Your pastor is not a CEO and your church isn’t a business
Churches should beware the dangers of capitalism, not become part of the problem.
A few weeks ago, Alexander Lang quit his post as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) and wrote an article about his decision. He is one of many pastors to have resigned during the pandemic in what being called the Great Pastor Resignation (clearly, part of a Greater Resignation, nationally). Nearly half of all pastors considered quitting during that time—and I know several who actually did. As Lang noted in his article: stress, isolation, loneliness, political complexities, the burden placed on family, and a lack of optimism about the future of one’s church are the main reasons pastors quit. Lang went on to articulate his own reasons for leaving, which corresponded with the list above. He felt blessed by the experience of caring for so many people, but at some point it became too much to bear. He stated that he felt like he had “1000 bosses,” and faced unrealistic expectations as a pastor. He felt like he had to be a professional orator, a CEO, counselor, fundraiser, an HR director and a master of ceremonies—as well as a pillar of virtue. Truly, his job description was both enormous and unrealistic. As such, he like many other pastors began to suffer from physical health problems, and even PTSD.
I can deeply relate to all of these issues. In fact, the stress of being a pastor has had physiological effects on me, including hypertension. For Lang, the solution was to leave his church and leave ministry altogether. There was a cynical chorus that followed his post about why he was wrong to quit. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on what might be done in response to the increasing stress on pastors. I respect Lang and other clergy for doing what was right for them, but I also long to right the ship. I believe in the importance of pastoral work, even if I have been hurt by it throughout my adult life.
The church has many more problems than pastors quitting, as attendance dwindles and irreligiosity increases, of course. But we can surely use this crisis as an opportunity to make meaningful change.
There are some basic things we can learn from Lang’s reflection about how to improve churches. The most important is the danger of churches becoming businesses—obsessed with the size of their congregations—tempting their pastors to act like CEOs. I can speak to this because I myself was a pastor obsessed with growth, and I know that the cost of that obsession can be deadly for churches, pastors, and faith itself.
Realistically, a pastor can care for and shepherd approximately 200 people. Beyond that, it is extremely difficult to maintain a meaningful connection with church members. I’m not pulling that number out of thin air, by the way; church gurus make money teaching people how to “break through the 200 barrier.” Their answers often involve obtaining additional leaders to care for a subset of the flock. That solution, however, orients the entire church toward expansion and makes every leader necessarily positioned to that singular goal. The pastor no longer is the person focused on serving, feeding and loving the flock, but rather, a facilitator of the business–a decision maker or Chief Executive Officer.
Churches then follow principles of entrepreneurship, aiming to grow their constituencies and their profit margins. It’s disappointing because the spirit of evangelism should be a humane welcoming. It’s that very spirit that can get lost in the mix.
I can understand the anxiety around membership numbers that most pastors feel. Many churches are small and getting smaller. There are jobs on the line. But turning that anxiety into the main mission of a church is self-defeating. In fact, most people can smell a pastor’s sales rap as fast as they can that of an Amway representative.
Resisting that kind of corporate mentality means working hard not to turn your new friendships and relationships into “prospects” for your church. It takes time to not be obsessed with the number of “butts in seats” as they say in the world of theater. Pastors who are growth-obsessed work long hours, withdraw from their family (or use their church as a way to avoid their families) and fail to develop social lives outside of the church. They may also become so preoccupied with the direction of the church that they can’t listen to criticism without feeling attacked. Pastors become CEOs, and when they realize the church isn’t a corporation, they lose their sense of self and vocation. Church goes from being a life-giving institution to one that copies the worst things about our modern world.
Furthermore, growth-obsession leads to other problems, like a lack of pastoral care for members who are seen as less desirable. Too often, recruiting the next new person is the primary focus, and the individual who has been around for a while can be ignored (or told to go find a new person). Churches that try to seek growth at all costs often fail to take sides on important matters like LBGTQIA rights and that not only increases polarization, it can lead to a decline in growth as well.
Churches obsessed with growth fail to learn from the toxic elements of the market economy. Instead, they sadly embrace the overwork, inadequate pay, and “success”-oriented identity. Expanding like a business not only dilutes the gospel, it burns pastors out. Churches should actually resist the ways of the world—as Paul says in Romans 12—in order to renew minds and offer something different to the world. If church just ends up being a business, with a pastor as the boss, we can see why pastors quit, and also why people decide to leave church and faith altogether. But something else is possible.
The solutions to these problems might be foreign to some Evangelical pastors, but they are common practice elsewhere. In my next post, I will write about why I am still a pastor and what we can do to help pastors adhere to their ministerial calling for the long haul.