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preaching article There's Something Wrong with the Pastoral System

There's Something Wrong with the Pastoral System

based on 5 ratings
Nov 28, 2011
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Gordon MacDonald's new book, Going Deep: Becoming a Person of Influence, is a fictional account of how one pastor changed a church from a program-centered culture to a disciple-making culture. I had a chance to chat with Gordon by phone about what real-life lessons we can expect from Going Deep.

There’s a pastor in your new book, Going Deep, named “GMAC.” How much of him is you?

GM: He really is me. The two real characters in the book are my wife, Gail, and me. While the book is very much a fictional piece it’s built out of the actual experience of doing this the last few years.

What’s the greatest lesson you learned during your years as a pastor?

GM: Probably the greatest recognition that I think we probably need to totally re-define what pastors do in leading our contemporary 21st century church.  We tend to in our Protestant traditions to evaluate a pastor first and foremost by how well he or she preaches. If they’re a good preacher that covers a lot of sins. Unfortunately, I’m not sure in most churches that preaching is the thing that changes people or builds the church over the long haul as much as it is when you have a leader makes as his or her first passion or priority the development of people--in the sense that I call “deep people.” . . .  I would like to contend that the most important thing a pastor can do in the next years is to build leadership in the church, and allow leaders to be the influencers that secure the long-range ministry of the church. I don’t think most of us were ever trained to develop people like that nor were we that this would be as important as I’m trying to suggest that it is. 

We’re living at a new kind of world now where we can’t depend on families to turn out sound, centered people, where the church just polishes. We’re going to have to more and more discover people--like the Lord went out and identified would-be disciples and then began to train them. I think over the last years of my ministry that became the most important thing. I was the pastor of a megachurch and I loved the preaching and the leadership but I began to recognize that if I didn’t get busy training new leaders, the church’s future was not going to be secure.

Where does that leave you? Are you optimistic? Can the church make that transition?

GM: I think the present church institutional structure is going to make it difficult. It’s pretty obvious that the present structure of the church built around the sanctuary with pews all facing forward--so they can listen to one person talk to them--that picture alone tells you what the church thinks is most important! But if you go back to the rabbinic tradition of Jesus (and he was a rabbi) you’ll discover that’s not the way he structured his life. He structured it literally around relationships, and at the core of those relationships were the twelve disciples, and probably a few others that are not mentioned. If you look at the time allotment of the Lord you discover that probably 70-80% of his time was invested in a relatively small group of people. What he’s doing there is really dreaming of what the result will be a hundred years out. He’s thinking three or four moves down the chessboard--three or four generations. If he and his follows are faithful to this style of building leadership you’re going to have a massive movement on your hands in a hundred years. I think we’re almost back to that in many parts of the United States today, where we’re going to have to re-create this movement all over again because we’re slipping and sliding away from some of the core values Jesus intended for it to have. It’s going to have to be a new generation of leadership builders who get this thing back on the mark. 

But if you’re pushed on the question, do you think that it’s either achievable or likely?

GM: I think it’s achievable and I guess I’ll argue that it’s likely because it’s going to be necessary. If we keep moving the church along in the way it’s structured today, I’m not real optimistic about it’s future and its ability to really engage society. We have a younger generation now that really doesn’t know much about its Bible at all. I think most people would agree that in most churches we have failed to teach the new generations what the Bible really says. We have young people now who don’t know the Bible stories--who really don’t know the core Biblical applications. When it’s their turn to step into leadership in churches I worry about their ability to give the centered kind of leadership that’s necessary because they simply haven’t been trained for it. 

That’s what Dallas Willard calls the Great Omission--the failure to make disciples.

GM: Yeah. He’s been addressing that for many years, and he’s in a position to see what’s going on. He’s been a college professor all his life. He knows what the students are thinking.

And a good portion of that flows from that structural deficiency--the church as a lecture hall and the definition of a pastor’s role as speaker?

GM: As I look back over the years (I’m 72) I’m in a position to see the church go through its post-war transition. Before 1960 there were very few churches (except maybe city churches) had congregations of more than 250 or 300 people. Up until that date the pastor was really a “seeker of people.” Those pastors didn’t spend much time in their office, other than to put a sermon together. In the 60’s churches became more and more “program churches” and pastors became forced to become managers of programs. We started having multiple staffs, there was a heavy emphasis on expanding property, so  by the time you entered the 80’s and 90’s most pastors aspired to be CEO’s more than anything. Their touch with people was limited to basically and simply meeting with the leadership of the church.

I remember in my own life--to see me, you had to make an appointment, and it could be two weeks in advance. I saw very few people people because this system more and more scooped me up and turned me into a leader of committee meetings and task forces and fund-raising . . . in my last years as a senior pastor I was responsible for 165 different programs! I spent my day evaluating programs and very little time in touch with people. That’s when I decided there was something wrong with the system.

So I went to my elders and said, “I want your support: if I spend 20% of my time each year with just a handful of people--if you let me do this--in five years I’ll give you 75 church leaders.”

Going Deep: Becoming a person of Influence is the story of that transition, told as fiction. It's published by Thomas Nelson and is now available in bookstores and online.

Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.

Talk about it...

Sterling Franklin avatar
Sterling Franklin
0 days ago
In many cases, American churches become zero-evangelism country clubs or legalistic burden-makers, in which younger generations see no life or pertinence and are never presented Jesus Himself. Many times, leaders are chosen based on marital status, cover letter quality, or how entertaining a speaker they are instead of calling, virtue, and their walk with the Lord. Thankfully God always preserves a remnant, but I totally agree, we need to obey Jesus and make disciples globally who are Spirit-led and who are faithful to the Father. Jesus is not a business.
Doug Conley avatar
Doug Conley
0 days ago
What are elders doing? All the "people" work is left up to the preacher while the elders do what? One of the main things wrong in the Church, besides the multitude of false doctrine and egos, is un-scriptural organization of so-called leadership and a lack of taking their responsibilities seriously. The elders and evangelist (who most refer to mistakenly as "pastor") have God-given duties to preform. Some are shared; others differ. It's this wandering from the Word that's the true problem. We've allowed Satan to bring the doctrines of men into Christ's Church. The road is wide, and I'm afraid the Church is about to fall off the berm! So, before anything, let's get the right things right!
Don  Berry-Graham  avatar
Don Berry-Graham
0 days ago
For the first 15 years of my ministry I was a youth Pastor and then transitioned to senior pastor mainly because I could not pay the bills. Here is the difference, in the first 15 years I have 20 people that I discipled and who are in full time ministry or who have spent time in ministry. In the last 35 I have 6 people who through my discipleship are now in leadership full time. The difference is I don't have the time that I once had to really invest with people. I spend my time dealing with buildings, with staffing issues, and with angry people. I am ready leave the church, I would really like to start a home church of no more than 10 people. 10 people who I intensely work with, who have a clear mission and a goal. I am very close to retirement I at that stage I might become a church drop out.
Jeff Strite avatar
Jeff Strite
0 days ago
Doug has touched on one of the major reasons "pastors" don't have the time to disciple. The early church had Elders who were called the pastors (I Peter 5) and were the shepherds of the flock, whereas Preachers/evangelists (like Timothy and Titus) did the discipling. Our present "Pastor/preacher" model is a descendent of the Catholic model (substituing "pastor" for "Priest") and that model bottles-up all the responsibility in the pulpit.
Reverend Keith Moreland avatar
Reverend Keith Moreland
0 days ago
I have tried to solve at least part of the problem with having the elders/deacons deal with the congregation as the first point of contact. The membership list is divided amongst them and they stay in contact on a regular basis with the congregation, so that I can talk and be with anyone that needs my immediate attention at the moment. It works, it trains leaders to deal with local situations that don't need pastoral assistance and I give the elders/deacons authority to act upon needs with resources that are available to them. I write more about this on my blog, just google my name, make sure you put the reverend in the search.
Elver Mendenhall avatar
Elver Mendenhall
0 days ago
Don, I am so sorry that you have become so discouraged. Don't give up! Seek the Lord to give you direction in this time. He is concerned as you are re the circumstances you face and will lead you through this wilderness even as the Lord led Moses. Thank you Gordon MacDonald for your wisdom.
Ralf Bergmann avatar
Ralf Bergmann
0 days ago
In a church where Biblical mandates are replaced by tradition, where spiritual stature has been replaced by the ability to give or the family power structure within that congregation, pastors become nothing more than an "employee" of the church and should consider themselves lucky that they have a job as long as they don't rock the boat. Yes, full-time pastors can do more administrative [and sometimes janitorial or maintenance]duties then those that are working within the congregation - but is that the best investment of their time? If there is not a clear investment made in the spiritual integrity of church membership we are going to be in trouble. Right now, the Sunday after the rapture may not change some congregations attendance statistics!
Ron Engler avatar
Ron Engler
0 days ago
Passion for the church, is so very hard today to ignite especially in small congregations with large outdated facilities, all being sustained by a single Pastor. Elders are full time workers outside the church with families and they struggle to keep the balance of all that God has placed under their responsibility. This goes far deeper than just getting them to prioritize their time and to give more to the church.they are also teaching, sitting on subcommittees, cooking, and singing in the choir. The large "growing Church" recognizes the same need, so they hire another full time professional. Question, have they done any better of a job to the ministry of disciple making and building leaders. There is also a reluctance to get people who want to lead. In the small church this is critical in a large church just hire another full time staff member. The problem also is that paid staffing is not scriptural is it? What's an Elder to do?
Bumble Ho avatar
Bumble Ho
0 days ago
Ron: What about small churches hire "part-time" pastors, who would track their "billable hours" and invoice back the church for payment for services they could not do themselves? That way, the Elders and Deacons will continue to care for the flock as much as they can, while the pastors won't need to mow the lawn, but focus on the things lay people can't do (like preaching and counseling...)
Jim Stow avatar
Jim Stow
0 days ago
As I read this article (and some of the comments) I want to weep. I want to weep because GM is going the right direction and I want to weep because he stopped far short of where this needs to go. Jesus mainly led 12 men with the extended group going to, maybe, 120. He didn't worry about buildings, programs, staff, etc. How did we get the idea that we could do it better than He did. In my humble opinion, the local church should very nearly represent a family and mega- or even large churches can never do that. Every member should be considered a leader. They should be personally trained and equipped to share the good news and to care about both new believers and not yet believers. Just my opinion but I'm sure someone can straighten me out. Blessings to all, Jim

So, what did you think?

Thank you.