I’m a United Methodist Pastor.  At ordination, I submitted to the authority of a bishop, to go where I am sent to serve.  In some denominations, pastors decide for themselves whether or not to accept a “call” to serve a particular church or to live in a particular locale.  Not so with United Methodist pastors.  We go where we are sent.

Once upon a time, the basic assumption was that all United Methodist pastors were more-or-less the same, as were most United Methodist churches.  UM pastors were trained in UM seminaries to perform uniform ministerial practices – always men wearing black suits, black ties, and black robes.  Every UM church sung the same hymns, followed the same liturgy, observed the same traditions, heard sermons from the same texts on the same days, etc., etc.  Every church and every pastor was assumed to be, more or less, the same.

We operated under the assumption that pastors were like cogs and that churches were machines.  Every few years, bishops could remove the cogs, re-sort them, and insert each cog into a new machine, press the “on” switch, and the machine would continue to operate, just like it did before.

We don’t live in that world any more.

Each church is wildly different.  Some are traditional.  Some are contemporary.  Some are both – though I’m finding the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” are highly debatable.  We have churches that are primarily white, primarily black, primarily hispanic, primarily Islander, etc., etc.  Some churches lean liberal, and some conservative.  We have city churches and rural churches.  Some churches are more socially conscious and some are more evangelical.  We have churches that are growing and healthy and others that are declining and dying.  We have churches within churches, especially in our larger congregations.

Likewise, pastors are wildly different.  We attend different seminaries, with different theological emphases.  Some of us are stronger leaders, stronger administrators, stronger preachers, stronger teachers, stronger evangelists – but none are strong at everything.  Some are traditional.  Some are entrepreneurial.  Some are more pastoral.  Some are more visionary.  Some are more political.  Some are more passionate about missions.  Some are more focused on the needs of the congregation.  Some are more focused on the needs of the world.

No two pastors are alike.  That’s always been true, of course.  But, I think UM pastors were once expected to perform their duties in a fairly homogenous manner, that was more similar than dissimilar.  Those days are long gone.

Pastors aren’t cogs.

So, the question is asked, “Is such-and-such pastor a ‘good fit’ for such-and-such church?”  But, the problem with that question is, that while it acknowledges that pastors and churches are different, it betrays an assumption that we are still just cogs that need to fit into the “right” church/machine.

Pastors aren’t cogs.  And, churches are not machines.

While some pastors and some churches might be more easily compatible than others, ultimately we’re talking about people and relationships.  Churches can’t expect pastors to fit like cogs into their established machinery.  Neither, can pastors expect churches to be machines that adapt to the particular shape of their particular cog.  A successful pastor/church relationship is far more organically relational than that.

While there are dating websites that profess to “match” people, based on compatibility, I suspect that many of those matches don’t actually work out, and that those that do require time to get to know each other, a lot of learning and discovery, and ultimately negotiation, patience, and understanding as each learns to appreciate the uniqueness of the other.

“Compatibility” is not a word I use to describe my relationship with my wife.  We are so different – opposites, in fact – in so many ways, that we might even be considered incompatible.  And, yet, we’re good together – really good.  We were and are attracted to each other, despite our differences.  We respect and appreciate each other.  We’ve found ways to share life that is mutually beneficial.  We love each other for who we actually are.

Here’s a metaphor:

My wife’s family always has a “relish tray” for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners; offering various pickles and olives.  My family never did that.  To this day, the “relish tray” does not “fit” on “my” holiday table. It’s weird.  Similarly, my family always had chocolate desserts for the holidays.  My wife’s father is allergic to chocolate, so she never considered chocolate a holiday dessert.  They had fruit pie.  Fruit pie!?!  At Christmas!?!  That’s weird.

As you might guess, at the holidays, in our house, we now have olives, pickles, fruit pies, and chocolate.  We’ve also added a few new dishes, which I’m sure my own children will have to negotiate with their future spouses.

That’s how relationships work.  It’s not about “fit.”  It’s about learning how to make a life together that is mutually beneficial.

This Sunday, in some United Methodist churches, announcements will be made that some pastors are being moved and that some churches will be receiving new pastors.  The first thought, in many minds, will be, “Will our new pastor be a good fit?”  The answer is “no.”  They won’t be.  Don’t expect them to be.

Rather, churches should expect that the new pastor will be very different than the last, and pastors should expect that their new church will also be very different than those they’ve previously served.  What should be expected – by the pastor and the church – is everything that goes into forming any successful new relationship…

  • painfully-slow relationship building.
  • awkward, sweaty hand-holding.
  • uncomfortable conversations that lead to misunderstandings.
  • possibly a honeymoon period – that inevitably ends.
  • discovering really annoying habits in each other.
  • unsuccessful attempts to change each other.
  • working through – on both sides – unrealistic and unfair expectations, and the disappointments that come with unrealized expectations.
  • lots and lots and lots of negotiation.
  • maybe, a few arguments.
  • together, forming new ways of being together.
  • mutually learning how to honor and appreciate the other.
  • shared experiences, that create intimacy.
  • eventually, hopefully, the blossoming of mutual respect, love, affection, and harmony.
  • and – if we want to extend the metaphor even further –  possibly the “birth” of something shared, new, and beloved!

Last July, I was unexpectedly sent to a new congregation.  I was told it was going to be a better ‘fit.”  How silly.  There’s no such thing.  Now, in my ninth month of “dating” my new church, I would say that we are very much in the midst of the process I described.  AND WE SHOULD BE!  Why would we expect anything else?  Forming a relationship takes time.  And, that is what a pastor and a congregation creates together – a relationship.

Pastors are not cogs.  Churches are not machines.  One does not “fit” into the other, or vice-a-versa.  That’s not how it works.

5 thoughts on “Cogs, Machines, People and Pastors

  1. Very well written. Any important relationship is worth the time invested. Thank you for reminding us of the importance of resisting a “cookie cutter” thought process.

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  2. Vance, you’re scaring me. It sounds like you are trying to mentally prepare us for a new pastor, because you are being transferred out. I think they have filled our “church hole” with a wonderful pastor! You have adapted extremely well! However, as many people say, they always take the good ones. I know that our pastors know their assignments before announcement, and this sound likes you know you are being shipped out. Say it isn’t so!!!

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  3. Thanks for the thoughts…both our church and Ashley’s have ministers who are retiring. Both churches are large & active downtown congregations and just a few miles apart. Your thoughts gave me a new perspective.

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