Pastors or Missional Strategists?

The other day, I talked with a friend who works for a large corporation. He talked about the latest meeting with some company executives. The executives had descended from their corporate offices to speak to the people on the “front lines.” There were new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, accompanied by familiar platitudes and stock phrases. The executives emphasized the importance of everyone “getting on board” with the new strategy.

If you’ve been part of a large organization, you may have had a similar experience. The execs read a new book or go to a new conference, they have a new visioneering retreat, and then they announce the company’s new direction to the “front lines” people with breathless excitement.

[Ironically, most of those execs at one time based their next bit of breathless excitement on the book Good to Great, which notes, “The good-to-great companies had no name for their transformations. There was no launch event, no tag line, no programmatic feel whatsoever.” It was the under-performing companies that kept unfurling banners with the next great tag line.]

My friend was frustrated by the meeting. Frustrated that they often receive edicts from the corporate office with no understanding of the realities on those “front lines.” Frustrated that the people giving new edicts and calling him and his colleagues to “get on board” have never taken the time to get to know them. The executives are “too busy going to conferences and having strategic meetings.”

The Missional Strategist

I had that conversation around the same time I was reading Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor (highly recommended). Peterson recalls a seminarian saying something similar about the church: “I realize that for those twenty years that I was an engineer sitting in the pew each Sunday, I never had a patient pastor––they were all trying to get me ‘with the program,’ shape me up, get me, as they put it, ‘involved.’ I don’t want to become a pastor like that. I don’t think that is what pastors are for.”

Today’s mission-driven church world runs many of the risks of the corporation I described above. Pastors cease to be pastors and become missional strategists––too busy going to conferences and strategic meetings, never enough time to sit with people and know them. Too worried about getting people “with the program” to take note of what God is doing in their lives. Our sermons can be shaped more by conference room discussions than by living room discussions. And when we do this, I expect the response of most of our people to be like that friend on the “front lines” above––as someone treated with no more dignity than a cog in a machine, a means to an end.

The Pastor

Peterson quotes another pastor: “I think I see something unique about being a pastor that I had never noticed: the pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the ‘image of God,’ a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything.”

When our pastors become mere missional strategists, they lose that unique role in the community. They become just another set of people looking for how they can use others to accomplish a mission.

The Pastor and the Missional Strategist

Compared with “missional strategist,” the role of “pastor” seems a much bigger role to me. A pastor can see people in the community as they are, in all their God-given dignity and all their human need. That will include a zeal for ministering to the hurting, hopeless, and wayward. It will include treating the people in our congregations and communities with dignity, getting to know them simply because they are worth knowing. It will include nurturing people in their discipleship and recognizing their gifts to lead in the Church and in the world. It will include missional strategy, but it will be far more.

I don’t believe that pastors shouldn’t be missional strategists. I believe the word is just much too small. I’ve seen how it has led some pastors to abandon their roles as pastors. They hide in meetings and conferences, they compose bold mission statements with detailed action plans, and when they’re done, there’s no time left for their people and communities. (Let’s be honest, meetings and conferences and Ministry Action Plans are much easier, much less messy, than soul-tending.) And then when those missional strategists come to their “front lines” people with the new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, they come away frustrated at how many people “just don’t get it” or “won’t get on board.” Then, lacking a culture of healthy dialogue and empathy, they resort to blame or coercion.

The Chief Missional Strategist

I write this aware that the UMC has embraced the role of our district superintendents as “Chief Missional Strategists.” For all the reasons above, I believe that’s a mistake. I understand its intent––moving this position’s role away from regulation. Many of our DSs had become simple rule-enforcers. (Side note: A growing bureaucracy for the sake of regulation is a symptom of a deeper problem. See another intriguing quote from Good to Great in the footnote here.)12 But the name change also communicates a change of primary roles for our pastors and DSs––away from pastor; to missional strategist.

A long-time district superintendent whose writing I deeply respect, Sky McCracken, writes on the other side of this. He advocates for the role of DS as chief missional strategist. But I don’t believe that’s really what he is. He’s still a pastor first. Even when he writes about DS as chief missional strategist, he writes, “For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level.” For McCracken, a DS will fail at all the missional strategizing if (s)he fails to be a pastor first. See his five essentials for district superintendents at the end of this post. Three emphasize his role as pastor to the pastors and congregations in his district.


Strategic church world is clamoring right now for more missional strategists, more entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re undervaluing the role of the pastor and shepherd. Of course missional strategy is part of the work of the pastor. And of course we don’t need more bad pastors. But I still believe what we need most is more pastors––more leaders who take people seriously just as they are, in all their God-given dignity; more time in living rooms, even if it means less time in conference rooms.

  1. “The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline—a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.”
  2. And another gem related to discipline: “Don’t confuse a culture of discipline with a tyrannical disciplinarian.”

How to treat and evaluate missionaries well

A friend sent this article to me recently. I heartily commend it to any of you who ever interact with missionaries. The author lists ten things missionaries struggle with but usually don’t tell people.

Our family served with a missions organization in Spain for only eleven months, and we knew it was short-term. Even still, we felt nearly all of these. We saw long-term missionaries there struggle with all of them.

(For what it’s worth, I watch pastors struggle with a few of these, too.)

That experience has helped us treat missionaries––and other pastors, where it pertains––with more charity. A few things that has included:

- Read newsletters and reply with empathy.
When we were in Spain, we sent occasional newsletters to friends and family about what we were doing. One friend, Barbara, replied to every single one. Some replies were only two or three sentences long. Even so, they meant a lot. Those brief replies were a nice reminder that someone from home was following and hadn’t forgotten us, as the linked article mentions.

For the missionaries we know, I now try to respond to their letters with a personal note. I especially look for something to celebrate with them, something to grieve with them, or something to pray about.

- Celebrate the things that may draw criticism or skepticism from others.
The author of the article is certainly right about the discomfort of sharing pictures from a vacation or anything else of the sort. He’s right, too, about anxiety over sharing results that may not sound impressive enough. When I see that missionary friends took a trip for fun, I especially try to celebrate that with them. When I see they tried something new and got a response (even a small one), I send a note to celebrate it.

- Scrutinize the integrity of the person and the credibility of their missions organization. Don’t scrutinize their budget or the exact nature of the work.
Our family has enough opportunity to support missionaries we know, so we’re not picking random people off a page. That means we already know them well enough to know if they’re faithful Christians and diligent workers. That’s of first importance to us. I’m happy to support someone like this, even if they don’t know exactly what they’ll be doing. Put a hard-working, faithful Christian on a mission field, and I’m sure something good will come.

Over the years, I’ve had a handful of requests for support from people whose work ethic or depth of faith was questionable. We chose not to fund those.

I also want to know that the missions organization someone is serving is reputable and has good systems of accountability in place. That makes more sense than scrutinizing the budget or mission plans of a particular missionary. The organization understands the realities of mission work better than I do. I’m wary of people trying to serve without the cover and accountability of a good organization.

When I see some of the expected costs for missionary living, I confess they surprise me and seem high. The costs for travel and language school often surprise potential supporters. I can now say that good language learning is essential and merits its significant cost. And I understand travel costs differently now. One emergency trip back to the States can break a missionary couple’s budget for years. The author of the linked article mentioned not being able to attend his father’s funeral. I was with a missionary who watched his father’s funeral by Skype. The physical and financial toll of an emergency round-trip were going to be too much.

The article above also mentioned intense scrutiny from church missions committees about the exact plans for a missionary’s work. I’ve talked to several missionaries who lament what they have to do and share with States-side missions committees to get their support. It often feels exploitative––pictures of dirty, hungry children and the like.

We should leave scrutiny about the details of the work to the missions agency. We don’t know the situation in many of these cultures. We don’t know what’s truly needed. And sometimes the missionaries and agencies don’t know either. What they really need is to do some exploratory work. That’s hard to sell, but essential to the long-term work.

- Prioritize long-term missionaries.
I’ll still contribute a bit to someone who’s going on a 10-day trip to Mexico or a 6-month trip to serve in the Philippines. But what I contribute is a small show of support. I try to save most of our giving to missions for the long-termers.

Having seen both, and having been much closer to the short-termer side, I believe the long-term work needs and deserves the lion’s share of financial support. Let’s be honest, a 10-day trip is probably better termed “cross-cultural experience” than mission. It does some good, supports the long-termers, and maybe whets someone’s appetite to serve in a bigger way. But it’s still at least equal part sight-seeing trip (even if the “sight” is a VBS in a third-world country) compared to the deep, hard work of long-term mission.

I know this is probably an unusual position, but I look for someone going on a short-term trip to be financially invested. Some people can treat a short-term missions trip as a semi-vacation that others will pay for.

So when anyone who’s considering a short-term trip asks me about fundraising, one of my first suggestions to them is that they find a way to self-fund a significant portion. When we went to Spain, we received support for about 40% and used savings for the other 60%. That financial support from others was an incredible blessing. But as short-termers, I wouldn’t have felt right about it if we didn’t pay for a significant portion ourselves. (And if anyone is looking to do something like this just as a get-away, not for the sake of mission, I urge them to find a way to pay for all of it. No “Go Fund Me” campaigns.1)

Hear me in this: I believe those short-term trips are (usually) good and important! I’ve taken them and encourage others to. I only want to communicate here that those trips make a tiny impact compared to the long-term work. I want our major financial contributions to support the major, long-term work.

- Your financial support is more than just financial support.
I heard this several times before, but I never really believed or understood it until people began giving us support. The financial support was great. But just as significant was the vote of confidence it represented. I remember a few friends who made commitments that we knew were significant sacrifices on their part. Some of those came at our times of highest anxiety and doubt. Those commitments said, “I believe in you” in a tangible way when we most needed to hear it.

- Do not treat missionaries as if they live on vacation.
They may live in a spot that you’d go on vacation. You may even go on a 10-day missions trip there, and it will feel a bit like vacation because it’s a break from your norm.

But for them, it’s everyday life. And because it’s in a foreign culture and often a foreign language, those everyday life things are harder. Even after several years of being there. While we were in Spain, the extra mental (and sometimes emotional) effort of going to the grocery or the bank or the Emergency Room (twice!) caught us by surprise. Simple things we take for granted in the States were taxing. It got easier as we went, but even in our final month, normal life required more energy than it does here. If we were both trying to put in full-time work hours and then live normal life, we couldn’t have done it.

Those who have lived there 20 years have obviously gotten much better at all this. But even for them, the work of normal living was more than it would be in their home culture. (This is also a good reminder for us in the States who know refugees or others who came from a different culture. Everyday life is more taxing for them than for us “natives.” Good to give them some extra grace.)

- When missionaries are in the States, welcome them with open arms and don’t expect too much.
I’ve talked with several missionaries who say their hardest times are the times back in the States. They’re away from home, staying in others’ houses, on others’ schedules, and often traveling a lot. And then those receiving them assume that they’re on vacation.

That experience has helped me ask a lot of questions that begin with, “You don’t need to give me the acceptable line here, just tell me the truth…” And then ask questions like, “We were thinking about setting up this event while you’re here. Would that be more of a blessing or a burden to you?” “How can we arrange your time and living situation here so you leave refreshed, not tired?” “Is there food you’ve been craving or food you’re sick of?”


If you didn’t, you should read the article linked at top. If you found these suggestions helpful, share them with a friend, a pastor, or someone on your church’s missions committee.

I’ll open the comments on this post for any of you to provide other suggestions (or critique mine).

  1. Linked campaign is a parody. Please don’t donate!

People or Systems

There’s a popular book for entrepreneurs titled The E-Myth (later titled The E-Myth Revisited, and then a whole host of spin-offs). It focuses on creating a “foolproof, predictable business”—a “systems-dependent business, not a people-dependent business.” The premise of the whole book: if you want to create a successful business that you can sell, you need to minimize your dependence on people and personality. You don’t really want people; you want robots. You’re using people because they’re cheaper.

The book offers several helpful suggestions. I’ve recommended it to many people. But it’s based on a false premise––that the only reason you would create a business is to make money and sell the business (as opposed to all the other possibilities—to create something that’s good and beautiful and contributes to the community, to create meaningful and enjoyable job opportunities…) The book assumes you need a system that requires no subjectivity. You’re managing a mass of people who are expected to check the right boxes. Most of what they do is true or false, sometimes multiple choice, almost never essay response.

This kind of world is a dream for higher-level administrators. If only people and progress could be measured in True or False checkboxes. And at McDonald’s, they mostly can.

But we try to extend this kind of thinking to all kinds of other worlds where it doesn’t fit. We do it because it’s easier to manage by “foolproof” systems than by subjective decision-making. It’s easier to manage one uniform mass than a collection of diverse individuals. So mandatory rules tend to grow exponentially with the size of an organization. When you oversee a large number of people, rules are just easier than subjective judgments.

Of course, this also leads to a lot of stupid rules. I spoke to someone who works in a medical lab about how they have to place expiration dates on items that don’t expire. When the “expiration” runs out, they peel off the piece of tape and re-label with a new, false expiration date. Why? Because administrators four levels up passed a rule that everything had to have an expiration date, no exceptions. If you’ve been in a large organization, you’ve probably experienced something similar.

To set uniform regulations is easy. To know people and their situations––to have open, two-way dialogue with them––is much more difficult and far more time-consuming.

As organizations get larger, this means we’re likely to waste more and more of people’s time. Administrators several levels up pass rules to be uniformly followed, whether they’re beneficial to everyone or not.

This leads to mediocre performance for the organization, as they waste more of their valuable people’s time.

It leads to depleted morale, as employees find themselves doing more meaningless things, less things that really matter. (The person in the medical lab above was lamenting the reduced level of patient care because of the number of silly rules that were instead consuming their time.)

Finally, some of the best performers leave. They’re looking for a place to make a difference, not to check meaningless boxes.

The church is hardly immune to this. It would be much easier for churches to handle discipleship with a foolproof system, much easier for denominational leadership to mandate the same things for all of their clergy. But tending souls is as far from robot-work as anything. We can put the check mark in the right box and congratulate ourselves, but our system may not be having nearly the positive effect we’re assuming.