I am the president of a small union conference. A few decades ago the General Conference gave its approval to disband the two existing conferences and create a simplified organization with only one administrative unit. This has worked well. As a result, the union conference, in many ways, also functions like a conference, and I have the kind of direct interaction with the pastors in the local churches that most union conference presidents would not have. It is a part of my duties that I thoroughly enjoy.
I tend to be demanding of other people. But at the same time I also try to help create an atmosphere in which people experience ample freedom to be themselves—fostering warm collegiality, allowing them to feel encouraged to develop and pursue their own initiatives. Yet, I do have definite expectations that I believe are reasonable. In fact, I am convinced that they form a platform for highly effective cooperation and collegiality in our collective ministry.
The following seven principles are of paramount importance to me. While I hope that the pastors in my field will see this article and concur that this is indeed how we, in fact, work together, I trust it also may be of some use to others.
The pastor must be a leader
Often, we talk about church leaders and local pastors as if these are two main classes of church workers that are totally separate. Indeed, the people who operate out of a conference or union conference office have a specific leadership assignment. But the pastors in the churches are leaders in their own right. I want the pastors to assume a leadership role in their churches. They must lead by example. They must lead through planning and casting a vision for their members. Today, one hardly can talk about leadership without defining it as servant leadership. I wholeheartedly agree—not because it is the politically correct thing to say but because any involvement in working for our Lord must be inspired by the example of the great Servant of all. But at the same time I believe this does not militate against the idea that a leader must have a certain degree of ambition. Successful leaders must want to be leaders and enjoy the fact that they are leaders. If not, they will soon cease to inspire the people they are called to lead.
The pastor must grow
You may have heard the story about two people who applied for a job. When the one with twenty years of experience complained that the employer had chosen the other applicant who had only three years of experience, the employer told the man who boasted of twenty years of experience, “You do not have twenty years of experience, but only one year—twenty times over.” This is the unfortunate truth about many people—some pastors included. They may have a considerable number of years of service behind them, but this has not necessarily made them mature, experienced people.
I expect pastors to grow both personally and spiritually. That kind of growth does not just happen automatically. Pastors must intentionally feed their own souls. They also must be able to regularly take a critical look at themselves and determine where they need to improve and grow. I also expect pastors to grow professionally. Of course, that expectation presupposes that the pastors are stimulated to avail themselves of opportunities for professional growth and that their employing organization provides learning opportunities.
The pastor must be a change agent
A church that does not change with the times and with the ever-changing culture in which it bears witness will soon be no more than a museum, visited occasionally by some people with some historical or nostalgic interest. The church must speak to people of the twenty-first century. It must remain loyal to the message it proclaims but also must constantly pursue better and more persuasive ways of proclaiming that message in a progressively secular and postmodern context. A local church cannot fulfill its mission and will cease to attract and captivate today’s younger generation if it is not willing to continually update its efforts to provide a true spiritual home for the people to whom it seeks to minister. To many, change does not come easily, and even the slightest modification is seen as a threat. Pastors must be change agents par excellence. They must be committed to change but also must learn how, and in what tempo, to effectuate change. Our union conference has adopted a long-term strategy for growth—in numbers and in spirituality. All layers of the church have been able to provide input. I expect the pastors to keep this overall strategy in mind as they seek to lead their churches to greater relevancy for the members and, in particular, for those who are at the fringe of the church or those who are still looking for a satisfying spiritual roof over their heads.
The pastor must be loyal
The need for loyalty seems obvious. Yet, it is so important that it must be underlined as a separate point. The loyalty I am speaking of is not a blind, uncritical obedience or the gullible subservience of a past age. There always must be room for dialogue, differences of opinion, or even a degree of independence. However, the church loses its credibility if its leaders pursue their own private agendas rather than a common one.
Pastors must be loyal to the charge they received and accepted at their ordination. They must be loyal to the teachings of the Bible as understood by the church that employs them. They may argue, dialogue, criticize, and, at times, even be angry with their church and those who happen to be in positions of leadership at a “higher” level, but they nonetheless must have a fundamental loyalty to the organization that has called them, trained them, and pays them. I expect that kind of basic loyalty from the pastors—a definite loyalty not only to the organization they serve but also to their pastoral colleagues and conference administrators.
The pastor must be real
Pastors who do not enjoy what they do, and do not enjoy life in general, may not last in their jobs. I realize that people differ and that not all of us have the same sense of humor or deal with our emotions, our joys and frustrations, in the same way. Some find it easier to relativize things than others. That’s fair enough. But all of us must function with transparency and integrity, and people around us must be able to understand us as we present ourselves. Members no longer expect their pastors to be perfect—if they ever did. Pastors should not be afraid to show their vulnerability from time to time. Showing vulnerability shows the pastor to be both human and credible. I expect pastors to be who they are and not go through life wearing a mask. I hope the pastors in my union conference feel they can be open with me and do not need to play a role or pretend they are someone or something they are not.
The pastor must be balanced
Theological diversity (also among pastors) is a reality of Seventh-day Adventist life. Whether we like it or not, not all of us, pastors included, hold the same position on every biblical and theological topic. Some veer a bit to one direction and others to another direction. That does not mean that “everything goes.” Pastors who do not feel comfortable with the central tenets of the Adventist vision of the Christian faith have a problem that cannot be overlooked. But within these parameters there should be considerable freedom. However, pastors must be the leaders and shepherds of all members and be careful not to position themselves as the defender of one particular current of thought. They don’t have to hide their opinions or remain silent about what they believe, but they always will be understanding and respectful to those who differ in their views.
I expect balance not only in the ways pastors deal with theology but also in their general attitude to life and work. I expect pastors to work more than 40 hours in a work week. They will have to work irregular hours and may at times have to go beyond the call of duty. But they should not feel guilty if they take off ample time for study, hobbies, and family life or when there is the occasional week when they are less than productive. It would be good if we could reduce the number of workaholics in our midst.
The pastor must be a person of faith
I am not too impressed with persons who are overly pious and feel they have to show their godliness in every sentence they speak. But somehow our deepest motivation must be visible. Somehow people must see that the pastor is a person of faith. If that does not show, there is a problem.
Doubt, however, is part of the life of faith. I recognize that many pastors struggle with periodic bouts of uncertainty, or even with regular serious doubts. That is acceptable, as long as they attempt to deal with their doubts in a responsible way. I recognize that pastors need to be able to talk about their doubts—without fear of losing job or status. But the pastor must know when to speak, in what circumstances, and to whom. Being open about one’s doubts may actually, in some instances, encourage some who are likewise plagued by doubt. But it may also confuse others if a pastor shares doubts with members who are not able to handle this.
With or without doubt, I expect pastors to live their Adventist Christian faith in such a way that it attracts others and makes the church members feel that their pastor is a spiritual leader who deserves trust and will lead the church to higher levels of Christian experience.
Of course, I still expect other things. I expect some administrative skills. I expect the pastor to preach decent sermons. And I could add more. But the seven expectations listed above are in a class of their own. Am I expecting too much from my pastors? I don’t think so. I may have these expectations as long as I realize that they may expect all of the above also from me.