Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Pastors, Great Churches

I’m reflecting today on something I’ve heard on a few occasions from some members of Mt. Zion UMC, the larger church in my placement. First, a little background to what I’ve been hearing. The pastor of Mt. Zion and Hebron UMCs, David Blackman, is a great pastor. He’s a gifted preacher, sociable with the congregations, focused on vision-setting and lay empowerment, and always talking about missions and outreach to the area. God has given him a vision of bigger and better things for Mt. Zion and Hebron, and he tries in everything he does to convey that vision to these congregations. He is deeply loved by both of these churches. But what I keep hearing from the parishioners is this: “We’re just going to enjoy David while we have him, because we know he’s better than just Mt. Zion.”

Given the UMC’s system of itinerancy for elders, the first half of this statement isn’t unusual, because the fact is that at some point David will move on to another appointment. What bothers me is the notion that David is too good of a pastor to be at Mt. Zion and will soon be “moving up” to a bigger church or a leadership position in the conference. This troubles me in a couple of ways. First, I don’t the way this implies that bigger churches are better churches – that bigger churches are the ones that make a difference while smaller churches are left to irrelevance. What bothers me even more is this notion that bigger churches deserve better pastors than smaller churches. Don’t all churches deserve great pastors? Shouldn’t Mt. Zion and Hebron be as deserving of a pastor like David Blackman as churches many times their size? All of these churches are equally part of the body of Christ, and I don’t believe that the quality of a church’s leadership should be determined by the number of members on the roll. I think particularly of smaller churches that are used to being led by retired ministers or student pastors, churches that are used to cycling through pastors instead of having pastors that invest in growing the church for an extended period of time. Does the itinerant system often sell short the vitality and potential of smaller churches and become a system where better and/or more experienced pastors just move up the pastoral ladder to bigger churches?

Another problem I have from hearing this is that smaller congregations may develop a sense that mediocrity is the best they can do, or that this attitude is already in place. I’m afraid that smaller congregations may feel that they’re just training grounds for new pastors or receptacles for the pastors that are left over after the great ones have been appointed. This attitude may not be deadly for a congregation, but I think it can certainly breed a feeling that the bar for small congregations is set lower than the bar for larger congregations. I refuse to believe that, and I refuse to believe that God is pleased with mediocrity. We have all been graciously saved to be part of God’s transformation of the world, a purpose that we cannot fathom and that is certainly beyond the vision of even our “greatest” pastors and leaders. We can see Paul in his letters encouraging the churches he planted to excel in showing love, to outdo one another in showing kindness, to move on to perfection regardless of their current size or situation. From the very beginning of the Church, God has been moving to push the Church to greater heights, to live abundantly rather than sheepishly. A call to follow Jesus is a call to greatness in faith, hope, and love, regardless of where we are. Are many of our churches now stuck in a culture of mediocrity that is hampering the proclamation of the Gospel in all corners of the world?

I honestly don’t know the answer to the questions I’ve posed, and I hope I’m wrong in my assessment of the ways small congregations perceive the quality of pastor they “deserve”. I also run the risk of being hypocritical, because I will admit that I have sometimes thought ahead to my first appointment, one that will probably be in a rural church or multi-point charge, and eagerly anticipated the time when I will move on to appointments at larger urban and suburban churches. I must fight the “small-church syndrome”, as well, and this in spite of my experience growing up in a wonderful, nurturing rural church. I pray that I can someday live out John Wesley’s prayer that God would send him to whomever God saw fit. I know that when I enter the itinerancy system, I will go not as one who is hired but as one who is sent, and I have to be ready to be sent to some places I would not volunteer to go to. God, however, has a history of doing great things with those situations, and I pray that I will have faith to follow God’s leading.

No comments: