January 22, 2021

When Loving You Is Killing Me: Thoughts On Pastoring The Small Church

David Hansen writes a wonderful, poignant, real-world account of how four high school boys wearing baseball caps to worship became an issue that, as he puts it, “decapitated Mount Saint Helen’s,” and put his church and ministry through a season of pain, learning, and eventually, growth.

Almost every young preacher I know wants to start a new church. It may be the church growth emphasis at denominational headquarters. It may be a desire to reach postmoderns. Or it may be a desire to skip all painful garbage Hansen describes in his story. There are a lot of reasons I like new church plants, and this is near the top: No one is ready to blow up the church over baseball caps just yet.

Multi-thousand member/attender megachurches are great, because when people get mad and leave, the pastor don’t have to worry about it. You don’t have to visit your disgruntled members. You don’t have to make pastoral visits except to the people who really, really matter. (Most senior adults stuck as a homebound member in a megachurch will never see their pastor, and they might see a deacon a couple of times a year.) The business of church politics, mixed with the ministry of pastoral care, is vital in the small, traditional church. In the mega-church, those disgruntled and needy individuals don’t matter quite as much, unless they just pledged a million on the new ministry center. But that’s another story.

I remember what it was like to be a small church pastor and to be optimistic. To come in and look at your congregation and feel love and hope for the future. For me, after years as a youth minister, it was wonderful. I was never happier as a minister than those first few weeks as Pastor Michael Spencer.

And then….I was taken for a ride in a truck. Mr. So and So, (not his real name) says, “Now you know I give more money than anyone else in the church don’t you?” The shine was off of Mikey’s new toy. (Actual true story.)

It didn’t take long to discover that I was pastoring a network of extended families, and if I were going to do anything here, I was going to have to memorize a map that was never printed; a map of who mattered, who had power, who called the shots, and whose blessing would determine my support.

I quickly found out that one Sunday School class and one teacher ran the church. I discovered that one dominant family had determined the success of every pastor for years. I found out that everyone in the church had either made peace with this, or was ready for me to lead the charge to dislodge the dominant family, and if we lost, well…..I’d leave and they would try again.

I am naturally fearful. I am also very stubborn. This situation provided me with four years to preach my heart out, work around the edges, appeal to everyone to follow my leadership, and try a dozen new things that the dominant family ignored.

In other words, for four years I worked like so many small church pastors: I tried to be a good and faithful pastor without playing politics. I did all I could to be a good pastor to this family, including seeing them through the death of a major family member. Nothing mattered. I never received a dinner invitation. I never got a basket of peaches. My every decision was wrong. All my projects were ignored. They supported the church, and tolerated me. Things got colder by the week. My future was eroded and undercut at every point.

At one point, late in the game, we had an evangelist come to preach. A real fiery, bulldog of a guy. He follows me around for a couple of days, and smells out the church. We’re in the study, and he looks at me with a look that I can only describe as contempt. “Why don’t you tell _________________ that you’re the pastor, and he can either support you or leave? Stand up to this bunch.”

So easy to say. So many young pastors go that route, and get their luggage early. I was trying to be a lover and smart guy, not a fighter. I would buy my own luggage, and not much later than if I’d drawn a line in the sand.

I became bitter, and occasionally angry. (Once when the length of a service was criticized in a humiliating deacon’s meeting- I went 10 minutes past noon- I ended the service the next week after 40 minutes.) I fought, and lost. Tried and lost. Prayed and heard nothing. I talked to my fellow pastors endlessly. They just looked at me and bought me lunch. They had heard it from this church before and were going through it at their own.

I wanted this pastorate to be everything I ever dreamed my church would be. Instead, I was frozen out by one family, and as soon as my failure became apparent, the rest of the church looked on with a familiar shrug.

(I want to say a huge thanks to all the good people who stood with me in those years. You were precious friends, and I am sorry that I couldn’t be the pastor you needed.)

A major church debacle over ball caps? You better believe it. THAT is the reality thousands and thousands of pastors live in, and it is horrible way to live. My marriage was brutalized in these years. My parenting was deeply affected. It was in this time that I failed to finish my doctorate. I gained weight. I wound up catatonic in a corner at one point. I spent a week in the hospital with my heart arrhythmia.

Thousands of pastors are going through this. Thousands.

Hansen says something wonderful in this essay. He says that you must decide if the church is a church, or a collection of individuals. It is, of course, always both.

Individuals and their needs, quirks, and demands dominated my life as a small church pastor. We were 30 minutes outside Louisville. I spent half of each week visiting in the city’s many different hospitals. Such pastoral care was expected, but because the dominant family opposed me, it bought me none of the credit one hopes will accrue from faithful pastoral care.

Disgruntled members were the recipients of much of my time. One family was unhappy that we included some worship choruses, rather than all hymns. I visited them several times, to only be told that if we did not do what they wanted, they would leave. Why didn’t I just smile and say, “OK. Leave. Sorry to see you go, but I’m not changing for you.” Instead I begged, pleaded, negotiated and bribed. I wanted them to stay. I wanted to prevail on their sense of what was best for the congregation, and not to simply assert personal preferences. I wanted to believe that the church would prevail over this collection of individuals. I was wrong in that instance. It was a waste of time.

I counseled anyone with even a distant or past connection to the church, spending hours and hours with people who would never darkened the door of a worship service. I tried to start neighborhood Bible Studies, and spent hours knocking on doors alone. When I found a receptive family and they came to church, they were ignored. When our youth minister proved incompetent, I tried to fill the bill, and nearly got fired. I worked with members to start a clothes closet and a ministry to alcoholics. Some leaders supported these things, but the key players simply looked past these things, and waited for me to wear down.

It was a collection of individuals and families; a collection of preferences, traditions and political realities. My vision of being a church was the tie, and that tie was fraying, or was being cut. I kept looking for the church to show up. I kept hearing about it. I kept dreaming of it. But it never showed up for me. After four years, I left.

The church is on its third pastor since I left 13 years ago. You do the math. God has blessed in many ways, and I rejoice in much good that has been done. My failures and mistakes were overwhelming. I was an immature and troubled person. Still, it seems that few pastors can stay for more than four years at many small churches such as this one.

I understand young men who want to skip all of this and start from scratch. I can see the allure of training all the leaders yourself; of attracting people to a vision that is foundational to the existence of the church. Fighting over ball caps and hymnals and whether women can lead singing is a terrible way to spend your short life. Spending your days laying aside the work of growing the church or studying for preaching in order to keep dozens of disgruntled and demanding people happy seems foolish. Is this the church? Or something else?

Some of my readers condemn me for my sympathy with the emergent church. I understand the problems and concerns you have with many emergent writers, and I am opposed to churches that are so generationally specific they would have no idea what to do with a senior adult. Still, I believe we need thousands of new churches. It breaks my heart to know that there are so many pastors living out there lives in small churches that are nothing more than “family chapels.” Gatherings of family and cultural loyalty where the question of ball caps in church becomes a major division and an ugly testimony to the disunity of Christians.

Still, another part of me wants to love these churches. Many times, I wish that I could go back and try again. I still dream of seeing the small church becoming the church of Jesus, and not just a building where a few families gather a few hours a month. I sometimes long to preach the word and do pastoral labor among such people, and to plead with them to refresh their weariness and pettiness in the springs of living water.

The small church has probably killed more than a few ministers. Its antics and fights have discredited the name of Christ. Yet, it is the small church that nurtures and cares for most of the Christians in our culture. Should it die, or fade away in the shadow of the megachurch, Christianity in America would be greatly weakened. There are small churches everywhere that are wonderful witnesses to Christ and caring bodies of believers loving one another in Jesus name. These churches need pastors and elders. They need someone to lead and to love them.

I may find one again someday, and as an older, more prudent, mature person, I may succeed where previously I failed. Christ’s church will never fail, and I hope in him. May churches new and old reflect the glory of the Gospel in the face of Jesus, and not the petty feuds and power plays that dominate so many churches.


  1. My pastor showed up at my church fresh out of a reformed seminary with a passion for expounding the bible, what he got was a group of mostly seniors who don’t even know what it is to be Reformed, or even passionate.

    In addition of losing several non-active members to death in the last year, we have also lost a young childless couple that drove long distance just to sit in the nursery every other week, and handle kids/youth programs on wednesdays. They both work full time and the wife was going back to school…. I don’t blame them for leaving. In 2-3 years of being members I doubt they were once invited to a senior member’s home for a meal. Our pastor was the only person who really ministered to them.

    In the last month we have lost an old couple due to church discipline, I think they prefferred to not come back rather repent for hurt they have caused.

    In the last week we have lost an elder and his wife because after a decade in PCA churches he realizes what the Westminster Confession actually says… and doesn’t like it. He probably never should have been an elder to begin with.

    Many of the people in this thread comment that the longest-standing members of the church are usually the culprit for obstructing growth/change/church health, but in my church’s case the most dedicated elder and largest supporter is probably the only member thats been there since childhood. He’s supported things I’ve done, from hosting a concert and inviting the whole community, to playing guitar and singing some hymns to new tunes, without being critical. He and his wife are always humble and gracious and I see them them tend to our pastor. I wish we had more people like him and his family.

  2. I am a korean-American pastor of a New church plant.
    i have served at various korean-american churches.
    i have NEVER read an essay that hit so deep and rang so true. thank you for your time in sharing this!!

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