Replace the Superstar Pastor with a Suffering Servant

We mercilessly teased the guy in my Bible classes who styled himself as a kind of Bill Hybels Jr. He hailed from the Chicago suburbs and made no effort to conceal his admiration for the fastest growing megachurch in America and its electric pastor. He even dressed business casual, used a planner, and took meticulous notes on his laptop at a time when no one took a computer into the classroom.

Being stupid college students with seemingly nothing better to do, we gave him a hard time about his love for Hybels. That’s the way things go with the big, hot trend, right? Even if you have a grudging admiration for the person on top, you feel obliged to take a few shots at him.

Jokes aside, Hybels was pervasive in the evangelical world of my teens and early 20’s. I read his books on evangelism and the now ironically titled: Who You Are When No One Is Looking. Everyone going into ministry knew about the seeker-sensitive approach that he championed. He became a kind of icon for relevant, modern ministry.

Red flags flew up all of the time for me about Hybels. He was deeply entrenched in the business world with his pastoring style, which is somewhat understandable when running a massive ministry organization, and there were questions worth asking about the trade offs of megachurches compared to church planting. The style and presentation of Willow Creek was slick, prosperous, tidy, and organized. Everything felt scripted.

When I worked at a church that was a part of the larger Willow Creek Association, I tilted back and forth between recognizing the appeal of Willow Creek and viewing it with skepticism. I can tell you all about vision casting, strategy, friendship evangelism, and seeker friendly services. Did you know they used to sell tomatoes door to door and began meeting in a movie theater???

If we responded to the latest allegations against Hybels and the failure of Willow Creek to adequately respond to them with merely criticism of Hybels and his church, we will miss out on a significant opportunity to have a deeper conversation about the evangelical church culture in America. It’s not a matter of drawing battle lines between ourselves and Willow Creek.

The deeper issue is the way Willow Creek and Hybels represent a kind of safer, prosperous but not too prosperous version of Christianity that is clean and sharp and professional without all of the embarrassing glitz of stereotypical prosperity preachers. Evangelicals have blended together business professionalism, a tiny bit of prosperity preaching, and some Bible verses to create a respectable church culture that can talk about discipleship, stewardship, and strategy in the same sentence without anyone taking a moment to ask what the hell is actually going on.

The business terms creep in and begin hiding in plain sight…

The reputation of the church becomes a brand that is guarded for the sake of the Gospel.

Leaders need to learn from the corporate world and slick business gurus in order to “manage” their growing churches that have been blessed by God with larger numbers.

Congregation members become customers and stakeholders in practice without actually using those terms.

The vision needs to be big, audacious, and ambitious because we serve a big God who wants to do big things and to grow our church bigger. You do have faith that God can bring about this big, audacious vision to fruition, don’t you? God can move mountains!

The business world and general American values of progress, growth, and wealth seep into the church just enough to twist how we think.

Soon enough we begin to make allowances for our pastors, relying on their vision, wisdom, and authority to accomplish God’s work. Anyone who threatens the pastor becomes expendable, and even the victims worry that coming forward over abuse allegations could jeopardize the greater vision and progress of the whole.

Christian authors and creators rely on endorsements from pastors, know people involved in these scandals, and wonder if their future careers could suffer if they speak out right now. It’s not just about the money because it’s about relationships and being uncertain about how to use their voices… but don’t forget the money too.

This isn’t a disease in a single church. This is widespread in the evangelical movement and beyond. However, it’s also particularly widespread because the Willow Creek Association, an entity separate from the church, carries this ministry approach to thousands of congregations. Don’t forget all of the books, articles, speeches, and interviews that have permeated the evangelical subculture.

The last thing I want to do is to spend the next week or month dragging Hybels, Willow Creek, or megachurches. They are the icons of the greater challenge that evangelicals face.

If I could humbly suggest a simple next step for every church, pastor, elder, deacon, and congregation member: look at the job descriptions of your pastors and staff.

Look at what you expect them to do each day.

Do you expect them to make significant space for prayer?

Do you have a budget that allows them to gain proper training for handling abuse and bullying?

Do you expect them to manage a large group of people like a business professional?

Do you expect them to preach nearly every Sunday, building up their status and celebrity?

Do you rely on them to take the lead on every big initiative as the indispensable figurehead?

Do you expect them to spend significant time among the sick, disadvantaged, homeless, or imprisoned?

Do you expect them to exert influence and power in your community or to become physicians among those neglected and overlooked?

While in seminary, I looked at a lot of job descriptions for pastors, and seeing those descriptions turned me off from a “career” in ministry. I wanted no part of it.

I used to joke that the churches expected so much of their pastors, they wanted to hire Jesus.

In retrospect, when I look a bit closer at the particulars of those job descriptions, I’m not so sure that they wanted to hire someone like Jesus, and that gets us to the root of our problem in the American evangelical church.

When Pastors Become Experts in the Wrong Things

Pastors experts in church

There were two precise moments in my life that drilled home the message: You, Ed Cyzewski, are not a pastor. At least, I’m not a pastor in the traditional North American Evangelical pastor sense of the word.

Here’s One Moment:

Standing at a bulletin board littered with pastoral job descriptions in my seminary cafeteria, I saw the lists of requirements for pastoral positions. I remember thinking, “No human being can do all of this. They want to hire Jesus.”

The lists were something like this:

  • Strong spiritual life with commitment to daily Bible study and prayer.
  • Supports our doctrinal statement which is based on biblical Christianity.
  • Will preach at least 40 Sundays each year.
  • Available in the evenings for committee and ministry meetings.
  • Plans Sunday services.
  • Manages staff hiring.
  • Leads church meetings.
  • Participates in elder meetings.
  • Set up and coordinate small group ministries.
  • Oversee office staff who develop website, bulletin, and other communication.
  • Available to counsel individuals.
  • Recruit, train, and lead volunteers.
  • Responsible to lead evangelistic outreach to community.
  • Ensure church has thriving ministries for children, youth, and college students.
  • Provide ministries to every possible niche in a white suburban setting, including but not limited to seniors, singles, parents, athletes, gamers, introverts, and rabbit owners.
  • Must repair or at least kick all broken office equipment, including the copier, fax machine, and wireless router.

You get the idea. The level of commitment and expertise is staggering. There are MANY areas of expertise that pastors are called to embody.

They have to be expert managers, spiritual directors, Bible scholars, communicators, evangelists, volunteer coordinators, and technical experts. Oh, and pastors are also expected to be counselors—as in, helping people with major, major life problems.

The problems pastors are called to address in a counseling setting could include teenage rebellion, childhood trauma, marital difficulties, depression, and plenty or other severe issues that they may not even realize they’re dealing with. Sometimes people walk into a pastor’s office presenting one issue, when there’s really something else simmering under the surface. Are most pastors even qualified to handle these types of counseling situations?

I attended a really great seminary for my Master of Divinity where I could have added a few counseling electives to my requirements, but let’s just say that I coasted through my one required counseling class with a B and called it a day. I was completely out of my depth in counseling situations. When I had to counsel a friend for part of my coursework, I had no idea what to tell him about his problem.

“Pray?” (I know! Right?)

The session was supposed to last twenty minutes. I made it to fifteen by ending our session with a REALLY long prayer.

The vast majority of the pastoral positions out there came with the expectation that I would teach the Bible, counsel, manage, and micro-manage at the very least. There weren’t too many places where my gifts as a creative introvert could help churches that were calling for extroverted jacks-of-all-trades.

I may have noticed this discrepancy because I grew up in a church that had a “counseling pastor” on staff. That’s literally all he did—except for the occasional Sunday when he was dragged kicking and screaming up front to preach a sermon. Another pastor was hired to handle all of the meetings and volunteer stuff. Another pastor handled all of the community networking. While every church has their issues, I really appreciated the focused nature of each pastor’s role.

The pastor who provided counseling actually had significant training and experience when it came to recognizing abusive situations, walking with people through seasons of depression, and guiding couples through difficult seasons of their marriages.

There’s a burden on pastors to do many different things well. They’re expected to be theological experts, master communicators, well-grounded counselors, and so on. This mindset is only encouraged because pastors with no formal counseling experience write books on topics like having a healthy marriage. It’s like we’ve said, “Hey, if you have enough people attending your church, take a swing at any topic you like!”

Most of us struggle to do one thing well. The exceptional can do two things well. Pastors have to do 10 things well.

And if a pastor passes someone off to another person with more expertise, people sometimes feel shortchanged. Many want the pastor to handle it.

“What are we paying this person to do, anyway?”

I’ve seen this over and over again while working and volunteering at different churches. People want the pastor to handle things—even in the areas where they don’t have experience or knowledge.

I know that pastors feel this burden. Some pastors want to be needed. They want to be essential, so they take on more things than they can handle. Others feel duty bound to take on as much as possible, lest someone send an angry email.

There’s no shame for a pastor to pass responsibilities to someone with more expertise.

There’s also a significant need for churches to scale back their expectations for pastors. A seminary can only teach so much, and much of what pastors learn in seminary is how to teach the Bible, not how to herd cats/lead a congregation.

My friend David Henson, an Episcopal minister, tweeted:

“Pastors need to remember sometimes their job is to lovingly steer folks to professional help. We walk with, not fix & solve.”

May we recognize the fits of each individual pastor and surround them with people who can help them minister effectively without burning out or having to become experts in things they know nothing about.