One pastor, many churches

A look at the joys and challenges of multichurch pastoral ministry.

Reger Smith, Jr. was an associate director of communication for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at the time of this writing.

The megachurch grabs headlines in most parts of today’s world—the media-savvy pastor with a large staff serving congregations of 10,000 to 20,000 attendees, the huge, well-equipped sanctuary (arena in some cases), and the large amounts of money and community influence that flow into and out of this center. This phenomenon seems to mark the pinnacle of the “successful” church.

But worlds apart from that excitement, down the side street and into the country, sits the church known to the majority of Christians— small and simple and sometimes struggling to survive. And it doesn’t have a pastoral staff—for the pastor usually serves a staff of churches. The multichurch district presents the most common challenge for today’s pastor.

Is one pastor for many churches an effective method of ministry in today’s world? Or does the multichurch district function best as a springboard for the young pastor who wants to prove himself or herself? Is the district pastor as called and gifted as the megachurch pastor? Can this ministry traveling among many small units also be a definition of pastoral success?

We talked to a sampling of pastors from around the world who fill similar roles and created a portrait of today’s district pastor.

A group of six Seventh-day Adventist pastors sat down in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss their experiences. We interviewed two pastors of rural districts in central Pennsylvania, United States, and got their stories. And we received input from pastoral districts in Europe as well as other parts of the United States.

Advantages

District pastors named several unique advantages that come with the territory.

It’s a special event when the district pastor comes to serve. This “specialness” relates to the number of churches and their geographic location in the district. While the average pastor in our sample serves between three and five congregations, some, especially in Kenya and eastern Europe, serve as many as nine or ten or more churches in addition to several smaller companies. For them, this confers the status of the pastor as a special guest, a change from the routine, with all the trappings that it can bring. Members are happy to see the pastor and lay aside some of their mundane concerns for an attitude of celebration. One Kenyan pastor compares this to an evangelistic event.

“There’s a sense of revival and high expectations,” says Peter Mbugua, the youngest in the Kenyan pastoral group. He has pastored for 10 years in rural and urban areas and currently serves 9 churches and 18 companies. And he spoke of an additional bonus. “I can improve on my sermons through repetition.”

The relative ease of getting members involved in the life of the church is another advantage according to Tom Hennlein, pastor of a district in central Pennsylvania, United States. “I spend much less time and effort with nominating committees assigning church functions than in a larger, single church. Everybody knows they have to do something; they know it’s not just on the pastor’s shoulders to make the church run.”

Challenges

As usual, a flip side exists to these advantages.

The “specialness” of the pastoral visit can get in the way of true pastoral duties, keeping the pastor from becoming involved in the nuts and bolts of the congregation. The celebration atmosphere of the visit can make a member hesitant to bring up issues that might dampenthat special spirit—further distancing a pastor from true shepherd duties.

Johnson Othoo, a pastor with 33 years experience in districts and administrative leadership, asks, “Can you be anything other than a guest? Can you really address problems? Can you do true pastoral work while serving so many churches in a district?” Othoo also points out that the repetition of sermons can lead to laziness in sermon preparation.

“I don’t spend as much time as I’d like with my district congregations,” adds Hennlein. “I put that time into working with the local leaders. Even at that, I get stressed trying to get to all the leaders,” a fact echoed by Othoo, that leads to less face-to-face time with individual members.

Family life

There are some distinct disadvantages to the family and personal life of the district pastor.

Conrad Reichert (Pennsylvania, United States) mentions the need to select one church for his family, particularly for the benefit of his children. “My family needs stability,” he says. “We pick the one that’s best for them, usually the one with the most young people their age. That doesn’t always sit well with the other churches, but after I explain it to them, they usually understand.” The members want to see the pastor and the family, so he plans regular times when his family accompanies him to the other churches. More often, however, they worship at the home church.

The African pastors noted that their personal concerns extend to privacy and finances.

“Our home is always visited,” notes a 16-year pastor with three children and three churches, “especially if the parsonage shares the church compound. It’s hard to say ‘no’ to guests, and no privacy exists. We are expected to be the hosts of the church. On wedding days, for instance, the wedding party uses the pastor’s house. The guests of the church expect the pastor’s family to feed them. Overnight guests use the children’s rooms on a regular basis. There are no funds provided for such entertainment so these expenses come out of the pastor’s salary. And, on top of that, if you object, you are then not considered to be a ‘man of God.’ ”

It’s also a tough job for the pastor’s wife. In addition to serving as the social host and chief cook, she is seen as the assistant pastor, noted the Kenyan group. When he is not there, she is expected to fill the role. She handles the problem issues just like the pastor, but she doesn’t receive any pay.

All the pastors noted the toll and potential for problems on family life. It’s a particular problem when children are missing an absent parent and are at the stage of establishing their own social community.

“When my children were small, my seven-year-old son would cry when I wasn’t around at worship time,” shares Juan Sicalo of MD, United States. “My wife would tell him ‘Dad is working for Jesus—and we are too!’ We had to be very intentional about explaining the role of the pastor and his family to our children.” Pastor Othoo laments the lack of time the pastor has with his own children.

Simon Maina, a Kenyan pastor with two children and six churches, states that it’s particularly tough on small children, especially as children develop preferences for certain churches and friends.

Local church leadership

The most commonly agreed answer to the challenges of the district pastor lies in cultivating local church leadership, especially among the local elders. These men and women often play the role of lay pastor, so their empowerment and training can make the difference in the vitality of each district congregation.

“I have several elders of the churches who are well prepared,” says Phillippe Langjahr, a pastor of two churches in Switzerland. And a Swiss colleague says that a local tradition is for church elders, not the pastor, to lead the church business meetings. “I am rarely leading any meeting,” says Arnold Zwahlen (three churches), “but I am supporting the elders and department leaders in the background. Teamwork between local leaders and the pastor stays as a key for learning and self-support in any area of church business.”

Sicalo says that his elders are the key when he rotates between two churches each week. They are prepared and equipped to fill his roles when he is away.

Hennlein says it’s the role of the pastor to empower the elders. They must be given the freedom to operate and use their ministry gifts. He had one elder approach him and say, “I know this is your territory, but would you be upset if I were to preach an evangelistic series?” Hennlein said, “Not a problem!” and gave him the go-ahead. When the elder said this would be his first experience preaching a series, Hennlein recommended that he share the load.

Two weeks into the meetings, the elder came and thanked him. “I’m so glad you didn’t let me do this whole thing by myself.” His enthusiasm and Hennlein’sexperience helped make the series a success.

The Kenyan pastors agree that elders must be empowered. They hold monthly elders’ meetings in their districts, and some churches have up to 40 elders in one congregation. They warn, however, of some challenges they’ve experienced down this road.

“The elders are closer to the members,” pointed out one of the pastors. “Some of them have been known to use this closeness for political purposes, to sabotage the influence or program of the pastor. When elders are filling the role of pastor the majority of the time, it is difficult to fight that type of negative attitude when a pastor must spread himself among ten or more churches.”

The call

One of the challenges the district pastor faces may not be so much performance as attitude and status. This can vary from place to place; but if the pinnacle of pastoral ministry is seen as the senior pastor position in a large congregation, where does the rural multichurch district pastor fit in?

The pastors surveyed had a fairly uniform and positive view of their role as district pastors. Some noted, however, that a lower perceived status of a district pastor is often more prevalent among members.

“I’ve seen congregations who felt they had ‘risen to the top’ when they were finally able to have a pastor all to themselves,” notes Reichert. “I haven’t been to other countries, but I suppose we have more of that mindset in North America than elsewhere. I would hope that a pastor doesn’t have the idea that he is starting ‘down there’ when serving in a multichurch district, and that he is working his way up. I don’t see either situation as more important than the other. I think there are probably pastors who function better in different situations.”

Which brings to mind the question of a calling. Is a special gift required to be the successful district pastor, or is it something every pastor must excel at in order to advance in their ministry?

Reichert replies, “I think there are pastors who can pastor one church better than multiple congregations and vice versa. I guess there is a process of discovery about that for some and others just know where they fit best. Some pastors don’t allow their members much freedom in ministry or don’t allow lay persons and, rarely, guests into their pulpits to preach. This would be almost impossible to sustain in a multichurch district.”

Suggestions for a more effective ministry

While pastoral status may often be known (or at least perceived) to be an issue from the viewpoint of some church members, it did not register among pastors with demonstrated ability in handling many churches. However, several suggestions were given that could improve effectiveness of ministry and lower levels of stress or other concerns for district pastors.

There is a limit to the number of churches a pastor can effectively handle. This was voiced by the Kenyan group who face the financial limitations shared around the world in multichurch districts.

“It’s best not to have more than five churches, depending on the location,” says Joshua Njuguna, ministerial secretary for the Central Kenyan Conference, who has pastored as many as ten churches at once. He suggests that urban pastors be limited to two to three churches and rural districts from three to five.

Finances figure in several suggestions, including salary increases, better support for the additional duties placed on the district pastor (hosting and feeding) and additional education and training. Other suggestions center on the areas of approach or of attitude.

Pastors Lucas Otwera and Simon Maina ask for increased moral support for district pastors from church leadership and members alike. Othoo thinks it would help if more time were taken to understand the role and challenges of the pastor. And Mbugua wishes for impartial treatment of pastors, without distinction between those with one or many churches.

There are also suggestions of differences that pastors can make for themselves. Among them exists the need for the pastor to treat the churches in the district with equality. Visits among congregations should be spread evenly, no matter how long it takes. Efforts should be made to occasionally unite the congregations that share a pastor—some recommend this on a regular basis. And the district pastor must deliberately play up the advantages while not letting the potential problems of multichurch districts overwhelm him.

But foremost among the advice is the attitude that, whether by necessity or choice, the multichurch district continues to be an opportunity where God can bless, where ministry can happen.

Hennlein relates this incident: “I was talking with a pastor friend who just had a sixth church added to his district. The congregation was brought in kicking and screaming; they didn’t want to share a pastor with five other churches but there really was no choice because of their size and financial condition. After about six months they started realizing what was happening in the other district churches, how they were growing and thriving. They began to come on board with the concept and, as their attitude changed, they began to grow and thrive as well. Their mindset changed from one where they thought the pastor was there to do the work to one where they realized they were the ones to get the work of the church done.”

District churches may not look like megachurches, but, as Zechariah states, it is “ ‘not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts’ ” (Zech. 4:6, RSV).

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Reger Smith, Jr. was an associate director of communication for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists at the time of this writing.

August 2006

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