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5 Unhealthy Expectations Small Churches Have for Pastors

In my role as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches – USA of Indiana and Kentucky, one of my responsibilities is to assist our churches when they seek new pastoral leadership.
A major challenge when assisting smaller churches is to find potential candidates. It’s often easier to find persons willing to serve in larger churches than smaller ones.

Many smaller churches are increasingly becoming bivocational, which means that most persons who could fill that position will be found geographically near the church. Few people are going to relocate to serve in a bivocational church.

Another thing making it difficult to assist these smaller churches is that many of them have unrealistic expectations of their next pastor, especially if he or she is bivocational.

Let’s look at some of those expectations.

1. This person will be the one who will save their church.

I repeatedly hear from many smaller churches that they are looking for someone who will grow their church or grow their youth group. What they are really saying is they want someone who will save their church from dying.

Often, their church hasn’t grown in years, and the only young people in the church are grade-school children brought by their grandparents. Few of these young people will be found there once they enter junior-high school.

These churches hope their next pastor will solve this problem for them.

2. Despite the fact that many of these committees say their church wants a pastor who will grow their church, the truth is many of these smaller churches want a chaplain who will care for their existing members.

One committee assured me the church wanted a pastor to grow the church, but a survey I did of the congregation revealed they really wanted a chaplain. When I pointed that out to the committee, they didn’t know how to respond.

I explained that if they call a pastor with spiritual gifts conducive to growing a church, he or she will be in trouble within the first year for not meeting the pastoral care needs of the congregation.

3. Their new pastor will come in with a vision for ministry that will unite their church and return it to the exciting place it was 50 years ago.

I ask every pastor search committee to tell me the vision that has unified their church, and virtually none has been able to give me one. A few have read from some vision statement document.

When that happened recently, I responded, “The fact you had to find that statement and read it tells me that statement really doesn’t direct the activities and ministries of this church.” Most of the committee nodded their heads in agreement.

4. While many churches are paying for a bivocational person, their expectations are that he or she will work as a full-time person in the church.

One committee was recently concerned about their Sunday evening service and was afraid their new pastor would not be able to lead that if he or she lived too far away.

When I learned that service averages about 10 people, I asked if having this service was really a good use of their pastor’s time. I cautioned them that if they were going to call a bivocational pastor, they needed to ensure that what was asked of that person was the best use of his or her time.

5. Some are willing to ignore theology to find someone willing.

Recently, a disgruntled group from a church contacted me complaining their pastor didn’t do things like a Baptist. I reminded them they knew he wasn’t a Baptist when they called him. That pastor has now left, but not before many of the members did.

I recently talked with search committee members from a different church who were excited about someone who had preached there the previous Sunday. Two of them commented he was a “real barn-burner preacher” who got everyone excited.

I read his resume and pointed out his experience has all been in a different denomination. I then asked what did they know about his personal theology. They knew nothing.

Can persons cross denominational lines and serve churches effectively? Absolutely.

I’ve known several who have done that and provided excellent ministry, but their theology was solid and their approach to ministry was healthy.

Search committees need to make sure that is the case before they present the person as a candidate to the church.

I could give more examples of unrealistic expectations, but these are the primary ones I encounter.

It is critical that churches develop more realistic expectations of their pastors, and that the congregation is united on those expectations.

It is also vital that both the committees and candidates spend sufficient time talking with one another and asking questions to ensure they will be a good fit before proceeding to a vote.

Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Ind., for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches – USA of Indiana and Kentucky. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Bivocational Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.