Pastoral Relocation: Problems and Promises

A model for pastoral fulfillment and field development

Raymond Edwards has been a pastor in the South Caribbean Conference and is presently studying at Columbia University in New York.

It doesn't matter where. It doesn't matter who. Any pastoral reassignment is sure to produce suspense and speculation. Why? Is it because of the stress associated with relocation? Is it because relocations may affect the destiny of a pastor? Is it because relocation provides the thrill of newness or escape from "tormenters"? Or is it because relocation offers an opportunity for reflection on the fruitfulness or failures of ministry?

There may be some truth in all of the above. But by far the most salutary value of pastoral relocation is its potential for field development and mission accomplishment.

Reassignment models

Over the years I have watched more than a few conference administrations reorder pastor/district assignments into what they consider significantly better matchups. Some of these changes have been very successful, while others have produced serious failure. Most fall somewhere in between, with a possible tilt toward the lower end of the scale. The lessons to be drawn are interesting and can be relevant and useful in developing a more conscious mission focus. While we do not have an abundance of empirical data for the rationale behind pastor/ church reshuffling, anecdotal evidence points to an observable pattern behind these reassignments. We shall note four such pat terns and propose a fifth one.

1. The prestige factor. This model scales churches and assumes that churches have a qualitative rank based on demographic factors socioeconomic and education levels of members, size and aesthetics of buildings, financial advantage to conference, and urban/suburban/rural location. The pastoral staff is similarly ranked according to their perceived qualities such as educational levels, mannerisms, dress, and diction. Assignments are perceived to be made on a matching and sliding prestige/persona scale factor. This model reserves the most "prestigious" church for the pastor thought to possess preeminent personality traits and skills, while the "least among the brethren" are assigned an outlying post. A fellow minister once remarked, "Where you are as signed is the most accurate evaluative statement you could ever hope for. What ad ministration thinks of you as a person tells when transfer time comes."

2. The reward/punishment factor. To rank churches, this model uses a scale based on membership, edifice, finance, and location. The pastoral appointment, however, is based on administrative favor or disfavor. The "choicest morsels" go to "administration's kin," while frustrating assignments go to the least favored. A recently relocated pastor comments: "I know the president doesn't like me. This move is because I'm one of those on his blacklist."

Another factor in this model is administrative trust. Influential and pivotal churches are assigned to ministers who are considered loyal and could be relied upon to provide support on critical and expedient occasions.

3. The rightness of fit factor. This model tries to achieve congruency between peculiar church cultures and dominant personal characteristics of ministers. The model hopes to achieve a fitness between church climate and the minister's personality, thus promoting smoothness of organizational operation.

4. The human relations factor. This model is multidimensional. Factored into the placement decision are logistics such as home ownership sites, spouse's job, children's school needs, pastor's age versus geographic terrain, etc. This model somewhat follows the corporate dictum that organizational health is correlated to worker comfort.

Analyzing the models

Understandably, there are advantages and circumstances that may be advanced to justify preference of one model over an other. There is also sufficient evidence to suggest that the relatively short tenures of Adventist ministers yield more, or at least equally, advantageous tradeoffs when com pared to longer tenures. So the issue is not whether reshuffling pastors is healthy to our churches or not. Rather the more basic questions are: What determining mind-set best helps or most hurts the church and its mission when it comes to pastoral placements? Under what conditions can greater benefits be achieved from pastoral reassignment?

The prevalence of the prestige model, in which the gifted pastor receives the elite pulpit, may be a primary contributor to thwarting field development. Weaker churches have been far too long neglected and underdeveloped. As a result, the weaker they become, the less attractive they are and the less talented pastor they receive. The result is a vicious circle: an underachieving pastor is banished to a weak church, only to land with a ready-made recipe for further church underdevelopment a sign of organizational dysfunction.

Whereas strong and efficient churches may not necessarily be better off by prestige placement practices, weaker churches tend to rely heavily on the minister for their developmental needs, and are usually worse off by the absence of skilled and motivated leadership.

Where the pastoral relocation mirrors reward/punishment or administrative favor/ disfavor, a natural spin-off will be lobbying and placating, plotting, and politicking for positions, accompanied by professional undermining and subterfuge. An inevitable result of this model is an unhealthy organizational climate, with its loss of camaraderie, confidence, morale, and motivation. In addition, there is the incalculable damage to the sacredness and primacy of the call and to the ordination rite. Working under this model subjects pastors to spiritual, professional, and psychological harm, and diverts their essential energies away from the mission of the church and into institutional politics.

The rightness of fit model may be beneficial in fitting the pastor to the needs of the church, but it is often insufficient for proactive growth outcomes. The human relations model, while caring for pastoral stress, spouse's job, and children's needs, raises questions about the biblical legacy of altruism in ministry.

In view of the insufficiency of the four models discussed thus far, we need to ask the question Is there not another overarching ingredient or principle that ought to inform the pastoral placement dynamic and thus ease the dilemma?

Ability/need model

May I suggest a model that takes into ac count a comprehensive field plan/view for development and that incorporates a purposeful analytical review of ministerial abilities and observed locational needs.

This model must be differentiated from the rightness of fit model. With the latter there is a conscious emphasis on matching church climate with pastoral behavior traits, the idea being to reduce friction and organizational stress. The ability/need model, however, emphasizes matching pastoral ability with location needs in a proactive developmental sense. Interestingly, matching pastoral leadership ability with purposefully identified church growth needs will in the long run better serve to reduce church climate problems, as social problems themselves are often vents for unproductive match-ups in the first place.

Thus the determining principle behind pastoral placements ought to be one factor and one only--the empowering of each church to fulfill the mission of the gospel in its locality. If our missiology must remain the driving force behind our existence, underdeveloped and impotent churches cannot complete that mission. They will remain stymied unless assigned someone who can adequately assist them in growing and functioning.

The undergirding theological basis for this need/ability approach is Paul's comparison of the church to the body (Eph. 4). Just as every part of the body is important for its function and mission, so it is in the church all churches are important for the development and fulfillment of the mission of the entire body of Christ. If a conference assigns its premier ministers to the accomplished churches, it defeats the divinely expressed rationale behind giving the most careful attention and consideration to where they are most needed. Where this need/ability model or field development outlook guides pastoral assignment, the gifted and adroit ministers will be assigned to the undeveloped areas possessing the most critical needs. Such an undertaking will narrow the gap between the growing and the impoverished churches within any given conference/mission field. Gifted Pauls must still go and help underdeveloped Macedonias (Acts 16:7-10).


Pastoral placement practices ought to reflect the mission-driven beliefs and commitment of the church. Any consideration that impedes this sacred ideal frustrates the Adventist concept of finishing the work. If we are interested in finishing the work, and if we want to use pastoral appointments to empower the local church for that purpose, let us adopt the need/ability model. Ministerial worth measured on field development accomplishments rather than on occupancy of an elite pulpit could be the pathway to ward organizational health, church empowerment, and mission accomplishment.

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Raymond Edwards has been a pastor in the South Caribbean Conference and is presently studying at Columbia University in New York.

October 1997

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