experience that got them there for a few more Sunday's and us along with them.

Ultimately if people can't relate to you, or your style of ministry, it is highly likely they will move on. This reality is one of the hardest in the ministry and can feed all kinds of insecurities.

People's need to connect with their leaders is something leadership will ignore at their own peril. We may not like it, or even feel it is healthy at times, but all leaders need to face it and develop a healthy approach towards this reality.

The most toxic way to approach this is to conclude that you need personal 'charisma' to build your church.

I have noticed over the years that many young church planters, though they might not even recognize it, rely heavily on 'charisma' to plant a church. They are often young men or couples who are able to gather a group of age similar people around them . They are great at making people feel personally connected and quickly gather an ever growing community which is built around their personality and connectivity.

But believing it is your personality that builds the church quickly becomes a trap.

It is remarkable, as I travel around to different churches, how many pastors do everything on a Sunday morning. They do the welcome, the announcements, the communion, the sermon, the altar call, the benediction, and in some cases even the worship! Speaking from my own personal battles in this area I think I know why this happens. The pastor believes that no one else has quite got the 'connection with the congregation' as them and it is their 'charisma' and 'personality' that will keep people engaged and coming back. No one else can do the up front things anywhere near to what they can.

This false belief, that it is the pastors charisma that builds the church, has lead to all kinds toxic outcomes.

Believing that it's your 'charisma' that is keeping people there leads to a performance mentality. Pastors become comedians to gain favour, they embellish their stories to look good, they become theatrical in their ministry, they flaunt or even manufacture spiritual gifts to elevate themselves and the list goes on. All of these things are good in a measure (quite a few ministers need a little bit more of humour and joy in their messages) but toxic when driven by the need to 'win people over'.

The belief that we can 'win people over' equally puts tremendous pressure on us outside the pulpit. We can spend a lot of time running around having 'lunches' or 'visiting' or 'making phone calls' or 'attending functions' instead of seeking God or being strategic. While this networking can be genuine and sincere, and at times even necessary, it also can be driven by a fear that if we don't stay connected to people we might loose them. At the core we believe it is 'our personality' that is building the church rather than Christ.

There is a very real possibility that the vast majority of a ministers relationships in a church are essentially co-dependent in nature. The congregant expects attention and affirmation from the leader in exchange for the leader getting allegiance from the congregant.

This reality can come as quite a shock to pastors when they leave a congregation as they discover that their relationships with former members quickly dies off. This is because the relationships were in a sense contractual and the change in our role fundamentally changes the relationship.

Alternatively, this codependency relationship can lead to a cultist type environment where pastors manipulate congregants into an unhealthy level of allegiance and ostracize those who don't show the required levels of commitment. When ministers are insecure, and don't know how to work through relationship issues, this is compounded.

And I can't put all the blame on the pastor.

After years of ministry so I have observed that many, many, congregants have very unhealthy expectations for pastors. Some expect the pastors to be available at their at every beck and call. Others expect intimate friendship. Others want acknowledgement each and every time they are in the same room as you. Others, particularly the influential, expect you to be the 'personal priest for their family'.

Jesus actually warned all of us (pastors and congregants alike) to avoid setting each other up for a toxic relationship.

8But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Christ. 11The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Matthew 23

Yet, with so many broken people in this world longing for 'a father figure' in their lives the ground is ripe for leaders who are walking in their soulish nature to manipulate people.

Many church splits are not theological but rather egotistical leadership fights with the primary weapon being 'who has the largest number of co-dependent allegiances'.

Paul the apostle, in the letters to the Corinthians, writes a lot about the tension he faced between being a great 'pastor' while not encouraging a co-dependency relationship. The church in Corinth was struggling with some immature believers who were forming personality cults around Peter, or Apollo, or himself. He reminded them that he was their pastor who taught them, prayed for them, and exhorted them, Yet, at the same time, he stressed they owed him nothing for it. In fact, it's amazing how often Paul worked hard to not receive any personal funding from congregants because he wanted to avoid any form of co-dependency.

I always remember a teaching I sat under by Andy Stanley who shared that he refuses any gifts from congregants (money, holiday homes, material things) because in doing so he would be feeding into the co-dependency mindset. It was very challenging and gets to the root of what is often the toxic nature of church leadership.

As you can see, this reality of people wanting to connect with the leadership is fraught with many dangers and traps.

Yet there is a redemptive aspect in all of this!

We are all looking for individuals in our lives who can mentor, guide, encourage, and bless us. In the church context this is called 'a pastor'.

Perhaps it is more biblical and healthy to say that people, in attending a church, are looking for individuals who might pastor them rather than people are looking to connect with the leader. This re-writing of the statement changes the focus from an overemphasis on individuals emotional needs (which bred's toxic relationships) to an emphasis on spiritual needs.

The new statement gives a church and leadership a much healthier construct to build around.

The role of the church leader is no longer about you individually connecting with as many people as possible so they may feel 'pastored'. It is now about you as the leader raising up, and promoting, as many qualified individuals as possible who can fulfill the role of pastor in your congregants lives.

I would say, with all humility, that is was one of the strongest aspects of the church I last pastored. We worked hard at raising up as many 'pastors' as possible so that people joining our church had many other individuals they could get mentorship from rather than myself.

Here are some things we did to promote the visibility this larger ministry team.

  1. All senior leadership was licensed and/or ordained.

The lay elders were licensed as were the associate pastors so they could preform weddings, and by association, funerals, and baptisms.

This was huge because, in the congregants eyes, there was now many pastors. In fact, new people often said 'you have a lot of pastors'. They were thinking in financial terms and wondered how we could afford this team but the truth was that half of them were volunteers!

This diverse group of 'pastors' meant that we had a wide range of individuals that people could connect with. We had different pastors/elders of different ethnic backgrounds, ages, social economic backgrounds, personality types etc. It was amazing that from this group we were able to know 'pastorally' where almost of our families and individuals were at pastorally in a church of well over 600 congregants.

It also meant that I did very little in the way of weddings, funerals, baptisms and pastoral visits. In fact, except for visitation. I did the least amount of weddings, baptisms, and funerals of anyone on our team. People didn't even ask for me to do these key moments in their lives because they felt way more connected to one of the other 'pastors'.

2. We consistently gave our key leaders spiritual roles that were public.

The elders lead the communion and dedications, the associate pastors all took turns at leading the services, and as much as possible we gave these key leaders a chance to preach at least twice a year. By consistently presenting these leaders before the congregation in a spiritual capacity it reinforces them as potential 'pastors' for congregants to connect with.

To a lessor degree we did this with life group leaders by having them distribute the communion, be the prayer team up front after the service, and be at the baptismal pool during baptism's. All of this promoted the spiritual authority of these leaders.

We went further in one season to have the Lords table be held in Life Groups rather than the main service. For six weeks we wanted to shift peoples thinking from 'the senior pastor as the peoples pastor' to a new reality that their primary pastoral care comes from the LIFE group and its leadership. We prepared little communion boxes and packages with instructions. It was a little hard for some folks to get their head around it but personally I felt that if we had pursued it then we could have totally remade the our church. We could have made LIFE groups the central pastoral ministry of the church. In fact, I believe we could have gotten to a place where people would have been more regular in LIFE groups than weekend services when they realized it was the primary place for care.

3. We developed really strong pastoral ministries with great leaders.

Having a great team of leaders who have a strong pastoral gift and lead well makes a huge difference to being effective at ministering to a larger group of people.

Our leaders of our recovery program were very strong and built a church within the church. Our young families leaders were the same, as was our coaching ministry and our ethnic ministries.. Our coaching ministry actually trained up a large number of people to on 'how to coach/counsel' which gave another influx of pastoral leaders.

As soon as we saw a lay person who was able to gather a group, and pastor them, we did all we could to release and promote them.

Our goal was to take away the focus of our people from the singular pastor and onto the many pastors that God have given them. We were pumped when people felt very connected in the church to a leader who wasn't the senior pastor as this meant we were doing our job.

As church leaders we must acknowledge that people have a need to genuinely connect with shepherds and we need to promote this office. Making it all about the personality of the leader, however, will ultimately be to the detriment of the local church and its pastor.

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