October 20, 2020

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. Michael, thank you for another wonderful essay.

  2. A young man in my youth group wanted to be a youth pastor and eventually a senior pastor. His two models were myself and a mutual friend, a pastor who was not..shall we say…mainstream even though both this pastor and I grew up strict Baptists but had, for lack of a better word, grown beyond the narrow-mindedness that prevailed in our youth.

    This young man, Nick, became a youth pastor. He loved the Lord, loved his kids, taught the word…and had an earring, had a couple of tattoos and, dare I say it…had a coffee machine in the high school room. At a business meeting, one woman asked for his resignation over the coffee machine. His thoughts?? “Eric would just love this!” (He is now out of that church and building houses with his wife’s cousin. He told me “he’s out of that church but not out of ministry.”)

    Why did he think that? Because at the church I had taught him was run by three familys. And when one of their friends wanted to be the Youth Pastor…well…Eric got the boot and their friend landed the job. Didn’t matter that the kids didn’t want him, the parents didn’t want him or the majority of the congregation, when asked in private, didn’t want him; he got the position. Why? The elder board (5 members..3 of them from each of the three dominant families) ruled the church. He saw all this first hand then experienced it himself.

    Preachers, teachers, deacons were viewed as employees as opposed to servants.

    It’s sad that small churches eat pastors and servants.

    Hansen and the I-Monk should shout this at every seminary…

    Eric 😉

  3. >>building houses with his wife’s cousin

    That’s not something indecent, is it?

  4. The more I read, the more I appreciate your writing. I don’t always agree, and sometimes I just don’t care about some of the things you write about, but I see, in similar yet different ways we have traveled down the same road.

    The essay was great…could have written it myself!

  5. Careful sled dog. Don’t get too close to the dark side. 😉

  6. You’re going to hear this a lot, but you could be writing about my church. Except instead of the ball-cap debate, it would be the “moving contemporary worship to Sunday morning” debate. I will never forget a Session meeting in which one elder as much as accused me of pushing her and her family out of the church because I proposed moving the traditional service 30 minutes earlier! She was quite vehement about it, and it was all I could do to keep from crying … the task force had spent so much time surveying the congregation and discussing the various scheduling possibilities … and now all our work was being trashed in a matter of minutes.

    The upshot was that the traditional service remained where it was, and contemporary worship is at 11:30, a little late for many people to get out of church on a Sunday morning/afternoon. But we live with it. Unfortunately, the ugliness of the debate caused at least one couple to leave and another one has been on the verge …

    Again, I see it as the “country club” mentality of small, old churches. It’s as if you can’t bring in new ideas if your family hasn’t been members for 3 generations. Gee, I’ve only been a member for 17 years and an elder for 6 … I’m just a kid. It’s very frustrating and quickly burns out anyone who comes in on fire with ideas for ministry and worship. And I’m talking about lay people not just the pastors.

  7. Can I just check context? In the US when you are talking about small churches how many members/worshippers do you mean?

    I am just trying to get a feel for how this varies compared to the UK where generally our Churches are a lot smaller anyway.

    For example I am being stationed by the Methodist Church to a semi rural area with 5 churches with 100, 12, 10, 9 and 5 members.

  8. I’m a PK. I know what you’re talking about. My dad stayed in a congregation for 10 years — God kept him there and dad finally came to realize that when God wanted him to leave, the door would open. And it did, and now, 35 years later, you can look back and see the fruit from the seeds he planted. At the time, it was hard to see, but I think he left that church (and others where he labored) a little better than it was when he started. I don’t think any of them were quite as extreme as you described, but I know how draining small church ministry can be. But you’re right, too, that this is where most of God’s people are served.

    Keep up the good work.


  9. My church had about 200 members, about 100 active. Many small american churches are 50-80. My current weekend preaching station is 20. It’s paradise 🙂

  10. Our church is about 130. I consider that small…based upon my upbring where I was in churces of 3000+.

    I’ve been here seven months and we’ve seen a lot of growth already take place. I’m not a wet-behind-the-ears, fresh out of seminary guy just waiting to get chewed up by power hungry elders, and that helps. We’re split between older traditionalists and young pomos, but neither group has a passion for Christ. They’ve got their own idols (for the older folks it’s hymns and repeating ineffective programs, and the youngin’s are materialistic and in love with the world), and it must make God sick. They wondered which side I’d gravitate towards, but I’m choosing a third option. Let’s be a real church. Let’s pursue a real Jesus.

  11. Kent Runge says

    Some churches in our area are actually named after families. Maybe that’s a good thing?

  12. I love your essays. They speak honesty to a world of spin. It is sad though that this situation is the norm for so many. Be well and be blessed.

  13. Little known to me at the time (that could be the theme of my pastorate), the church had adopted a mindset in regard to pastors. They were close enough to the seminary that they had many student pastors, though most appeared to be mature men, not novices. This contributed to the sense that the lay leaders actually ran things, and the preacher was just a temp who either immediately drew them in or kept the store open for a few years till graduation. There was a residue of hostility towards these student pastors among many- not all members. The proximity of the seminary was how the church managed to hire almost all of its music and youth leaders. But it was also why my doctorate was derailed.

    These “family chapel” operations are murder on the clergy, particularly younger men. I think I could go back today and handle things a lot differently, mostly because I don’t care about a lot of the things I cared about then.

    Not that it matters, but this was when I became a Calvinist, and if you buy me coffee, I will tell you that I think frustrated pastors are prone to Calvinism. That was free, and if you disagree, you’re probably right.

    BTW- I just wanted to mention that in my years as a minister I have personally known 3 men who committed suicide, and heard of several others. I also could count twenty who committed adultery and dozens and dozens of divorces.

    Some people think this is all because of bad doctrine. I think that answer speaks for itself.

    THe best small (200) church I know of has 3 elders. They share all labor equally, even though one is “the” pastor. Each one preaches every week while the others sit with their spouses and kids. They watch for signs of stress and burnout and take action to care for one another.

    There is no such system in many churches. Pastors and their families feel very very alone, and when the church godfathers turn on them, it is a terrible feeling. Bad stuff happens. The day of judgement will reveal a lot of my failures. It will also reveal a lot of cruelty towards God’s servants.

  14. I’m about ready to weep. This is me and my church. How sad!

  15. Wow. If this doesn’t describe my current situation. I’m praying about knowing just what the Lord’s will is, now that I’ve been here 3 years, and the established “leaders” aren’t budging. I am saddened yet also comforted. Thanks, Michael.

  16. Brian Pendell says

    Three thoughts:

    1. First, a question: Now that you can look back, what was the “right” course of action? To fight or to do what you did? Would you do anything different now?

    2. I’ve been on the other side of the coin: When a new, fired-up pastor comes and decides to start kicking over anthills without regard to saints who have been in the church for thirty years, and faithful. Determined to make the church into a new image rather than working with the sheep he has. Such people usually get frustrated and blow out to start a “new church”.

    But why should they? The mere fact that the sheep are older — doesn’t that mean they need care too? Doesn’t old wine need to be in wineskins just as much as new?

    I have a question to ask these young pastors who are determined to ditch their established churches in favor of new ones they can make in their own image: Did God promise you a big church with thousands of people in it when you left seminary? Why not accept the sheep he has given you? Why throw them aside merely because they are old, and worn out, and stubborn? Do you think Moses had it any easier? Are not these old, stubborn rams also a part of God’s flock in need of care?

    3. As a worshipper, I HATE this new “love it or leave it” approach some pastors have. It sets up a catch-22.

    A) I hear many sermons about church loyalty. How you’re supposed to stay through thick and thin no matter how bad it gets. So you’re evil and wrong if you leave a church because of something.

    B) At the same time, if we raise voice or complain that something is wrong, we’re invited to get with the program or find another church.

    You can’t have it both ways. If you want us to stay through thick and thin, then you have to meet us halfway in accommodating us. If you instead want us to love it or leave it, you can’t expect “till death do us part” loyalty. In that case, the church is no more than a business concern, to be left whenever conditions are unsuitable.

    Of course, the message *I* hear from the pulpit boils down to: Love it, suck it up no matter how bad it gets, and never ever leave. You have no free will, and your opinion does not count. I, the sharp new kid on the block, have all the answers and you, you old stick in the mud, are simply out of touch with God or you’d see why we need to make all these changes.

    Has it ever occurred to anyone that there is a REASON God instituted both elders and pastors ? That the natural tension between conservative elders and young, dynamic pastors is a natural part of a healthy church? That if both sides submit to each other in love, the wisdom of the elders will check the excesses of the pastor, while the pastor will break the elders out of the rut they’re in? That this is a natural part of God’s plan, just as the differences in a marriage between a man and a woman are also a part of God’s plan?


    Brian P.

  17. Brian,

    I have written extensively on “the other side of the coin.”

    My mother has witnessed a young pastor Warrenizing her home church and literally telling the congregation that if they didn’t like the changes, leave.

    What would I do differently? Tough question. I was not a healthy or mature person. I was 31. I had been a youth minister since I was 18. My marriage was flawed, I was vulnerable. The major player in the church would never have supported me, and the dynamics would never have changed. I can’t say much about it.

    If I were there today, I would confront some of these leaders more directly. The little ride in the truck wouldn’t have gone down as it did. Hopefully, with a better marriage, older kids, more wisdom, more compassion, I could love people more freely and not be as fearful.

    I believe that the older members need love and attention. Absolutely. My mom is living through this and I often leave her house thinking I should become a minister to Sr. Adults, which was part of my job description in one church year.

    Let’s just say this: some of these little collections of families don’t qualify as churches, and I don’t know if anyone can “pastor” them. You can succeed by way of politics and popularity, but the union of priorities in Jesus that is fundamental to being a church sometimes just ISN’T there. These “family chapel” operations are often not interested in Jesus or following him or ministering to anyone. The best pastor in the world is going to fail. Down here we say it’s like herding cats.

  18. And people wonder why I’d leave church.

    Because I saw what happened to you, and it sucked.

    I do church in the streets now, where anyone walking by can join…or keep on walking. I go to homes where there is no hope and try to give some. I walk away from some doors wondering what the hell I’m doing there at all, and others I’m full of joy as I start my car to drive to the next appointment.

    And people wonder why I won’t do church.

    I’m sorry that happened to you. Really I am. It must have been painful. But I’m glad you just walked away from a church, and not the God you serve. THAT would be tragic.

  19. I appreciate that comment, very much.

    I did not, however, walk away from the church. It is impossible for me to fulfill my life’s calling or to follow Jesus as a disciple, outside of the community of believers.

    The New Testament is written to communities of believers, and does not conceive of Christianity outside of those communities. Jesus started a community movement. Intentionally. One that would be full of all the failures of the institutional church and the pain of failed pastorates.

    I caused pain, too. I’ve hurt the church through my failures. In the community of faith, we all come before the table, guilty of crimes, and we all receive the gift of grace as failures.

    I believe this community of failures, loved by God, is the essence of the invitation to the Prodigal Son.

    I have continued to love, serve and belong to the church, as do my family. Our experience has been much different and much better. The church I write about has found a pastor who is successful in leading and loving them.

  20. I just spent two months on a stress leave, with severe chest pain and facial numbness. This small church (60) of mine almost killed me! They would yell at me during the church boards, call me names and even once I nearly got beaten…

    I don’t have that church anymore (thank God), but the resentment, frustration and urge to leave the ministry is still there. I’m pastoring another church (100) now, but I’m so paranoid! My self esteem went really down and I’m just expecting every day to be “abused” again by my members…

    This is hell…

  21. Oh man, this is so “my world.” I started a new fellowship within this one because the old one is basically a write-off: people just don’t understand – they want to hang on to live as they knew it, and in doing so they’re dying a little bit each day for no reason. It’s sad, I pity them, really.

  22. I was once part of a small church (around 30 members) that was the remains of a fairly large church (300 or more – large for this town) that had experienced a rather ugly church split. They were a dinky congregation meeting in a huge building. It was almost morbid.

    What I noticed about that particular congregation was a constant state of fear, not of love and worship. They were afraid of losing the building. They were afraid of losing even one member. They were so hung up on how God would soon expand the membership that they were not doing anything as a church to serve God first. When we have more members, we will be able to do this or that. Sure.

    Then the pastor gets fired, nobody wants to talk about why, and a new guy gets brought in who promises results. He starts out with a business model in which he defines who he wants to start seeing more of in the church. My family fit the profile, and we were almost the only family that did. Around 30, young kids, a little extra time in the schedule. So, I get asked into a special group to advise the pastor about the church. Only, what the group is for real is not advisory. We are supposed to form the core of his cheering section, getting the rest of the congregation to go along with whatever this fellow says. (No more hymns, hired a consulting firm to design a logo and suggest a new name, stated that we would follow the Brownsville model – but didn’t tell us what that model is.)

    Now, here’s the interesting part. Everyone on that committee but me fell in line. Why? Because they were afraid and this fellow was promising the growth that they had been hoping for since the split. At that point, it had been nine years and they wanted more people, but didn’t care who or how. So, everyone there was unhappy, and I heard comments like “I really prefer the older music, but I can put up with the other kind if it means saving souls.” Not a single new person came before I finally left – after respectfully telling the pastor that I was certain this was not the direction intended for our church.

    That isn’t the only church where I have seen another problem. When young, new folks come in, they are immediately tagged to do several things for the church. They feel complimented because they are being included in the community. Sure, we can give a little more time, a little more sacrifice. So, you get a couple with a baby, an old car, and a truckload of debts. Turns out the husband plays guitar. So, he is asked to play music on Sunday morning. That’s cool. He feels welcome and useful. His wife is asked to take over the nursery during service because her baby is there anyway and she couldn’t sit with her husband during service, since he is up front… A month later, the husband is expected to play on Sunday nights, too. Within a few months, the wife has not been to service more than a couple of times, the husband is playing and singing at both Sunday services, and the Saturday night praise jam, and if they don’t both come to Wednesday night prayer meeting, they don’t really love God. So, they both end up burned out, depressed (I’m talking about medication, here), frustrated, and unwilling to admit that they are being used because they think that to say so is to be disloyal to God.

    Small churches can be wonderful and supportive and very family-like. Or they can be vampiric and poisonous.

    The church I am now a part of doesn’t have most of that. If you want to plant flowers along the front walk, the pastor doesn’t direct you to come to business meeting and talk to the grounds committee. He says “I planted it last year because nobody else stepped forward. If you want to do it, God bless you!” Volunteering is very welcome and there is a sign-up sheet for things like cleaning the church, but there is surprisingly no guilt involved. People who don’t clean the church are considered to be called to a different ministry at this time. A lot of the time, it is a ministry to their families. As the pastor might say, what’s going to make God happier – families spending time together and the church a little untidy, or a spotless building full of people who don’t spend enough time together?

    Consequently, the church is overflowing with people and has no problem keeping clean. Everyone feels like part of the community and family. There is no nursery, so nobody misses the service because it is their turn to watch a bunch of kids who are not healthy enough to be out of bed (but mom would feel guilty skipping church – if she leaves them in the nursery she doesn’t have to deal with the coughs, the runny nose, the sneezing). I love my church more than I ever have before. It is set up to edify and feed believers, not to suck in lukewarm cultural feelgoods and burn out the dedicated Christians. Man I love my church.


  23. as a Youth Minister of a small church, laughed, shuddered, and worried throughout this piece. keep me safe, Lord, in this blissful land called Youth Ministry! 🙂

  24. Benjamin Nitu says

    good essay Michael

  25. Thank you, Michael.

  26. It’s interesting for me to read that story, Patrick, because I got a premonition of something similar happening to me when I was church hunting last year. I visited a church that had about 20 people in it, mostly old women (always the last to hang on), and I just got the feeling they were a little too eager to have me there. One person actually said something like, “We really need more young people, like you.” I felt like I was just not in a position to help a dying church, since I was just a seeker and hadn’t even been baptized yet. I always felt kind of guilty about walking away from them though. But your story suggests that maybe my tingling spider-senses were telling me the right thing.

  27. Been there, seen that. The best SBC pastor I ever knew got run out of our church, BECAUSE THE CHURCH WAS GROWING.

    However, I can say one thing: A friend and I were about to leave his church, because of many issues. We brought our concern to this pastor, and he took an hour of his time to talk to us (2 sixteen year old kids!) and tell us why he thought we were needed in that church.

    And we both stayed. He gave each of us a little Gumby toy and talked about needing to be flexible, “become all things to all men” etc. I still have that Gumby, and I think about it every time I get frustrated at a church.

    I will forever be thankful for that small-church pastor!

  28. It is enough to say I have been here and done this many a time. My ministry evolved early on, into working with churches and leadership in crisis.

    Church Plants, Restarts, Redevelopment, Revitalization, and Ministry to Leaders, etc.

    During the last four years alone, I spent most of this time working with three churches at the same time. After twentyseven years of this, I still love the God’s Church, but I am so very burdened by what I have seen, experienced, heard and continue to see and hear.

    New Forms will come and go and it has absolutely nothing to do with forms. It has everything to do with hearts. Without serious heart changes and all that is invloved in this taking place throughout the Body of Christ, what we see and have seen will only get worse and worse.

    I believe there is hope, yes a very real hope, but it will take alot more than simply changing forms.

    Yet, I have a hope and it is this hope that is the anchor of my soul and it extends into the Holy of Holies, Blessed be His Name!

    Blessings in Christ Jesus!

  29. Excellent article. Thank you! I have a podcast about small church ministry that you all may find helpful. You can find it at http://www.mayberrychurch.com

    We call it The Mayberry Driven Church.

    We’d love to hear what you think of our broadcast.



  30. maryellen says

    Are you and most of your commenters SB?
    I know these things exist, and my husband and I have been affected by some of these things…
    the words Church and Politics should never be uttered in the same breath. Our first experience with an organized church was in the United Methodist Denomination, and later in the Free Methodist Denomination. Our postitions were never more than volunteer, but it didn’t seem that the congregation had that much power over the pastor.

  31. I have a freind that just run out of their Methodist church because of their burden for and ministry to the homeless people of their community. This issue is cross denominational.

    I am not SBC or Reformed and I come here.

    Blessings in Christ Jesus!

  32. Also, I had a close freind run out of an Evangelical Free by the power families of the church and this was in the last several years also. There is either a problem with my freinds :)or we have a problem within the churches of America.

    Blessings in Christ Jesus!

  33. Here’s a few ideas to surviving as a pastor –
    >Go somewhere each year to just worship, play, let loose, receive, listen, get preached to and prayed for (incognito if need be).
    > Nourish your own spiritual life weekly by reading theology (real stuff, preferably later than 1850), praying and other spiritual disciplines
    > Build realtionships with other pastors you can trust with your life
    > Treasure your friends who knew you before you became “The Reverend” & go drink a beer with them – they won’t be impressed with your statistics or let you B.S. and the touch of realness is soothing for the soul.
    > Go overseas on a mission trip – see what real suffering is like.
    > apostle Paul got chased out of most towns. God always has a place for you down the road.
    > Remember – Church isn’t your idea. Its God’s. Election isn’t your idea – its God’s. Relax – He’s got all eternity to work on us.

  34. oops…I meant to say nothing later than 1850!

  35. Excellent article. Broke my heart because I, too, have been there and seen this same kind of stuff. Some of the comments here reflect my own thoughts, too, that this is not so much about form or structure, or even size of church. It’s about the heart, and understanding what the Body of Christ really is supposed to be like. Unfortunately, our forms and traditions so often get in the way. My wife and I have chosen to step out of formal (vocational) ministry and have opted for the house church concept because we feel that provides a better environment for the Body of Christ to truly function as Scripture describes it. We’re still learning, and certainly don’t have all the answers, but it’s exciting to feel a renewed passion for the Body rather than just being burnt out by so-called ministry. God’s blessings to you, and thank you for being so honest in this article. It is refreshing!

  36. Maryellen-

    My impression (and this is based only on my own experiences – until reading this article I didn’t know that other churches were as dysfunctional as those in my town, though I am not surprised) is that the churches where this sort of thing is likely to become an issue are the churches where a select group from the congregation chooses and hires the pastor.

    Never having been in the situation of the pastors (and not ever being likely to find myself in that situation), I can only speculate. I think that whenever one person or group hires another for a job, that person or group who does the hiring will generally expect the hired one to be subservient to the folks who picked him and sign his paycheck. When the pastor tries to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit and that conflicts with the desires of the gray-haired saints who helped raise the church building, there will be issues. The pastor is a new guy who is supposed to do a job, not seen as the leader of the congregation. There are exceptions, of course, but it seems like a new pastor had best toe the line and do what the long-term elders want or he is going to encounter hostility and disapproval.

    In one case, I have seen something different. The pastor was really called out of desperation, not mature deliberation. The church had lost one pastor after another and this guy was old enough to have been around the block a few times. They pretty much gave him the reins and he drove more than a few people away. In fact, it was because I really couldn’t stomach one of his sermons on Easter Sunday that my family first visited the church we now call home.

    The pastors in evangelical churches of my area who seem to have the best relationships with their congregations are the ones who have been there since the church was dinky and new and are themselves numbered among the grey-haired saints of the church. If you have only been there for 10 or 12 years, you are still a junior member of the church, in a whole lot of cases.

    My now, and I hope forever, church is different in several ways. The congregation does not choose the pastor. He is appointed by higher up the chain (yeah, I know how grating this idea is for independent-minded Baptists and similar folk). The pastor does not stay until he burns out or is fired. He will be transferred in around 6 years, on average. Since we do practice infant baptism, everyone sort of assumes that everyone else has been in the church since birth. There are folks who remember putting up the building, but we all know that we are part of a much bigger church than can fit in one building.

    Do we have problems? Oh my word, yes. Some are bad enough to get some major media attention. There is also widespread ignorance of doctrine and promulgation of practices that are not doctrinal, and these don’t make the headlines. But somehow, the huge problems seem to draw us closer together as a church family. It is the petty little things (of which we seem to have blessedly few) that tear a church apart. On the whole, I would rather have it the way I now do than to deal with the niggling pettiness and long-time control freaks who I have seen in other churches. When people will leave a church because their kids want to wear ball caps and the pastor asks them not to, that’s petty. When a pastor is driven out because the old-timers don’t think that he should be asking members of the congregation to get involved in the hospital and nursing-home visits, that’s control freaks in action. (That was one of my favorite SB preachers.)

    I don’t think that anything is really going to change the culture of the small churches where a couple of families control the entire church. Those churches will continue along until the families either die off or find themselves alone with a yes-man in the pulpit.

    And the saddest part is that the message this sends to the communities around those churches is a message that sure doesn’t encourage folks to come and worship. Non-believers are only going to agree that Christians have the grace of God when they see Christians acting like they have it. If a ball cap is more important than a meaningful time of worship and a feeling of real connection with fellow believers, then where is that Christian grace? Maybe in another church, but we don’t see it here.

    For the record, everyone in my family removes his or her hat in church.


  37. Wonderful, thoughtful post. The power family can destroy a pastor.
    I’m also thinking about your comments in regard to mega churches. The super-star pastor of the mega church surely doesn’t have that problem. On the other he hardly touches the lives and problems of his congregation apart from those, as you say, who are important.
    Both the small old church and the mega-church have challenges and difficulties, I guess. So if I’m a member of a mega-church I want to feel confident God wants me there. And I want to be confident the pastor is there because of God’s call.
    If I’m pastor of a small church I really want to know I’m there out of obedience to God.

  38. I have to say, have read the Hansen article, I find it hard to see what the fuss was about. From the very first the pastor made the wrong choice on a no-brainer. Why did the kids want to wear their hats in church? Because their hair was messy. (!!!????!!!!) So the condition of their hair was more important than showing honor to God and the church? They couldn’t stand looking a little less than totally cool, but they felt OK making the whole church and God look like fools? And the pastor agreed with this because of why? Because of the unfortunately too common misreading of Christian freedom, that turns it into a deliberate “play dumb” attitude (“I’m going to play dumb and pretend I don’t know what message the kids are sending by keeping their hats on” and then call that willful cultural ignorance “Christian ignorance.”)

    Your case, imonk, seems much more one of genuine difficulty, but David Hansen–he acted like a fool, got called on it by the Twinkie Man and the rest, and finally did the right thing that would have been obvious to any sensible, culturally literate person from the beginning. The church council backed him up. Hardly a case of a “problem small church”. A case, I’d say, of godly men in a small church helping a willfully ignorant pastor speak the local language and hear the “My kids are God!” message that the boys parents’ had been screaming at the top of their lungs from the beginning of the whole debacle. (Reminds me of Dudley and Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. I’m sure they’d LOVE to see Dudley go to church with his hat on.)

  39. I’ve been in my church for 20 yrs. It’s small; about 120 people, but the Pastor has a mega-church mentality. He graduated from a very popular seminary, “Chuck Swindoll was my neighbor”, and started the church 30 yrs. ago. His word is law and if we don’t like it, we can leave. He evangelizes us every Sunday, gives the same messages that he gave years ago during his *glory days* and tries everything under the sun to get more people. We just completed a $200,000 renovation of our building so “new people will be motivated to come inside”.

    It’s ok to ask why we are still there. Because the people love the LORD! It’s the people who keep me there. One professor described our city as a “spiritual desert” and he’s so right.

    Our son is starting his move into active church ministry. He has been under the authority of a Godly and Biblically sound Pastor, taught in a major juvenile detention center, at the Salvation Army and in his church. He wants to move back here and start a *home* Bible study and see where it goes.

    I’m kind a’ new here but I’m hearing some seasoned Christians talking…so what would be your advice to this son of mine?

    (Please tell me if this is the wrong place to bring this up.)

  40. maryellen says

    The kids in my public school are not allowed to wear hats or hoods in class. We had a father in our church who was very conscience of making his son remove his hat as soon as he entered the building, even when we became a home church and worship was in our front room.
    I guess you have to choose your arguments.
    But this whole thing about power families and congregations vs pastors is really unnerving.
    And my heart goes out to all of you men and women who are called into ministry, but have been wounded by the sheep you have been called to shepherd.

  41. Ex Umbris says


    If your church is the one I’m guessing it is, the ladies shouldn’t be removing their hats; on the contrary, not so long ago all the ladies would have been wearing hats throughout the service. (This does not refer of course to baseball caps. Do ladies wear those anyway?)

  42. Ex Umbris-

    Well, ya got me. Yes, when a hat or Easter bonnet is a part of the ensemble, it generally stays on. However, my wife wears a hat on a daily basis to keep the sun off. Wide brim felt hat, a lot like mine, only hers is black and mine brown. That comes off when we enter the church. My son and my daughter both wear ball caps and both remove them in church. Our congregation is pretty casual in dress, but we are very respectful in attitude.

    My wife had an insight about this sort of thing and why it doesn’t happen in the churches with a rigid hierarchy, but does in the smaller and more independent churches. It is all about where you are on the totem pole. When you have a rigidly defined chain of command, you come in knowing where you are on that pole. When the rules are written by a couple of local businessmen because they have the money to establish and build a church, those guys are always going to want to stay on top. And if they are the ones who hire the pastor, they won’t forget that they pay the lion’s share of his salary. Jockeying for position doesn’t happen when you already know what position everyone has and will retain. If you are in the congregation, you are welcome to accept more duties and participate in different ministries, but you don’t oversee the pastor. There is already someone there to do that.


  43. Your post reminded me of the song by Casting Crowns called “If We Are The Body”. I hate church politics. You really have a great site here! God bless you!

  44. Having taught high-school Sunday school for 10 years, we ran into it as well.

    Got kicked out of one church … and I’m not making this up … for compelling our teens to bring their Bibles to Sunday morning Bible Study.

    Next church, got into some hot water when my wife approached one of the younger teens and suggested the young lass wear a (micro-mini) skirt to worship that didn’t require both hands on the hem while sitting down to avoid a … er … wardrobe malfunction … um … south of the border.

    Best one though was a kid fresh out of reform school after 16 years of neglect. Yet somehow it was all my fault when he was brought to my class and instead of ‘fixing him’ … I insisted he stay away.

  45. Crud — pooched that last sentence … “Yet somehow it was all my fault when he was brought to my class and instead of ‘fixing him’ … I insisted he stay AWAKE.”

    Needless to say, the sleepy teen did indeed stay away after that.

  46. Dan Crawford says

    Thank you for such a wonderful essay. I wish more like it were published in Leadership. I stopped my subscription several years ago when I discovered I was depressed after reading every issue.

    The church you describe was my church. I’ve seen similar dynamics in the 4 churches I’ve pastored in 12 years of ministry. I came to the ministry after 15 years as a college professor. When people ask me whether academe is as vicious as it is sometimes portrayed in the mass media, I tell them academe has much it can learn about true viciousness from the church.

    Please keep telling it, as Mr. Cosell used to say, “like it is”.

  47. I saw this over and over and took care of many of these Men. I called it Baptist Minister Syndrome. It is one of the things that led me out of the SBC to the glorious PCA.

  48. I have a recurring dream in which I drive down a country road and find a country church, one I’ve never known. I go inside and join the youth group as a youth (although, in real life, I am thirty) with all the verve and spunk I can muster. But I think even in the dreams, I know all of it is unreal, that if the story continued, it would all fall apart; and I wake up, thirty, my youth gone (which is the real reason I think I keep having the dreams…because I want my youth back, which was wasted on so many insanely worthless pursuits, even when I wanted to pursue God).

    Will I ever drive down that country road to find that country church? Will I go inside and join the youth group as a wiser adult who encourages youth not to waste their young years? God only knows.

  49. Wow. The story you tell is the story of so many. I could have had one close to yours, but had some very good advice from a prof before I went to the small church of 25. The advice? Change things very slowly. Very slowly. I did and was there for 5 years until one of the family got irritated at me and accused me of not leading. Now I think he may have been partially correct. Although he wanted heavy-handed leadership. I don’t do that. But i do do a lot better. I mean i do a lot better now. Wow. That sounded horrible. Anyway, change comes so slowly in the ministry. And that at some cost.