Photo: This tiny bug was making an outsized noise when encountered on a hike.
"View from the Pews" is an attempt to pierce the echo chamber of church leadership and/or the ivory tower of theologians by providing a view from an ordinary pew-sitter of what their words actually sound like on the receiving end.
I am very pleased to be able to start out with some things that recently crossed my desk in a positive light. (With only a couple of eye-rolls involved, as you shall see.)
As a side note, for some reason, the titles of articles in the print issue of Christianity Today (which I’m quoting from) don’t match the web version (which I’ve linked to). Odd.
Anyway. Going in chronological order, from when I first read them…
Glenn Packiam on Leading in an Era of Mistrust
The most recent issue of Christianity Today includes a Pastors Special Issue, and I was intrigued when seeing the front page title “Leading When You’re Not Trusted.” Inside, Glenn Packiam answers the question “As Pastoral Credibility Erodes, How Can We Respond?” with “Perhaps God wants to reshape our view of authority.” I think this answer is spot on.
Even though he notes that the internet has “had a democratizing effect, so much so that authoritarian regimes around the world implement heavy-handed censorship and firewalls,” he casts the obligatory Evangelical Industrial Complex doubt on social media as a whole: “Each person becomes their own arbiter of religious truth, each doing what is right in their own eyes [a reference to the rebellious Israelites in the book of Judges] – or in the eyes of the podcaster they listened to this morning.”
Anyway, once we move past that bit of awkwardness, I think his article has much that was worthwhile.
Dr. Packiam acknowledges that regaining the trust of other Christians “will mean doing the right thing for the right reasons for a really long time,” not trying to sugar coat the nature of the process.
The first step in the process, he says, is accepting responsibility for what led to this state of affairs. “The crisis of credibility is a symptom. The misuse of authority is the root cause.” To which I sounded a hearty, “Amen!”
He encourages pastors to avoid “treating good-hearted people who serve our churches as though they are cogs in the machinery of our ambition.” To which I responded, “Been there, three churches ago.”
He also notes that, “In an attempt to be strong leaders, we can step into roles for which we have neither the training nor the calling to perform. For example, if we speak dismissively of mental health… we erode our own credibility by overreaching with our authority.” To which I responded, “Been there, too, two churches ago.”
Lastly, he encourages pastors to avoid taking advantage of their congregation’s trust by wading into the waters of a culture war. To which I sighed, “Yup. And there you are, too, last church.”
Dr. Packiam finishes this section by stating that, even though misuse of authority isn’t a problem for everyone, all pastors can “take a hard look at ourselves and ask the Lord what measure of responsibility we must take for the loss of credibility among pastors.” While this is a good first step, I would note that it’s also a very easy step. It involves no humbling one’s self to others, no actively seeking insight from other believers as to how one may be contributing to the problem.
If you’re really serious about taking responsibility, I’d suggest asking ordinary pew-sitters in your church if there are things they’re uncomfortable with. Even better, send out a survey to people who’ve left the church. Making sure, of course, that the survey is completely non-confrontational and non-passive-aggressive. (If you’re not sure if you’re being non-confrontational and non-passive-aggressive, email me a copy. Seriously.)
The next step Dr. Packiam proposes in fixing the pastoral credibility problem is accountability. To which I shouted another hearty, “Amen!” He notes that people will fact check claims, to which I raised my hand. “But that can be a good thing. If we’ve done our homework, it will show. And if we’re shooting from the hip, they will likely know.” Dr. Packiam encourages pastors toward greater transparency in response, by showing a congregation how their giving is being spent and by being transparent with how pastors are spending their time and energy. “If taking responsibility is about confession, embracing accountability is about changing our ways.” To which I said, “Hey, I was just writing about this.”
Lastly, Dr. Packiam puts forth the necessity of humility in addressing pastoral credibility. He notes that a pastor’s authority “comes not from our popularity or influence… not from our education… and not from the institutions we lead… The source of our authority is Jesus, and it comes from being in his presence…” This is a little on the wishy-washy side for me, but humility is admittedly something that is hard to measure in tangible ways. You just kinda know it when you see it. My fear is that most pastors who are already humble are already doing this kind of self-reflection. And pastors who are not doing this self-reflection are unlikely to realize they have a humility problem.
Ike Miller on (Not) Avoiding Criticism
Speaking of humility, the other article that I particularly liked from the Pastors Special Issue was “The Myth of Thick Skin,” by Ike Miller. “The surprising cure to painful criticism: Invite more feedback.”
Dr. Miller recounts a time when his church transitioned to a new style of music, and the drama and challenges that ensued. He also describes how church-goers tend to fall into two broad categories: those who tend to be overly critical and those who tend to avoid conflict until it becomes an explosion (my paraphrase). The solution, he says, “is that developing good habits and rhythms for feedback in our churches can help with both of these challenges. In the first case, it can provide a channel for the critical voices in our congregations. This protects pastors from being blindsided by criticism and provides us with a specific context in which we can be mentally and emotionally prepared to receive it. And in the second case, these channels become invitations and natural reward systems for sharing feedback before it gets to an explosive level… This encourages congregants to give feedback before the relationship suffers, and it enables a church’s leaders to benefit from the wisdom of their community.”
Having been in heavy-handed churches, I particularly appreciate Dr. Miller’s acknowledgement that ordinary pew-sitters have wisdom, too.
Then Dr. Miller makes a comment that I feel a lot of pastors (or perhaps just the ones at churches we’ve happened to be at) do not understand. “Most feedback begins as a desire to strengthen what these individuals already love to be a part of, not to destroy what they no longer want to see in existence.”
And again I said, “Amen!”
Dr. Miller describes three types of feedback sessions. First, were listening sessions. “People did not feel heard in our church; hence, they did not feel at home in our church… We [church leaders during listening sessions] weren’t there to challenge, question, critique, or even respond. We simply listened and asked clarifying questions in an attempt to communicate a desire to hear. We found these sessions extremely helpful…” I particularly like that he noted this helped leadership to practice listening nondefensively, which is a skill that is helpful in all aspects of life, not simply church life.
Second, Dr. Miller describes skip-level meetings. Elders at his church are positionally over the pastor, so “skip over” him get feedback from staff who report to the pastor. “This process frees team members from worrying about how their feedback will affect our relationship… It also frees me to hear the feedback of how I can improve.” Dr. Miller includes a story of how skip-level meetings were particularly helpful during a specific time of transition at his church, illuminating both the causes of particular problems and solutions to these problems. I personally love this idea. Maybe because I made the comment a few weeks ago that healthy churches need accountability that flows both ways.
In that post, I commented that I’d be incredibly impressed if churches regularly asked for feedback and did employee reviews of pastors. Personally, I think not being part of a regular review cycle is detrimental to anyone in leadership, church or secular, because they lose practice reacting constructively to feedback. Lo and behold, Dr. Miller’s last feedback method is quarterly assessments, with the observation that “I know it’s crucial that I be subject to an assessment myself (instead of just other staff members)… I find this very helpful in my pastoral ministry… I answer the same questions about myself that our elders (my bosses) will be answering about me… This makes those conversations much less personal and much more constructive.”
Dr. Miller concludes his article well with the observation that “However tempting it may seem, the secret to dealing with criticism as pastors isn’t to avoid it or hear less of it. The secret to handling criticism well is to create channels and practices that allow for more of it, but in healthier ways.”
Are you listening, Acts 29 Network and Great Commission Collective (formerly known as Harvest Bible Fellowship)?
Tim Keller on Flaws of Megachurches
Tim Keller’s words resonated very much with David and my experiences. Mr. Keller goes through eight points. I won’t list them all here, but will highlight particular comments of his.
My one eye-roll in here was the obligatory jab at social media, again: “In our current cultural moment that is a deadly problem because Christians are being more formed by social media than local Christian community.” Need I point out that Mr. Keller is posting this on social media? In addition to Facebook, he also has Instagram and Twitter accounts. Eye-roll, again.
I particularly appreciated the phrase “addictive dependence” that Mr. Keller used to describe a megachurch’s dependence on the gifts and personality of the founder. Though I’d point out that it’s not just megachurches that this can happen to. The (tiny) Acts 29 church we used to attend closed its doors a little over a year after the founding pastor left. The pandemic sped up the process, but David and I knew when we left that it was in an unsustainable situation. And the non-profit the church had founded and spun-off also failed to survive for very long once independent.
Mr. Keller’s observation that “often the founder comes to see the church as their personal possession – and an extension of their personality and self-image, [so] they often never want to leave, nor do they know how to well.” But, again, I don’t think this is particular to megachurches. David candidated once at a small church where the pastor was retiring and having a very hard time letting go of the reigns. Nor was he even the founding pastor. Nor, now that I think of it, is this dilemma particular to churches or even men, as evidenced by any number of people who pour themselves into a career and struggle with an identity crisis upon retirement. But, I digress.
Lastly, I thought this comment from Mr. Keller was rather interesting: “smaller congregations must make use of a greater percentage of lay persons’ gifts & talents [so] there is less dependence on staff and a smaller number of onlookers who only attend to observe and not participate.” While I don’t have particular reason to disbelieve this claim, I’d also be interested in seeing research or statistics to back it up. It is certainly easier to be anonymous in a bigger church. But it is also easier to experience burnout in a smaller church if leadership doesn’t recognize the limits that its smaller size places on the number of ministries it can sustain.
Mr. Keller’s last point was “megachurches tend to draw people from great distances who then are not geographically close enough to take part in community building, discipleship, and local ministry to the neighborhood of the church.” Again, I’d observe that this is not specific to megachurches. The small Acts 29 church Barnabas and I attended drew people with a 30 minute commute in either direction. Families there tended to be very involved in the life of the church. But the long commute, I think, added to the burnout that was endemic in the church, because of the added hour (or more) spent commuting every time there was a worship celebration or mid-week event or service project.
So, what are your thoughts about these three articles/posts? Do they resonate with your experiences, or not particularly?
Part 2 of Introducing “View from the Pews” will be forthcoming next week.