Where the Good Pastors Go

I wrote last month about some of the pressures on pastors, and how that’s affecting the profession. There is a bright spot for Seventh-day Adventist pastors, though: if you’re a good pastor, you can leave ministry and still be a minister. In fact, that’s where the best pastors end up: in conference, union conference, division and General Conference offices.

This autumn at the NAD year-end meetings the Church Governance Committee made an important report. I’ve written about it elsewhere, but the bottom line was this: we’re spending an enormous amount of money on church administration—money that could go to front-line work—while taking our best people from the parish and placing them into offices.

The report generated some enthusiasm about restructuring, especially when it was pointed out that we’d save $125,000,000 every year in the NAD by supervising churches from the union conference level and eliminating conference offices. But others yawned and said that this has been talked about for years, and while everyone wants to save money, we always find reasons to keep things as they are.

Why do we maintain such an outdated, top-heavy system, and why has it been so resistant to updating?

Recognition

I have many pastor friends, far more talented than I am, and who have managed their careers better, so that they now work in church administration. Rarely does anyone turn down that opportunity. I suspect they’d deny it if you asked them, but at least one of the reasons is this: to pastor a church is not only difficult work, but it isn’t a position of honor. To work in an office is. Every pastor who hears his conference president get up at a pastor’s meeting and say, “There’s nothing more important than the work you pastors are doing,” knows he’s blowing smoke; if he really thought that, he’d want to do it.

It is an irony of our denomination that the only way you can be recognized as an excellent minister is to leave the ministry. These men still list “clergy” as their profession on their 1040s. But some have been away from the parish for 10 or 20 or 30 years. You may wonder, as I have, why the people who are supposed to know best how a local church should be led are so willing not to lead one. At a Columbia Union convention for ministers several years ago, of the approximately 40 seminars to instruct pastors, 4 of the instructors were parish pastors themselves. Read through Ministry magazine, and you may find one or two articles by parish pastors. You can’t be an expert in pastoral ministry, it seems, until you’ve outgrown it.

Count on this: when you hear your Seventh-day Adventist pastor lauded by people outside the congregation, there’s a good chance he is about to exit the profession. Because that is the way success is confirmed in our denomination. It may be the Lord’s leading, but the Lord, it seems, leads the best people away from daily contact with difficult and demanding church members, from visiting stinky nursing homes, from bad potlucks, amateur music, church board fights and writing new sermons every week, and into quiet offices, guest speaking gigs, and travel and equipment budgets—and you only need to fret over job security every 4 years or so when constituency meeting comes around rather than at every board meeting. It is (with a few exceptions—I admire Dan Serns, Ben Maxson, and a handful of others who moved against the traffic) a one-way door. I once overheard a conference president say of an underperforming officer, “But what can we do? We can’t send him back down to the ministry.” I specifically remember that word “down”.

• Money

We occasionally compare ours to other models of ecclesiastical structure, in which we say we are representative, which means neither hierarchical nor congregational. I don’t find this particularly helpful—or accurate. A more relevant model for us is a corporate structure. Like a corporation, it is our leadership that controls the money, and like a corporation, there are shareholder meetings that appear democratic but are relatively powerless. A corporation can spend its profits on dividends and CEO bonuses. Our leaders spend it on people in offices and astonishing amounts of travel. Groups of Seventh-day Adventists get together to vote on church decisions now and then, but that hasn’t changed this organizational style, or we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

With people in offices spending the money, there appears little incentive to question whether putting another person into an office is going to make congregations work better, even when there’s little evidence for it.

Our members believe that our flat compensation structure gives no financial incentive to exchange a parish for an office. That’s partially true: while there are small increases in base pay, no one is making multiples of what they’d make as a parish pastor. But there are perquisites: a higher mileage budget, all computer and office needs taken care of, automatic office jobs for spouses, and an enormous amount of free travel. And if you work in a union or above, you can count on getting every cost of living increase, which local conferences rarely keep up with for their workers.

Control

Like our historical bête noire, the Roman Catholic church, we have come to feel that we must keep strong control over every aspect of mission, message and money. It is an irony of history that revolutionaries will sometimes adopt attitudes and methods similar to those they revolted against. H. Richard Niebuhr wrote of early Protestant church organizers, “They seemed to believe that since the exercise of absolute power by the papal church was wrong its exercise by the opponents of the papacy was right.”[1]

Ellen White opposed “kingly power” in the 1901 restructuring, but over and over again, top-down control reasserts itself, usually in the name of unity. That’s not working especially well in the NAD: conferences and congregations and schools want more say-so, while independent ministries do what they want to with impunity. But the idea that every pastor wouldn’t have someone looking directly over his shoulder is still a bit alarming. And not without reason: it is in our nature that we tend to fly wildly out of control from time to time, to wander into extremism.

• Overestimating effectiveness

Back before I started ministry, a conference president was an autarch. Pastors were treated like serfs, their families’ needs counting for nothing. I knew pastors who were punished for not getting their ingathering or Signs of the Times subscription goals by having their Christmas vacations cancelled. Your ordination could be delayed indefinitely for any reason, or no reason. Pastors’ families could be moved on a whim, with less thought than you’d give to moving a chess piece on a board. When leaders had military-style authority, conference “leadership” worked pretty well.[2]

Eventually that became intolerable, and thank God we’ve left those days behind. But there are still administrative desks waiting for talented pastors to sit behind them—only now you have to lead by inspiring and begging and cajoling.

Some years ago, a pastor of my acquaintance was noticed for being an amazing congregation builder. He’d devised a system of evangelism and follow-up that worked so well that his church doubled, then tripled, in attendance and giving. And, most important, the congregation seemed happy. He did so well that his conference leaders asked him to move in with them and become their expert on church growth. Since then, his original congregation has languished, and I’ve heard almost nothing about him or from him.

I think it’s been a mistake to bleed the talent out of the front line and promote people to where they have little influence. Yet we continue to think that putting a man in, say, a division ministerial department office, three storeys above where ministry is done, is miraculously going to transform the life and work of a pastor in Platte, Nebraska or Tupelo, Mississippi.

Every time I’m at a meeting in Silver Spring, officeholders get up and tell us about the fantastic new resources they’ve developed. And I remember that I’ve not heard anything about last year’s fantastic new resources, and I doubt I’ll hear anything more about this year’s. Departments create non-field-tested resources because… well, because they can. Generally what they create isn’t exciting: they’re made in offices by people who aren’t serving congregations, and who are dreadfully afraid of criticism.

Let me make it clear that I think most of the people in denominational offices are capable and well-intentioned, and a few even extraordinarily bright and talented. That’s why they’ve been promoted. And yes, we do need leadership. But to say that leadership must look exactly as it does now shows a lack of imagination. Whatever you think about what we’re doing, it isn’t especially effective in the western church anymore, especially for the growth of congregations. Some think we need to move forward into a more modern paradigm, and others think we should go back to the kind of top-down power leaders had in the last half of the 20th century. From a practical point of view, I can see both arguments.

In the end, though, I’m inclined to agree with Elder Dave Weigley who said in a recent interview that we probably won’t change unless circumstances force us to. So God bless the NAD Church Governance Committee, but don’t hold your breath.

[1] The Kingdom of God in America, p.29.

[2] A conference president in my home conference of North Dakota told his pastors that if they needed a car they must buy it through him, with him making a cut on each one! At the time, this went largely without question.

Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and the recently-appointed Executive Editor of Adventist Today.

If you respond to this article, please: Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7243
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It seems the Peter Principle is in full force.

Edit: It seems that term limits for conference officials could eliminate much of this absurdity while maintaining continuity with the hired staff. I know, that would pull the plug on creating kingdoms and pushing agendas.

Practice the Presence of God.

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I would second Loren’s remarkably eloquent and honest piece!! Amen and amen. However, longevity in pastoral ministry requires several changes: (1) The possibility of longer-term appointments than a few years; (2) Compensation that does not tempt one to “climb” (or is it “descend”) the ladder for more security; (3) More staff support even if only part-time so the pastor is not “stuck” with doing office work and answering routine calls. Free the pastor for the work of person-to-person ministry. When I served on the conference committee in Potomac years ago, I asked the rural, small church pastors on the committee if they would accept an additional congregation for a full-time administrative assistant. Every hand went up and nothing changed. In fact, some gifted pastors need such a person (not their spouses) to keep them organized and on time, to filter the critical from the important from the “to do later.” Administrators get such help and for good reason. Pastors are just as needy.

Finally, some other denominations have instituted a “requirement” which has proven helpful. At lunch one day with a Lutheran Pastor who had occupied a very high position in the American Lutheran Church for years, I was told that he now pastors a local congregation and that he loved it. For him, entering administration was the result of his sense someone had to do the job, but his first love was pastoring. He was delighted to be back. That reminded me of my graduate school experience with the department faculty. They rotated the “chair” because the role was so onerous, depriving the occupant of reading, writing, teaching and research time. As soon as the designated three years was up, they were “out of there” and singing all the way!!

Thanks Loren!!

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And highlighted no place more brilliantly as in the Church. :grin:

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Thanks, Loren! During the past year, my congregation went through a pastoral change…imposed top down, of course. Our previous pastor was being moved to a larger, more prestigious church, and we, the small, struggling, suburban church, were being forced to readjust to another leadership change, that we didn’t ask for or want.

Thankfully, this transition has gone well. Our new pastor is progressive, and solidly biblical in his outlook, preaching, and approach to ministry. This is in stark contrast to the many ministerial disasters we’ve had to endure at the hands of our conference administration.

As this change was occurring, I called the president of our conference, to express our displeasure with how this whole process was being handled. I explained that we were tired of being bypassed and dictated to from an office afar, how they couldn’t possibly know our needs as a congregation and our community as well as we do, and how this practice of shuffling pastors creates instability in the church. I also mentioned that the fastest growing churches in North America were ones that had long term pastorates. His response: “We never have operated like that in this conference. We don’t have long term pastorates, and congregations never make the final decision. It is the prerogative of the conference to choose who pastors where.” My response essentially was, "how’s that been working? " Simply put, it hasn’t. And, he knows it…he had no coherent answer.

Which leads to the point. Our denomination operates by tradition, regardless of biblical principle, spiritual gifting, or plain common sense. And we’re left to reap the results on the ground.

The times need to be changing.

Thanks…

Frank

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This is applicable to those who love teaching, also. Some teachers are anxious to move into the principal or superintendent’s position, but those who really love to experience the joy of seeing students grow in knowledge can only be enjoyed from their very practical everyday influence. Both teachers and pastors have to love people; it cannot be faked.

On another thread here today, someone wrote that the meaning of
Adventist was the standard and behaviors set by the church, which at San Antonio was most apparent. But it is the local congregation that has the final say on who is an Adventist member in their congregation. By giving the world church that determination, the local congregation surrenders their reason to exist and minister to their area. The “World Church” has become more like the hierarchy of the papacy rather than the New Testament model.

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man what an insight. getting to the Board Room is the object after all. My dad was in the office of M.L. rice then president of the Atlantic Union Conference, when one of the officer came in complaining that his travel request for $100.00 had been denied. he asked why. and the curt reply was, Because you ain’t worth a $100.00! The man took a call to the Southern California Conference, where they soon decided he wasn’t worth $100.00 and was retired. Tom Z

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Not to mention the fact that a climb up to a conference or division often means employment for your spouse - which alleviates the incredible financial pressure on parish pastors who have to make it on a single church income.

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Excellent presentation. Very sad to contemplate the fact that administrators may now outnumber pastors, at least in North America. Dreaful waste of resources.

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Excellent article, Loren. You have become the “Bernie Sanders” of Adventist ministry. Telling the truth may not get you elected but you are speaking truth that needs to be heard and acted on. Keep your day job, always, AT is a good “R & R” but I think you enjoy the art of leadership in pastoral ministry.

Now that I am retired from pastoral work and chaplaincy, I can honestly say that what was missing in my ministry was the leadership emphasis to who I was and what I was supposed to be doing.

Congregants can have the impression that the pastor is a Lone Ranger. Maybe because they don’t know all that goes on at church when they’re not there. Or because they don’t think about church much between Sabbaths, or at best, between committee meetings. But even though pastors think they’re doing well at creating a team—rallying people around a goal and keeping them up to speed—the people don’t sense it. The pastors’ leadership challenge, and what honestly was the hardest for me, was to stay only a few steps ahead as guides, rather than miles ahead as scouts. These gaps are probably common for leaders in any position of authority. Pastors tend to overestimate their team-playing capabilities it may involve some unwitting condescension toward lay people: I spoke to a pastoral colleague who is actively pastoring a large church. He was inviting me to join his congregation as a lay member, now that I am retired, he was very blunt with me, he said, “This is my church, I understand it better, so you’re welcome to be on MY team. I’m in control.” There’s not much give-and-take in that process of leadership. I think, quite frankly, we’re viewed as being more rigid than we want to admit ourselves being, and more controlling of certain things.

In contrast there is a place not far from where I attend church where five lay people are leading this little Adventist country church. They’ve never been to seminary; they’re not ordained; they don’t have any of the credentials. But the church members are saying things like, “We’ve never heard preaching this good.” The church is overflowing in attendance and people are driving over seventy miles to attend this little church. Before, their pastors were caregivers. They married, buried, visited, and met those people’s expectations of what a pastor is supposed to do. But they didn’t lead them in the mission of Jesus to evangelize and bring non-believers to church. What is this saying about our concept of ordained ministry? Here is the problem: is pastoring leading? Most Adventist pastors would probably say yes…but the reality that your article emphasized is that because of many factors, leadership is lacking in our pastoral ranks.

One young pastor speaking candidly said “I figure on working hard until ordination and then if I do please the conference leaders they will let me do more graduate study so I can teach and if I really do a good job I can serve on the conference committee and from there become a departmental person with an office and a travel and expense budget.”

Something needs to change!

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Hi Loren

I recognise the reality of our story as you describe it, though regret that the solution offered doesn’t really resolve the problem posed.

Why do we have so many “difficult and demanding church members” ?
What is it about our teaching that results in this outcome?

Clearly if our evangelistic message is fear creating and so confident about its own rectitude, we have a recipe for misfortune. Until our discipling sets values and principles ahead of dogma, preachers will suffer from the problems they help create.

There is no escape from conflict since even ascendant ‘successful pastors’ can also become demanding once they get a seat in the hallowed portals or at the executive arena.

An advantage of itinerant ministry is that they get a different ‘bad potluck’ each week, without being in the know to navigate options. Believe me spending half of the week-ends away from home soon loses its gloss.

For sure, there are unpleasant Nursing Homes, my poor mother has recently spent some of her final weeks in one. Spare a thought for those loving attendant career nurses who depend on our pews for succour and relief.

The other side of ministry is the fun of joy filled Mother and Toddler groups, Youth and Pathfinder clubs, Civic engagement etc. There is plenty of close up fun to be had. Spare a thought for those of us who are forever on the run, and never get close enough to anybody for lasting impact.

Five years ago we brought forward proposals to rationalise our structure along the lines envisaged by the NAD, only to discover that it was the church pastors that campaigned against change. Apart from their own ambition, they feared the concentration of power into the hands of fewer people.

Part of the issue, is our inability indeed unwillingness, to appreciate the merits of evaluation systems of affirming and rewarding best practice in Church Pastoring. Similarly the mechanism whereby people who are ‘elevated’ to office, then publicly dismissed without voice or natural justice demeans our leadership and confidence in the whole.

The premise of the argument above is that the church is substantially Pastor centric.

The argument in favour of specialist ministry is toward empowering and equipping volunteer lay people in every church upon which our diversity, survival and growth of our faith community also depends.

The leverage which these volunteers offer is significant and seriously cost effective. We should not discount the offering these people make. We believe in the Priesthood of all believers, Men, Women, Paid Clergy & Millions of able volunteers. That we have spent years arguing for special merits for an elite group has not be constructive for anyone. Maybe we should place a numeric value on the contribution of every volunteer.

Somehow, placing Christ as the head and centre of our community, needs to become top of our agenda. The problem is not so much with our structures, as flawed as they, but with ourselves.

Fair enough, I am not a Vicar of any description, but a close observer that wishes all the seasons greeting.

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Loren, you are (by God’s grace) indispensable. I cannot overstate my gratitude to you for your insightful and generous point of view.

Will a single conference or union or General Conference official jump in to support, or rebut, you? I’m afraid not, but would love to be wrong. Leadership is, all too often, unwilling to engage in the conversation. There is, I gather, safety in remaining always above the fray.

Please, someone, prove me wrong, right here?

I think Londis’s academic comparison is worth thinking about. What would make administrative leadership something one would do if called upon, but in the hope of returning to the local church as soon as possible? Well, we can all think of things.

Chuck

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“The argument in favour of specialist ministry is toward empowering and equipping volunteer lay people in every church upon which our diversity, survival and growth of our faith community also depends. The leverage which these volunteers offer is significant and seriously cost effective. We should not discount the offering these people make. We believe in the Priesthood of all believers, Men, Women, Paid Clergy & Millions of able volunteers. That we have spent years arguing for special merits for an elite group has not be constructive for anyone. Maybe we should place a numeric value on the contribution of every volunteer.”

A beautiful paragraph, Victor, which outlines what the issue is and what needs to be done. There is automatically a “totem pole” of importance within each church with each “office” that is artificial. The pastor is the “head” if for no other reason than some theological training and being paid for the job.

I have long felt that the Adventist church is “cheap” in that it usually pays for the pastor and some church cleaning. Even church musicians are generally expected to “work” for free- only the pastor gets paid for the day.

It would be a good idea to place a numeric value on the work of all. Maybe then members wouldn’t complain if certain positions are filled and pastors would know what is really valued.

I do agree with your statement that the problem is mostly people…but is also strongly with the structures. The structures needed to be reconfigured…but most people like same ole, same ole. People are change-resistant…including the pastors.

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Charles Scriven, nice to see some Spectrum leadership participating in the conversation here at Spectrum. Rare. Haven’t seen Dr. Larson participate for months. Other members of the board are welcome to participate in conversation here. It would enrich the engagement.

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Victor,

I’m glad you are not a Vicar! We need you where you are!

Adventists need the Vicar of Christ - the Holy Spirit! We can huff and puff about our ecclesial structures. We may even blow the house down. But what we need most of all is for the ‘wind’ of the Spirit to blow in our sails and to move us on.

What Adventists so often experience is a well oiled machinery to facilitate sleeping saints. Fair enough! Let’s reorganize the deck chairs on the Titanic! I’m all for this! But most importantly, let the saints wake up!

You make a good point Victor! We must change the ministry paradigm we operate with! What Adventists need is a ‘Charismata’ model of ministry in which all believers serve the mission of God as his ministers for the salvation of the world according to their specific giftedness.

A subset of the whole people of God [the laity] have leadership gifts of varying sorts. When the call to minister according to these gifts comes both from God and from his duly assembled people they should serve. Some will be ecclesial and institutional administrators of varying sorts. Some will be in more pastoral roles such as congregational leadership ie. pastors and elders [both genders]. Still others are skilled in caring for the corporate physical needs of the body of believers. ie. deacons [both genders]. Others are resource specialists and educationalists.

Let all of these be set apart with God’s special blessing and affirmed publically for the role they will undertake. Let them each receive a common leadership credential, be they paid or unpaid, which would contain their specific job description.

Other gifted individuals in the congregational setting could also anticipate a rite of blessing and affirmation at appropriate times for them throughout their life of ministry in the congregation and community.

Such a system would seek to engender a view of mission and ministry that supports a lateral model of leadership and seeks to dismantle the more hierarchical model of ministry.

(You comment on the lack of appropriate mechanisms for the elevation and public demotion of leaders without voice or natural justice. I think it may be time for the BUC to consider the Australasian (Australia/ NZ) system where the Nominating Committee does all of its work prior to the Constituency Session. This was created to avoid some of the anomalies and legal jeopardy that other models create).

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Hi Peter

The BUC now has its nominating committee prior to Session. Except that the last round still found pride in doing the job in 5 hours, without calling for a single CV or Application. We do more diligence in appointing a receptionist than a director.

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Just like kids grow into teenagers and other older forms so do churches.
Its simply diagnostic. Whatever a churches minimum factor is…the Pastor with the skillset to remedy that is not necessarily the one to address the next minimum factor. In my experience the Conference doesnt just play musical chairs to a preordained beat for giggles.
The congregations may experience satisfaction and recognize an improvement in their condition and attitude but you cant just bask in the sun after graduating 3rd grade forever. A small respite and 4th grade calls and a you have a new teacher.
In the alternative you are still in 3rd grade and the Pastor it turns out is not the guy who can actually get you to graduate and rather than have you remain in 3rd grade while he conveniently rides out his last 15 years to retirement…they bring in somebody who might actually get the job done.
All shades of these issues occur and it may be that the Pastor actually does have the skill set to achieve 3rd grade graduation but his personality conflicts with the church members and something must be done. There are many ways to skin cats and the goal is to find the combination that works for your church and its immediate issues.
Fast growing churches being a function of long term pastorates are a 2 edged sword. As Loren mentioned, there are numerous examples where the Pastor leaves and the church goes on life support. This is indicative of a church that is unhealthy at its core where people aren’t necessarily drawn to the message and mission of the church but merely the Pastor and his exit reveals that fact.
After many years involved with planting churches we have discovered it is the churches with the narrow focus and style that fail. It used to be the church plant gurus said you had to have a specific “target” like left handed soccer moms coupled with a worship style that demographic liked.
What we found out is that if you become known for a certain thing and people come because of that…when you lose “that” there is no longer any reason to attend there. Its the same dynamic as having a rising star or celebrity pastor.
Shuffling Pastors doesnt create instability. A healthy missional church barely notices if they have a Pastor. Look back at the history of Christianity. The modern Pastor is a very recent phenomenon.

I served as a Conference President and voluntarily walked away to get back to the pastorate. I’ve never looked back. I may indeed serve again someday in an office, who knows. Was my move from the office back to the parish celebrated? No, it wasn’t. Many thought I had lost my mind. While a columnist with the Adventist Review, I wrote about the value of leaders modeling in going back to the church. I did it, and few, if any, have followed. But I did what I did out of a deep passion to serve on the frontline. As quiet as its kept, many of those in conference offices have become irrelevant to the frontline church, and totally unaware that they have. Attending endless meetings around the country that have zero impact on the frontline church. Something has to give. At the end of the day frontline pastoring is tough, gritty , grind it out, frustrating, fulfilling, deeply meaningful, making it happen, painful and all the rest. Some days they can’t pay me enough to do it, and the very next day, I’d do it with no pay. But everyday there is that deep joy
( even on the tough days) that I’m building into people’s lives and advancing the Kingdom! What a job!!!

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The modern five tiered, ecclesiastical bureaucracy is a modern phenomenon as well. So are career administrators…where is that seen in the NT? The problem goes way beyond the modern office of pastor. It includes pastors pushing into career tracks that have nothing to do with what’s happening on the ground, as this article posits. It has to do with top down governance by office, rather than an equality of functioning by spiritual gifting. It has to do with what feels like top down dictation, rather than genuine collaboration.

The whole system is a mess. We have felt its effects at the local level time and again. The issue ain’t just with us sheep, its with a division of clergy and laity that has helped divide the body of Christ, and helps foster the passivity encountered in many congregations.

Short of blowing it up and starting over, I don’t see real solutions in the works. Who would vote against their own job and career track?

Thanks…

Frank

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Well Loren, grass roots ministry is hard but rewarding work. Why not rest up a little and chill out with authentic friends?..that’s a good cure. As for the recognition, your belief that other pastoral ministers have managed their career better than the way you have managed yours should not be a concern. Ministry is not a career…it’s a holy calling for all of us as believers. Don’t be tempted to jump on that gravy train…you will lose yourself and start protecting what you formerly challenged. Remember John 11:48…The Administration (Jewish leaders) blocked change at every turn (Jesus ministry) for fear that they would lose “both our place and our nation”. Fear of loss (power, money, status etc) is at the heart of every denial of truth and every pushback against change. Stay at the lower end of the table and you will be raised up by Jesus at the proper time. Rene Gale.

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