Pastors come from within the community of faith, not to it from the outside

My last post considered the position of a pastor within the church community. I quoted Tom Long, who says, “we come from within the community of faith and not to it from the outside.”

I made this extra observation in a footnote, but it merits more than a footnote:

Of course, this notion draws into question not just how preachers enter worship, but how pastors are appointed. In the UMC, we expect our pastors to be sent to us “from the outside.” Churches that “call” their pastors from somewhere else expect the same.

How few congregations embrace the crazy idea that their next leader(s) may already be in the room! How much would that one change of assumptions change about a church?

What if your next lead pastor were already in the room? Your next youth or children’s pastor? What if someone told you today that one of the teenagers in your church will one day be leading it?

Let’s add some extra urgency… What if someone told you that you’re not allowed to hire or receive an appointment from the outside for your next pastor? You must fill that role with a current member.

Would that change anything about what you’re doing? Why not begin to act that way now?

Pastors shouldn’t have friends in the congregation…

I’ve heard several pastors discuss boundaries and friendship within their congregations. Seminaries and other pastors trained many of them not to make friends in the congregation. Several years ago, I heard an older pastor say that he didn’t have close friends. “I thought that was one of the sacrifices of ministry,” he said.

One pastor writes here about how he used to have his closest friends in the congregation. He refused to be like those older pastors “who stood somewhat aloof from their congregations.” But then he noticed something: he’s not perfect, and his congregation didn’t like grappling with the realities of his flaws. Now, he says, “I keep my spiritual struggles and personal issues to myself (and my wife).”

This mentality persists for preparing pastors. I share often in seminary classes about discipleship groups in our church. We ask questions like, “How is your soul?” and “Have you done all the good you could and avoided all the evil you could this week?” One question I receive every time: “Do you participate in one of these groups?” Most of them have been told by someone that a pastor shouldn’t share in that way with his or her congregation.

My answer to those classes: You better believe I participate. How could I expect any culture of honesty and vulnerability and growth if I stand outside it?

I tell those classes each time that if I’m living in a way that’s inappropriate for a pastor to live, then the problem isn’t that I’m sharing it, the problem is that I’m a pastor. I need to go confess to the right person (which in this case wouldn’t just be my group) and get out. But if I’m confessing to my group—even my congregation on occasion—that I, too, have spiritual struggles, I don’t think this diminishes my ability to lead. In many ways, it’s part of my leadership imperative—to be honest that I’m a fellow struggler.

In his brilliant book The Witness of Preaching, Thomas Long says, “How a preacher enters the place of worship is not just a practical matter; it is a theological issue.” He talks about how most preachers emerge “from somewhere outside; the preacher comes from somewhere else into the place where the congregation waits.”

But then he notes that theologically, “we come from within the community of faith and not to it from the outside.”[1] That has theological implications for how the preacher would enter the place of worship, according to Long:

We would come from the pew to the pulpit, from the nave to our place in the chancel, from the middle of the congregation to the place of leadership. For most church settings it may seem somewhat far-fetched to imagine a minister rising from a pew to give the call to worship or to preach the sermon, but this is precisely the picture of the Christian church at worship portrayed by Jürgen Moltmann in The Church in the Power of the Spirit: […] ‘How, then, are we to understand the position of [those who lead the congregation in worship]? They come from God’s people, stand up in front of God’s people and act in God’s name.’”

According to Long, the whole vision of the preacher should be as one who comes from within the community of faith and not from outside. The pastor is one of the people—yes, set apart for a particular role within the community, but always still coming from within. If we take that view of the pastor to heart, we should be concerned with far more than how the preacher enters the place of worship. We should be concerned with how the pastor interacts with the congregation—not as an outsider sent or called to do a duty, but as a member of that community, with the privilege of serving it in this way.

If Long’s view of the preacher/pastor is correct, then it would be absurd for us to avoid deep friendships within our congregations. Instead, we may even find our own spiritual support from within the congregation. This may sound frightening for those who view the pastoral role as more akin to a licensed counselor (who for good reason should not be friends with his/her clients). But maybe that view of the pastoral role needs to go. I much prefer how Long and Moltmann understand it.

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[1] Of course, this notion draws into question not just how preachers enter worship, but how pastors are appointed. In the UMC, we expect our pastors to be sent to us “from the outside.” Churches that “call” their pastors from somewhere else expect the same.

How few congregations embrace the crazy idea that their next leader(s) may already be in the room! How much would that one change of assumptions change about a church?

Competing Visions of the Church

Competing visions about the church’s purpose are one of the greatest tensions a church can experience. These can be especially obvious during a pastoral transition.

Imagine a new pastor coming into a church. One of the first things (s)he does is to announce a visioning retreat. The pastor and leaders go off and start with a blank slate. The pastor asks questions about how the church can reach new people or how the church can grow. (S)he says the church needs to change its worship style. You can’t reach unchurched people with this church’s style of music. And they need to get out of the building more, focus on community service or evangelism projects. Replace potlucks with service projects.

Some people on the new visioning team agree. They’re excited, ready to reach the world—or at least to make their church grow. Others are resistant. They like the current worship music. They see each other as family, and the potlucks promote that.

One of the reasons this is happening is because of the strong focus on leadership in clergy world. We’re expected to be leaders, change-agents, visioneers. If you don’t come into a church and wipe the slate clean for a fresh vision, what are you doing? The biggest metric of accomplishment in clergy world is church growth. If you don’t believe me, look at the lineup of speakers for any clergy conference. How many are introduced as pastors of large or “fastest-growing” churches? Success looks like building a machine that grows the church. It’s a focus on outreach and witness.

But when a pastor comes to a new church, the reality is that (s)he doesn’t arrive to a blank slate. (S)he arrives to a group of real people who probably already have a vision. More than that, they have a life together as community. They have people within who are looking to the church, and to the pastor, for care. Many of them see the church as a nurturing community.

These two visions of the church often run in conflict with each other. Are we building a machine of outreach and witness to new people (change the music to appeal to the masses!) or are we creating a community of nurture (those old, familiar hymns nurture our souls)? Sometimes we can see the tension divide three ways instead of two: you have the people who cherish community (nurture), those more interested in going outside the walls to serve in the community (outreach) and those more interested in bringing new converts inside the church’s walls (witness).

A mentor told me that two factions tend to arise in a church. One wants the pastor to be a CEO, boldly leading them into new territory. That’s the outreach and witness focus. This group is usually younger, though not exclusively. The other group wants the pastor to be a chaplain, visiting them when they’re sick, tending to their souls. They tend to be the older group, though not exclusively.

The problem isn’t that one of these is right and one is wrong. The problem comes when we view these as conflicts to resolve rather than tensions to manage.[1]

A church must be a place of nurture. And the pastor, above all others, must remember that. The pastor can’t delegate all of that nurturing responsibility so that (s)he can be out evangelizing the world. Pastoral care is a responsibility of the whole church, but especially of the pastor.

And a church must be a place of outreach and witness. Pastors who attend conferences or report to denominational management usually don’t need to be reminded of this. If you’re in some of the same worlds I’m in, there’s no shortage of people asking how our churches are growing or reaching people. Most of clergy world is telling our clergy to be bold, change-making leadership CEOs. This may be why some of our pastors rush into new churches and declare a big, bold new vision, then begin getting to know names. They’ve been trained to be visioneers, not chaplains.

Churches must ask questions about outreach and witness, especially because we can easily become focused on ourselves alone. A pastor can’t simply resort to the role of chaplain, especially if (s)he limits the chaplain’s responsibilities to those who cross the sanctuary’s threshold.

Of course, sometimes the outreach and witness questions lead us in all the wrong directions, even when we mean well by them. They can lead us away from being ourselves, into something forced and unnatural. Millennials[2] can warm to singing hymns when those around them sing with conviction and devotion.[3] They’re less likely to warm to a lackluster attempt at the latest K-Love song.

Is the church a nurturing community for its members or an outreaching and witnessing community to the world? The answer must be both. Many of our tensions and hasty decisions come when we believe we can only answer one way or the other.


[1] Thanks to Andy Stanley for this terminology––even if much of this post aims to contradict other things he’s teaching.

[2] I use millennials because they seem to be the group our churches are all visioneering to reach.

[3] For any who think that you need “contemporary” music to “reach the young people,” know that a lot of those young people are looking for expressions of our faith with deeper roots. (Though most of them will also tell you that the “roots” they refer to go long past the Gaithers and Fanny Crosby, so your traditions will need to run deeper.)