I have been thinking for a long time about the legitimacy of the America’s pastorate—not the biblical pastoral office, mind you, but the American use of the pastorate. A church hires a “pastor” to lead or rule the church. Sometimes, the pastor that the local congregation “hires” is a hireling unfree to do ministry as God has called. Paul faced such a reality with the Church at Corinth, which is why he refused to accept a paycheck from the congregation (cf. 1 Corinthians 9; 2 Corinthians 11). It is simply more important to follow God’s expectations and set God’s priorities as our own. Establishing a proper body of elders and deacons in line with Scripture helps guard against one man ruling over the church or bearing all the responsibility for all the ministry—so that all the saints might be built up and trained for service.
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I am not discouraged from ministry. In the most recent events, I made a decision to prioritize what God has asked me to prioritize. Family is more important than ministry, and I was being asked to neglect my family and become a workaholic (which would have truly disqualified me from ministry). More on that in a later article. Abuse like what I have experienced again is prominent in the church. According to Thom Rainer in a 2014 article:
…the largest numbers of pastors were leaving their churches in the third year of their ministry at that specific church.(Thom Rainer; https://churchanswers.com/blog/dangerous-third-year-pastoral-tenure/)
Now, the trend does not only affect pastors in their third year of service at a particular local church, but the majority of cases do. I knew, and I tried to warn about the sorts of things that lead to pastoral departure from early in my most recent pastorate. No one listened, and abuse ensued—whether intentionally or unintentionally. It did so right on time—the third year, and in a season of growth almost as if the local church was unable to handle the inevitable growing pains that come when it is inwardly focused. In the same 2014 article, Rainer gave several reasons for the common third-year departure:
- The honeymoon was over from the church’s perspective. The church began seeing the imperfections in the pastor’s ministry. Many brought concerns about those imperfections to the pastor.
- The honeymoon was over from the pastor’s perspective. Some of the promises made by those who first sought the pastor were unfulfilled. Some of the pastors indeed felt they were misled.
- When a new pastor arrives, most church members have their own expectations of the pastor. But it is impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. By the third year, some of the members become disillusioned and dissatisfied.
- Typically by the third year, the church has a number of new members who arrived under the present pastor’s tenure. Similarly, some of the members who preceded the pastor have died or moved away. The new members seem great in number to existing members. Some are threatened by these changes.
- In any longer term relationship, that which seems quaint and charming can become irritating and frustrating. The pastor’s quirks thus become the pastor’s faults.
- All relationships have seasons. None of them can remain on an emotional “high.”
Rainer also gave advise about how to address the possible third-year departure:
- Have an awareness of the possibility of a third year letdown. It is not unusual, and you are not alone.
- Be prepared for the down season to last a while. The dropout rates for pastors in years four and five were pretty high as well.
- Surround the pastor with prayer. Be intentional about praying for the pastor’s emotional, physical, and spiritual strength during this season.
- Keep the church outwardly focused as much as possible. Church members who are focused inwardly tend to be more critical and dissatisfied.
- Be aware that pastors who make it through these seasons are usually stronger on the other side. Their churches are as well.
- Church members need to be highly intentional about encouraging the pastor and the pastor’s family. While they always need encouragement, they really need it during this season.
While I hesitate to endorse Rainer as a theologian or his views about ecclesiology, he is a great source for stats. Nearly every experience is like this when a new pastor comes into an established church. The cure is much prayer, encouragement, the welcoming of new people, and the outward focus of the local church—keeping its eyes fixed on Jesus rather than on its pastor. I certainly have many faults. I am likely much worse than what people are now saying about me (though I don’t know what they are saying). I have not hesitated to boast in my weaknesses so that God’s strength is made evident. Even Paul resolved to boast in his weaknesses and live a repentant life. If the local church is not careful and properly focused upon Christ, this will happen again and again and again. It happens so often, it has a name—the third year departure. The third year departure, as Rainer points out, is a sign that the local church is dying. In this case, the local church that preaches, “All people are welcome,” has barred at least two families from the premises and exalted those who slander others, name-call, and want to shoot all the “libtards” and “democrats.” When I spoke out against such hatred, defending visitors who were hurt by these remarks, I was forced out of office. Inward focus=dying church. If you choose to attend, be prepared to adopt their way of thinking or be ostracized. I cannot stand for the hate, but some people apparently want it. Concerning outward focus, every attempt I made to encourage mission work and evangelism in our community was met with almost unanimous resistance or silence—from the congregation that knew from the outset I wanted to be a missional, church-planting local church. See how this fits the paradigm described by Rainer? Every church… Every new pastor in an established church… Abuse… Disenchantment… Departure… Every time unless people know how to deny themselves and follow Jesus. Pay attention to the pattern because no local church is exempt. All people are depraved by nature and self-interested. Turn your eyes upon Jesus. I make this my final admonition to The Church at Sunsites. There is still hope. Please turn your eyes upon Jesus. Be forgiven of sin. Focus on Him rather than yourselves. Else, this will happen again and again until the local church limps to its death at the time appointed by God. Beware, because there are certain sins that can be committed by local churches that lead to the removal of their lampstands—I can name a few.
I have no interest in naming all the sins or calling any local church out in a malicious way. I really would rather be wronged. I am not like others who choose not to live peaceably, and I hope deeply that The Church at Sunsites will continue in sound doctrine, exposition, and learn how to love and participate with Christ in His mission. I understand that what I am saying does not apply directly to the whole local body. Some have real, deep faith and have been lied to, others are confused, and others wish to be ignorant in order to safeguard their own hearts. I hold nothing against anyone. It will suffice to say that, no, Scripture cannot be made to mean anything anyone wants it to mean, and, yes, there is a place for admonition because we cannot throw out the instruction of the New Testament calling us to admonish one another according to Scripture alone—not exceeding what is written (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:6). On that subject, I wonder if you can find any instruction in the New Testament about having pastors like has become normative in the United States. I wager that you cannot find one instance. It’s not there. It’s not in the Bible. It is a position created by sinful human beings in accordance, most often, with their own desires rather than the desires of God. I am not here claiming that every person who fills any position called by the term “pastor” is living in sin or against the Bible. I am claiming that most pastoral offices reflect the desires of people and demand the tickling of ears rather than a sincere and hard-wrought preaching of the Bible (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). They are, in my estimation, chaplains hired to care for dying congregations rather than pastors who feed and build up the sheep. Most of the men in those positions, therefore, are on leashes which do not permit them the necessary freedom to preach well–they are muzzled oxen.
In a 2014 sermon, Alistair Begg stated that people love the culture of victimhood because it alleviates responsibility. People everywhere play the blame-game:
People don’t want to recognize what is wrong with them. They idolize their own goodness and reputation. Only in Christ do we recognize our wretchedness and learn to treat others like they are more important than us. The pastoral office, in many cases, facilitates the culture of victimhood in the local church. If someone is hurt or offended, even if the pastor has been faithful to Scripture, he is blamed and the Holy Spirit ignored so that people can maintain a form of godliness yet deny its power. The pastor becomes the one exalted in the congregation, placed on a pedestal, and the congregation’s treatment of that pastor in good times and bad reflect the fact that they have created an idol and scapegoat to facilitate their sin. The senior pastor’s office is utilized to perpetuate godlessness even if, as a preacher, the man is faithful to preach through Scripture—rightly dividing the word of truth.
The popular pastoral model reflects more the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson than the Bible, and is an adoption of Roman Catholic rather than biblical polity. As such, every local church (or sometimes denomination) reflects a mini papacy. In many congregational churches, the congregation is moved by every wind of preference, expectation, and doctrine in the congregation—even if it is unbiblical, rendering the qualifications and calling for elders in the local church meaningless. In 2019, shortly after I started my pastorate at The Church at Sunsites, we discovered that, biblically:
[The local church] has a plurality of elders, all of them pastors, but one elder who has the primary responsibility in each local church (yes, local campuses count as local churches) to bear the primary responsibility for proclaiming and teaching God’s word in that local church. Though we should have multiple people teaching and preaching, this elder, the messenger that John addresses in each church, is who we would refer to as the lead elder, lead pastor, or senior pastor of the local church body.
When Paul writes, he considers this responsibility to be of such importance that he instructs the church to “not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and by insisting that the “laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Timothy 5:17). He teaches this by quoting Deuteronomy 25:4, Leviticus 19:13, and Deuteronomy 24:15. and applying the Old Testament Scripture directly to his instruction to the church in Ephesus through Timothy. In this context, not muzzling an ox while it is threshing means not interrupting the testimony of a witness (Deuteronomy 25:4). Messengers, being God’s servants to the church are worthy of their wages and proper wages are not to be withheld (Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15). To the church in Corinth, Paul even wrote, “…the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), which means it is God’s instruction that those who devote their time to the ministry of the word particularly are to be provided for. Every elder, not only the lead elder, who devotes his time to the proclamation of God’s word should be paid if at all possible.
If it is the local church’s responsibility to be sure that her messenger(s) have everything needed so that they do not have to neglect the ministry of the word and so that they can be proper witnesses to God’s church, the lead elder or senior pastor position is actually of great importance according to God’s instruction.AP Cannon; https://andrewpaulcannon.blog/2019/07/03/the-lead-pastor/
Since writing this in 2019, I have tried to move away from lead pastor or senior pastor language because such language misrepresents the equal status of the plurality. Even if one person has the primary responsibility to preach, all elders are equally accountable for doing the work of the elder council. All Christians are equally accountable for doing the ministry of the church. As Christ taught, none among us is to be called leader, teacher, or father because we only have one—that is God. So, the senior pastor position as many have made it is a blasphemous position. Each local church should have multiple elders, each with a different set of gifts that compliment the others so that every responsibility of the elders is covered without burning anyone out or requiring anyone to do what the Holy Spirit has not gifted him to do. This is what I came in to The Church at Sunsites teaching, and it was finally rejected—but it is what the Bible teaches for the good of the local church.
Such a blasphemous use of an office provided by God encourages victimhood culture and laziness in the congregation. Instead of concerning themselves about how they can serve their brothers and sisters in Christ according to the Holy Spirit’s gifting in their lives, people become concerned about what is wrong in others, why others don’t seem to be just like them, and drive out the people who are different and who are gifted differently than them by the Holy Spirit. That’s inward rather than outward focus. It is why I will never again be the pastor of any local church. I understand that not every position with a “lead” or “senior” pastor title reflects this kind of blasphemy. In many cases, it does. I have no desire to ever be exalted like that. I have every desire to raise up and train the saints for the work of ministry. Oh yeah. That’s one of the lies being told about me, that I don’t support others’ ministries. Simply observe my life. I have been raising others up and supporting others’ ministries for years. I continue to raise others up and support their ministries, which was another accusation—that I spend too much time focussed outwardly for the purpose of raising others up for missions, evangelism, and church-planting. Which is it? I’m not even sure my accusers are informed enough to know. Victimhood culture, criticism culture, and accusation culture… It’s all the same. It’s getting old. In the last month, 1,300 pastors were forced to resign in America, many without sufficient cause, and 4,000 church organizations closed their doors (https://shepherdswatchmen.com/browse-all-posts/why-pastors-leave-the-ministry/#:~:text=*%20Over%204%2C000%20churches%20closed%20in,left%20the%20church%20last%20year).
Four out of every ten people who avoid church say they do so because of church hurt (https://www.barna.com/research/millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain/). The local church’s inward focus and lackluster for the gospel and inability to love people who are different from them is actually causing people to avoid the local church. The local church, then, cripples itself from even being a church in the world. I once heard it asked, ‘If your local church was to suddenly disappear from your community, would anyone notice, would anyone miss you, or would people be thankful?’ In many cases, our churches are so self-absorbed that the outside world wouldn’t care one way or the other. In fact, churches are, in many people’s opinion, best avoided because there is too much gossip, name-calling, hatred, meanness, and condemnation. I’m not making these things up; this is what people said about The Church at Sunsites when I started building relationships in our community in 2019. People assumed I was the same until they got to know me. We should not be okay with this—God has placed local churches on the earth for the restoration of His world, not for condemnation and separation (cf. John 3:17; 1 Corinthians 5). This is why the pursuit of our own desires causes conflict (cf. James 4:1-4) and why the pursuit of maturity in the faith brings unity (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1-10). Or, have you already forgotten Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians:
I sense a paradigm shift in The Valley and in Cochise County. I sense revival on the horizon—a return to Christ and a rejection of pharisaical religion. I sense the establishment of a people who do not judge others based on their political affiliation, call others names because of generational differences, sincerely want to serve others, and live as if Christ’s teachings are worth hanging on. I foresee not only some outward religious confession but the people rending their hearts to God in sincere repentance. I predict a pouring out of the Holy Spirit like has been dormant here for a long time. That is why I am staying and fulfilling the ministry God has called me to. I am free to proclaim liberty, peace, and justice according to Scripture for all sinners—including the republicans, democrats, sexually immoral, liars, thieves, and those hardened by life. There is great victory in Jesus, and He doesn’t judge you based on outward appearance, the use of one word or another, your stench, the fact that you have a little Arizona on your jeans, your favorite beer, the number of tattoos you have, your favorite style of music, your age, ethnicity, or whether you draw on a marker board while you are installing church tile. God is good. The Bible is true. You can have victory without the burdens of legalistic, pharisaical religion. God wants to transform your heart and mind. He wants to conquer real sin, not the superficial flaws people make up. There is a real Gospel, a real Spirit, a real prophecy, a real victory, and a real God. I want you to experience Him in a real way.
I hope you will join me for Bible study at The Spring in Willcox, AZ—Sunday evenings at 5pm. I’m not going to lie, there are people who are not welcome: the bullies, condemners, false teachers, political bashers, haters, and those who cause division in the body of Christ. The “open” sign will be off, but the door will be open for you to come in.
I will also be planting a local church in Douglas, AZ with a friend of mine, hopefully under the authority of Christ Community Church in Sierra Vista. Contact me if you would like to stay up to date with either the Douglas church plant or the Willcox Bible study. Please pray for revival here. Please pray for the state of the church here in Cochise County and in the United States.