I see a disturbing trend. I have given this trend considerable thought because it impacts our church and our church leaders. Please know from the outset that I am not a controversial guy. I am not a troublemaker by nature. I love the church, and I have a natural affinity for pastors. I write because I care. The heart of my concern is culture, specifically, church culture.
Culture is difficult to define; this is especially true when it comes to the culture of the church. I googled “church culture” and found an article by Ronald E. Keener where he quoted Samuel R. Chand (a culture expert) saying, “Culture is the strongest force in any organization.” Chand goes on to say that “the best way to understand culture is the statement: ‘This is how we do things here.’”1 He notes that this is a common theme. For example, I saw this statement on a wall in one of our industries in Australia: “The stories we tell is the culture we create.” Chand continues identifying culture with, “It is the atmosphere in which the church functions. It is the prevalent attitude. It is the collage of spoken and unspoken messages.” Keener asks so eloquently the question all of us have asked ourselves at one point or another: “Why is it that we are not where I know we should be as a church?”2 The answer? Our culture is holding us back.
Setting the stage
I pastored a wonderful church in Oregon that truly desired to impact the community. We were able to see God use us to influence a county that was 70 percent unchurched. We designed our worship service with the unchurched in mind. We used music to bring a worship experience that was alive and engaging. We used drama to set up sermons that would pull the congregation into the worship experience. And many times, we would use a song at the end of our messages that would pull on heartstrings like nothing I have ever heard. People visiting our church would come through the front door and say to the greeters or to me, “What’s going on in here?” My answer was that the Holy Spirit was alive and well in the Kelso-Longview Seventh-day Adventist Church.
But now, 11 years removed from being the pastor there, I can see that what really happened was a Spirit-inspired culture shift. We became obsessed with a community that proudly proclaimed their unbelief in God. On many occasions, I reminded our leadership team that the community might not believe what we believe, but when they meet us, they will meet a group of people who will show them just how much we believe in our God. And we did that together. We sought to do everything with excellence. This culture of excellence became our driving force for years. I preached that excellence in all things was attainable. We set a high bar of expectations for one another. In weekly committees, such as the planning and review committee, we prayed and then reviewed and planned our services. We designed worship programs with music and drama to maximize the impact of our message each Sabbath morning.
This committee wanted worship to revolve around themes, and they wanted to plan those themes in advance of my actual sermon. In the beginning, I struggled with this request. But after I saw the advantage of the group being able to plan our services, I worked hard at presenting themes six to eight weeks in advance. I listened to elders tell me that I was not connecting enough with the congregation when I preached. At times I swallowed hard, wanting to make excuses for myself. But, refusing to let my ego get in the way, instead, I would ask, “How can I do this better?” It seems that each time I asked the question, the leaders had good advice for me, and I applied it. As the culture shifted, I had the feeling that we were all in it together; the church would succeed in our community as we succeeded in our responsibilities. We were committed to the idea that the worship hour would be God’s time to meet His people, and we would never waste a moment of that precious holy time. We challenged each other with prayer; smiles; encouraging words; and, yes, even constructive criticism. As we planned together, I felt God’s presence as much in my elders’ homes on Monday evenings as I did in church on Sabbath morning. I share these details because they give you an understanding of my experience with our church. Pastoring Kelso-Longview Seventh-day Adventist Church was the most incredible time of my life.
In my current position, my administrative responsibilities prevent me from regular involvement in a local church because I travel around our territory from week to week. I have come to realize that I have very little influence in the local churches in our territory. Clearly, as I learned in Oregon, the local pastor is the individual who has the greatest influence on the local church, and that influence can be either positive or negative.
I, along with my advisory committee, owe it to the church members to equip our pastors so that their influence is decidedly positive. The value of our pastors must be elevated in the eyes of the local church. That begins by elevating the pastors in the eyes of the local conference administration. The administration must support, encourage, and hold pastors accountable to reach for their highest potential. We are beginning to allow our pastors to dream and then to give them the support and training to accomplish those dreams. We believe this can be done even for the pastor who has a three-church district.
When I pastored, I asked a male dentist and a female doctor to be my accountability brother and sister. We met every Wednesday at noon at the dentist’s office. We focused on several things that were specifically designed to help me improve. For example, we read a portion of the Bible throughout the week, and then we talked about how we might apply what we learned to our lives. The real accountability began when they asked me several tough questions: What are you reading? Where are you going? How are you doing financially? How much time did you spend with your wife last week? Have you looked at anything inappropriate? After I answered those questions, they asked the most important question: Did you just lie to us? I needed accountability in my life to reach my potential. I needed to be challenged and checked on weekly. This accountability helped me to get better as a person and a pastor.
Accountability is often a missing factor among church leadership. We asked pastors for a monthly report; many did not turn them in. We sent emails and texts; many did not respond. We addressed the issue at a workers’ meeting; many did not show up. We clamored for their attention; they preferred texting or playing games on their phones. It may be our culture, but I felt it needed to change if we were to achieve excellence for God.
So, I told our pastors that their workers report helps us to understand what they have been doing for the past month. Since we were raising the bar of accountability, I stated, “If we receive no workers report from you, you will receive no travel budget from us.” Today, 100 percent of the pastors send their reports on time. The culture is shifting.
It is our deepest desire to help our pastors live lives of influence so that their leadership has maximum impact. We met with the pastors and talked about developing plans. We emphasized that we were in this work together. We talked about working hard and working smarter. We communicated clearly that if anyone was working part-time for full-time pay, it was going to stop as of that day. We set up quarterly meetings with every pastor at their home or in their church. We gave them templates to help them put their plans on paper for the quarter, and when we visit, we review those plans to see what they have accomplished and what they still have in progress. We encouraged them to vision cast with their elders and church boards. We spend anywhere from two to four hours with each pastor. Occasionally, we include spouses. These visits have proved to be invaluable.
It is an inspiring time of sharing that I only wished I could have had with the conference presidents I worked with when I was a pastor. We hear stories of baptisms, potential baptisms, Bible studies, and other growth activities, and I detect excitement in our pastors as they share their hearts. We talk about sermon topics and preaching schedules in multichurch districts. I hear about difficult visits to hospitals and home visits where the pastor helped a church member with a particular job or task. They share their plans to train their members in how to give Bible studies. I am careful to remind them that every-thing they accomplish in their district is directly related to building relation-ships with their members. They tell me about their families and how they are doing. We pray together and frequently eat together. Each time I leave a pastor’s home, I have an overwhelming feeling that we are changing the culture.
It is becoming more difficult to find young people who are called to ministry and still recognize the hard work ahead of them. We interview at one of our universities on a regular basis, and we often ask these theology majors how many hours a week they expect to work as a pastor. Sometimes we get a blank stare followed by several moments of silence. They typically respond with a puzzled look and an answer in the form of a question: “Twenty or thirty hours a week?” My reply is shockingly honest: “That is half-time work; are you planning to work for half-time pay?” Frequently, a student will tell us that they do not know how many hours they will have to work. It is obvious they have no idea of what it will take to be an influential church leader. It is our responsibility to guide and encourage them to understand that they are called to sacrifice. I am finding that once we share our vision, we are met with eagerness and hunger because these students desire to accomplish something great for God. Everyone wants to succeed in their profession. My job is to create an environment where that can best happen.
We have created a culture where many pastors think they have no boss and no accountability, so they feel they do not have to visit or return phone calls; they get paid just the same either way. I have heard several stories of calls made to the church for the pastor to visit a sick spouse, and the pastor never shows. I cannot understand this negligence. If this is the way we lead, something is missing from our calling. I participated in an evangelistic series at a church where the pastor did not even show up for the meetings. But some feel it is acceptable to stay home all day and babysit, play video games, and generally waste away day after day. And in that culture no one says; “Hey, you can’t do that.” The reality is this: You cannot do that in any other job. We are raising the bar and, with an arm around the shoulder, challenging our pastors to do better. We are explaining that this is the most important work in the world and that our approach toward the work we do needs to change. This is what we are aiming for in the Gulf States Conference.
Let us consider our church members. They work 40–50 hours every week. We chastise them when they do not want to come out for prayer meeting or committees. But in reality, that extra meeting we have planned for them adds to their workweek. When their pastor has been home most of the day and only comes out of his house for prayer meeting (many times late) and then complains because only four members are there, he needs an attitude adjustment to realize ministry’s expectations of him. It is our responsibility to sit down and share with him in a kind but direct way what this is costing him by way of influence in his church. We show our love and respect for people by being present, on time, and prepared. It does not work any other way. When you can share with your members at prayer meeting or a committee where you have been and whom you have seen that day, they likely smile and are willing to go the extra mile with you. The culture shifts again.
We must remember why we accepted the call from our Lord to pastoral ministry. We cannot allow a culture that expects so little from us to dictate how we will respond to our calling. Remember, and return to your first love.
Except we become like them
There was a little girl in our congregation that was the granddaughter of one of my elders. When I would finish my sermon on Sabbath, she would come running into my arms, and I would carry her down the center aisle with me. She contracted cancer as a two-year-old. Leading out in an anointing service for her was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. She ended up at Seattle Children’s Hospital. I went up to visit her, and her grandparents (my elder and his wife) were there. Haley was crawling into logs in the children’s play area of the hospital. She crawled out of a log and looked at me with a big smile that I will never forget, and then she patted the log, inviting me to join her in the log. I gulped hard as I reluctantly moved toward the log. I am a pretty big guy, and I thought to myself, I could get stuck in that log. And I did. Haley and my elder and his wife laughed so hard. So did I! I worked myself out of that log and came out sweating, and then Haley jumped up on my lap.
I have forgotten a lot of sermons, music, and dramas we did at church. I have forgotten committees and Bible studies and baptisms. But I will never forget Haley! To me, this is what my call to pastoring was all about—that I could be at Seattle Children’s Hospital that day, and a moment in time froze forever for me, a moment with that little girl and her grandpa and grandma.
Change the culture. Incarnate yourself with your people. And if you get stuck, you may sweat a little, but worry less—laugh more—and ask God to help you decrease, while He increases.
1 Ronald E. Keener, “A Church’s Culture Is the Atmosphere in Which the Church Functions,” Church Executive, July 1, 2011, churchexecutive.com/archives/a-church%E2%80%99s-culture-is-the -atmosphere-in-which-the-church-functions.
2 Keener, “A Church's Culture.”