My Biggest Mistake as a Pastor—And Probably Yours Too

August 17, 2015

The task of a spiritual leader is to inspire people to see and enter the other life, the life of the spirit. It isn’t that spiritual leaders don’t have to deal with mundane concerns. Even Francis, the most inspirational Pope in recent memory, has spent his share of time revamping the Curia and reeling in renegade bishops.

But spiritual a spiritual leader’s primary task is not directing the affairs of an organization. That’s the work of deacons, useful chaps who are great at setting goals, forming strategies, measuring results—the very things we wrongly label “leadership.”

As the spiritual leader of a congregation, a pastor’s job is quite different. And my greatest mistake as a pastor was to set aside my true work to become the CEO of a nonprofit corporation called the local church.

Here’s how it happened.

Parishioners increasingly demand that their church be a thriving and efficient organization. That’s because we’re used to dealing with large, well-run institutions everywhere we go: big-box stores, online retailers, health care conglomerates—they all work flawlessly and deliver a great consumer experience.

People want that at church too.

So we pastors take on the role of change agent in order to make a local church function more like a movie theater or health club. People expect this of us, and we expect it of ourselves.

As a result, we feel an urgent need for practical information on how to reorganize an admittedly staid institution. We are desperate to learn how to brand the church, recruit leaders, attract newcomers, set create systems, measure results, and so on.

I felt this too, which is why I effectively appointed myself head deacon and spent most of my time raising money, hiring staff, planning productions, and generally making sure the trains ran on time.

I regret that, and I repent of it.

I wonder how many pastors feel the same way. How many of us were called to ministry because we had an overwhelming desire to make the local church a more successful corporation? I suspect none.

We were called to ministry based on our hunger to preach the Word, to model the life of prayer, to point people to Jesus, to say what’s true, to bleed our passion for God and hunger for holiness and zeal to transform the world all over the platform until people can’t help but rally to the mission.

Instead, we chair strategy meetings, attend leadership conferences, and devour blog posts about how to retain visitors, hoping to stumble on the “secret” to making the church succeed.

Yes, the church is in need of change.

It is not that we need not become more culturally relevant (could we possibly?) or more efficient (we’re better than Disney at attracting people and moving them through an experience) but to recover our identity as a spiritual community, the Kingdom of God on earth, and to address the deepest need that people have.

Here is the best-kept secret in the church today: People actually want this. They crave an experience of God. They are as easily bored by entertainment as by dead ritual. They want the more.

Now is the time to separate the pastors from the deacons—the spiritual leaders from the corporate managers.

It’s time for ministers of the gospel to recover their true role as shepherds of God’s flock, guides in the spiritual life, proclaimers of the Word. Preaching, prayer, and people. This is our office; nothing more and nothing less.

When we begin to talk about prayer, the Word, and the holy life more than we do about branding, strategy, and production values, we will reclaim our true calling—and the church will thrive.

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.