Hey Church, Why is the Pastor the Product?

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Every once in a while, you hear a question you can’t get out of your head.

A while back, I was listening to Sean Morgan’s interview with Ashley Wooldridge from Christ Church of the Valley. It was a great conversation about succession, and at one point, Ashley dropped this question:

Why is the pastor the product?

The question hit me like a ton of bricks. Ashley raised the question in the context of succession (that’s why it’s so hard to replace popular pastors), but the implications of making the pastor the product go in so many directions.

If you look at how many churches —not just megachurches, but many small and large churches—functionally operate, the pastor is at the center of the church.

So, why is the pastor all too often the ‘product’ a church offers?

If you look at how many churches —not just megachurches, but many small and large churches—functionally operate, the pastor is at the center of the church.

So, why is the pastor all too often the ‘product’ a church offers?

Sure, some profile for a pastor is inevitable—things really do rise and fall on leadership. But leadership is more than just the leader.

In this post, I’ll look at five reasons why intentionally making the pastor the product is an idea fraught with challenges and then explore some alternatives.

Hey Church, why have we made the Pastor the product? Click To Tweet

5 Reasons Making the Pastor the Product Sets Everyone Up To Fail

So, let’s be clear on what this post isn’t about.

There is an inevitable and healthy pull to the forefront every leader faces. After all, leadership rightly demands the senior leader’s full heart, involvement, and to some extent, their profile to lead effectively.

But making the pastor the product by intensifying the spotlight, chasing celebrity, and elevating the pastor to become the principal asset of the church is a risky business.

I wrestled with this for years. When I led Connexus Church, people kept calling it “Carey’s church,” which always bothered me. And they told me, “If you leave, it’s probably going to fall apart.”

On the one hand, I hated that and actively resisted it. On the other hand, I realize the health and growth of the church were, to some extent, heavily dependent on me.

Ultimately, I built teams and systems that I hoped would keep the church growing for many years after I left. But I had no idea if it would work.

Exiting the Lead Pastor role in 2015, I’m thrilled to say the church grew to its largest and most effective era after I left under new leadership. And as much as that might be a slight blow to a fragile ego, that’s exactly what should happen when a Founding Pastor steps back.

But still, the challenge is real.

There is an inevitability (when you’re the leader with the microphone) to being the organization’s center.

Before we get to solutions, here are five reasons why making the pastor the product can set everyone up to fail.

1. The Church—Not the Pastor—Is Supposed to be the Body of Christ

Theologically, the church—not the Pastor—is supposed to be the body of Christ.

While it’s easy to pick on megachurches for their highly visible pastors, small churches are often more guilty of this sin than large churches.

Theologically, the church—not the Pastor—is supposed to be the body of Christ.

While it’s easy to pick on megachurches for their highly visible pastors, small churches are often more guilty of this sin than large churches.

Theologically, the church—not the Pastor—is supposed to be the body of Christ.

While it’s easy to pick on megachurches for their highly visible pastors, small churches are often more guilty of this sin than large churches.

Why?

While it's easy to pick on megachurches for their highly visible pastors, small churches are often more guilty of making the pastor the center of church life than large churches are. Click To Tweet

Because in small churches, the expectation is that the pastor will do literally everything, from preaching and teaching to committee and team leadership, to pastoral care and leading Bible study, to community outreach. And functionally, that’s what many small church pastors do.

Rather than giving the body of Christ the responsibility for ministry, too many pastors usurp that and claim it for themselves. Members don’t lead because they often load up far too many expectations on pastors, expecting them to be the church while they merely attend or do simpler tasks serving.

And yet, as any Christian would affirm, ministry belongs to the body of Christ.

Protestants have criticized Roman Catholic priests for usurping the ministry of the body of Christ, only to do exactly the same thing through the back door as the pastor ascended to the center of congregational life.

Protestants have criticized Roman Catholic priests for usurping the ministry of the body of Christ, only to do exactly the same thing through the back door as the pastor ascended to the center of congregational life. Click To Tweet

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2. It’s Way Too Much Pressure on the Pastor

With 42% of pastors seriously thinking about quitting these days, you have to ask whether all that discouragement is situational or whether some of it is systemic.

I think some of it is systemic.

In my worst days in church leadership, the pressure to perform and deliver felt far too intense, even if the world itself wasn’t on fire like it seems to be now.

Having to cast a clear and compelling vision, deliver an engaging, funny, memorable, and powerful sermon every week, and motivate and align the staff and volunteers is a lot of pressure.

Having to cast a clear and compelling vision, deliver an engaging, funny, memorable, and powerful sermon every week, and motivate and align the staff and volunteers is a lot of pressure for senior pastors. Click To Tweet

Add some unhealthy patterns and sheer humanness to the mix, and it’s a toxic cocktail.

A combination of workaholism, insecurity, and performance addiction led me into burnout a decade into church leadership. Fortunately for my family, for the church, and for me, I was able to come back healthier and develop much more sane (and effective) patterns and rhythms.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way.

Why do we create this much systemic pressure on leaders? It’s a piercing question and one that Kayla Stocklein framed so poignantly in this conversation I had with her.

Regardless, making the pastor the central ‘product’ of the church creates too much pressure for a single human to bear.

Making the pastor the central 'product' of the church creates too much pressure for a single human to bear. Click To Tweet

3. Pastors Can Like It Too Much

Pastoring is a weird thing.

On the one hand, it doesn’t take long to resent the relentless pressure and unrealistic expectations.

On the other hand, it’s far too easy to get addicted to them – to like being at the center too much. Way too much.

Pastoring is a weird thing.

On the one hand, it doesn’t take long to resent the relentless pressure and unrealistic expectations.

On the other hand, it’s far too easy to get addicted to them – to like being at the center too much. Way too much.

Even for leaders of small and mid-sized churches, there’s a level of recognition and approval that becomes addictive. At least, I found that to be the case.

One minute, you’re complaining about the demands the position has put on you. The next minute, if someone offers to share some of the burden, you immediately wonder if you want to give anything away.

Too many leaders, thanks to their insecurity, take on far more than they can handle.

Making the pastor the product can be intoxicating for pastors and congregations.

Pastoring is a weird thing. On the one hand, it doesn't take long to resent the relentless pressure and unrealistic expectations. On the other hand, it's far too easy to get addicted to them – to like being at the center way too much. Click To Tweet

4. It Messes With Your Identity

If you were out of ministry tomorrow, what would be left of your faith?

After my burnout, I started asking myself a difficult question:

If I was out of ministry tomorrow, what would be left of my faith?

At first, I didn’t know the answer to the question, but it was a healthy first step to making sure that my faith wasn’t position-dependent or even calling-dependent.

To answer the question, I ramped up disciplines like reading the Bible from cover to cover every year to ensure I wasn’t just conveniently studying the Scriptures I was preaching.

I started praying about things that had nothing to do with our ministry.

I built friendships that were independent of my job as Lead Pastor.

But for way too many pastors, what they do becomes fused with who they are. And that’s a mess that’s super hard to undo.

5. It Creates a Sense of “No Escape” For Everyone

When you make the pastor the product, both the pastor and the congregation can end up feeling like there’s no escape from ensuring the pastor stays front and center.

When you make the pastor the product, both the pastor and the congregation can end up feeling like there’s no escape from ensuring the pastor stays front and center.

The pastor, for all the reasons noted above, feels like she can’t escape the pressure.

The congregation, on the other hand, becomes addicted to the teaching, presence, and ‘success’ of their leader.

When you make the pastor the product, both the pastor and the congregation can end up feeling like there's no escape from ensuring the pastor stays front and center. Click To Tweet

As a result, pastors and their congregations can get enmeshed to the point where no one has any idea how to stop the co-dependency.

Even if a pastor feels his time is done, being at the center makes it hard to leave.

And when the pastor’s time to leave eventually becomes clear, a congregation can’t imagine a life without their beloved (or effective) leader. (Not all effective leaders are loved—they’re just effective).

Want to cue the script for moral failure? Just make sure the pastor feels like there’s no escape from their current position.

Want to cue the script for moral failure? Just make sure the pastor feels like there's no escape from their current position. Click To Tweet

3 Keys To Making Sure the Pastor Isn’t the Product

Having seen the challenges associated with making the pastor the product, what do you do, especially in a culture that venerates and follows leaders?

It would be easy to say, “Well, never step into the spotlight,” but that’s not even close to being a helpful suggestion. Leaders need to lead. Communicators need to communicate. And organizations need direction.

Instead, embracing practices and postures like the three below while leading, communicating, and giving direction, can set everyone up to win over the long haul.

1. Take the Low Place

Only humility can get you out of what pride got you into.

It can be so easy to let pride creep in when you’re the leader of an organization. It’s a battle I’ve fought for years.

How do you tame the raging beast of pride in all its forms?

Through humility. Nothing kills pride like humility. Only humility can get you out of what pride got you into.

Only humility can get you out of what pride got you into. Click To Tweet

Which begs the question, how do you embrace humility?

Answer: You invite it in and cultivate it.

You learn the ways of the humble, and you make it your principal way of operating.

If that happens, then pride doesn’t have any room to stay, let alone grow.

Proud leaders enjoy titles, corner offices, and the praise and perks that come with a position. The proud take the high place. They always want something better and more.

The humble, by contrast, take the low place, intent on serving rather than being served. They shake off titles and don’t mind washing the dishes or sweeping the floor. They’re happy to take out the trash or offer someone their seat on the bus or subway. They volunteer for the grunt work, the projects no one else wants to do.

Nothing is below them when they adopt a humble stance.

If you cultivate this while being in the spotlight and the top position, you’re not only modeling the way of Christ, you’re preparing yourself and your church to succeed long term.

Humble is a habit. Pride takes the high place. Humility takes the low place. Click To Tweet

2. Elevate The Team

Elevating your team not only distributes the weight of leadership, but it also distributes the rewards of leadership too. And what you end up with is a team that can carry on without you, which is exactly what you and the church need.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you’re the only one who can preach effectively, lead effectively, and cast vision effectively. I fell into that trap for a decade, leading to burnout.

Coming back from burnout and having been spared any major crisis in my leadership, I realized I needed a new approach.

I immediately cut back my preaching from 50+ times a year (we had a mid-week service, too) to 35 messages a year or less. Through a combination of other local communicators and video teaching, I could elevate others and take a more modest role in preaching and communicating.

I restructured our staff to create a leadership and executive team, so decisions were made collectively, not just by me.

Do you know what happens when you do that? You develop leaders; that’s what happens.

Elevating your team not only distributes the weight of leadership, but it also distributes the rewards of leadership too. And what you end up with is a team that can carry on without you, which is exactly what you and the church need.

Elevating your team not only distributes the weight of leadership, it distributes the rewards of leadership too. Click To Tweet

3. Become a Level 3 Leader and Church

If you look at the state of leadership development, it’s not great in most organizations.

96% of businesses fail in the first decade

85% of churches are plateaued or declining

Only 9% of businesses exceed $1M in revenue a year

Only 2% of churches break the 1000 attendance barrier

So how do you beat the odds and lead a thriving organization?

As I was thinking about succession at Connexus, I realized there are three levels of leadership. I was at Level 2 when I realized this, but I spent the next few years making sure we were a Level 3 organization before I stepped out of the Lead Pastor role.

Level One: Nothing runs without you 

In Level One organizations, nothing runs without you 

  • There is zero leadership development
  • The entire organization depends on you.
  • Things fall apart when you’re gone.

This is inevitable in the start-up phase, but far too many leaders never make it past stage one. As a result, they can rarely take a vacation, or find a regular day off, and when they’re not there, things fall apart.

This leads us to Level Two.

Level Two: Things run without you 

In Level Two organizations, things run without you.

  • You can take a vacation, a break, or some days off.
  • You’ve built into leaders enough that they can run things when you’re gone.
  • You can even craft longer absences or sabbaticals, and things are pretty much the same when you get back.

That’s a vast improvement over Level One leadership, but it’s not really the prize. The prize is Level Three.

Level Three: Things grow without you

Level Three is the place you ultimately want to be as a leader. Things don’t just run without you, they grow without you.

  • The organization grows when you’re gone, and the teams know exactly what to do to advance the mission.
  • You can take long and extended breaks, and your team will set records in your absence.
  • After you leave or retire, the organization grows and flourishes.

Very few churches or businesses get to level three, but when it happens, it solves so many of the problems we’ve been talking about in this post.

If you want a blueprint for growing a Level Three church or business, I have training on it inside the Art of Leadership Academy here.

Maybe It’s Time to Stop Making the Pastor the Product

For all the reasons above, maybe it’s time to stop making the pastor the product.

That will allow leaders to truly lead, pastors to do what they’re called to do, take the pressure off everyone, and see the church move into a much healthier place.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.

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