On Changing Your Church When You're Not the "Lead" Pastor (Pastor of the Pulpit and Vision)
Four Helpful Articles by Bobby Jamieson at 9Marks.org
Why You Can’t Change Your Church (Part 1 of 4)
Seems like at least once a month I get an email from a church member—not a pastor—asking how they can change their church. Not “change” as in printing the bulletins on different paper, but as in reworking the church’s leadership structure and membership practices. Should they give the pastor some books? Call a meeting? Start a study group?
If you’re in this situation, what can you do? How can you change your church when you’re not the pastor?
The short answer is, you can’t. If you’re not the pastor, you can’t change your church. Really. I mean it. No surprise retraction waiting in the wings.
Now, I’m a congregationalist, so of course I believe that a church can—and must—fire their pastor if he starts going where the Bible doesn’t go. The pastor doesn’t have final authority; the congregation as a whole does.
But apart from those exceptional times, if you aren’t the person who is formally charged to preach the Word and lead the church, then you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. This applies almost equally to a pastor who is not a church’s primary preacher. (I’m referring primarily to “the pastor” since most churches only have one.)
WHY YOU CAN’T CHANGE YOUR CHURCH—OR YOUR PASTOR
Why can’t you change your church if you’re not the pastor? Here are four reasons.
1. The Word Works Change
God’s Word is what enlivens, empowers, illuminates, and transforms God’s people. God’s Word is what works change in the church. This applies as much to worship practices and leadership structure as it does to personal holiness.
Therefore, the preaching the whole church hears every week is the most important force shaping the church. The pulpit is the fountain of change. If you don’t have charge of the pulpit, you simply can’t lead change that will affect the whole church.
2. Influence, Office, and the Ministry of the Word
God has commanded churches to submit to—to trust, to follow—their elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:5). By their teaching and godly character, elders are to serve as examples to the flock (1 Pet. 5:3). Their faithful biblical exposition and godly, transparent lives are meant to multiply their influence and authority in the church.
In other words, when the Holy Spirit appoints elders in a church (Acts 20:28), it’s as if he puts them up on stage in front of the church, shines a spotlight at them, and says, “Follow these men!” So if you’re not one of those men, why should the church follow you?
More than that, if you’re trying to lead the church in a different direction than its appointed leaders want to take it, why should the church trust you instead of its own elders? In this case you’re working against the grain of how God wants the church led. You’re grinding the gears God has set up for directing his people.
Is that kind of gear-splitting reformation ever justifiable? Of course. But don’t be too quick to invoke Luther.
Instead, recognize how God has tied together the office of elder (pastor), the ministry of the Word, and pastoral influence. If you’re trying to lead a church in a direction its own elders don’t want to go in, that’s likely not reformation, but divisiveness.
3. You Can’t Teach an Old Pastor New Tricks
Third, you can’t teach an old pastor new tricks.
Of course a godly, humble man will continue to grow and learn. And once in a long while, a seasoned pastor will undergo a philosophical transformation. But most pastors’ views on matters such as preaching, leadership, and church structure are not exactly up for grabs. And if the pastor’s position isn’t going to change, the church isn’t going to change.
This is often a function of the limits of pastoral imagination. If a Southern Baptist pastor has only ever heard Presbyterians calling church leaders “elders,” you’re not likely to convince him that it’s biblical. He simply can’t imagine that that’s right. And if a pastor has never been part of a church that took membership seriously, then “cleaning up the rolls” is going to seem about as advisable as swatting a hornet’s nest—all pain and no gain. He can’t envision the goal on the far side of the mess, and so he isn’t compelled to drive through the mess to get there.
Many pastors do ministry the only way they know how. It’s the only way they were trained, the only way they’ve seen modeled, the only way they trust. So, in general, you can’t change your pastor.
4. Absalom at the Gate
Finally, let’s say that after giving up on trying to change the pastor, you still try to change your church from your place in the pew. What will the harvest be?
I’d suggest that whatever you do will almost inevitably have a dual effect: in some measure you will undermine the leaders and divide the church.
Let’s say you’re well-loved in the church and are, informally, an influential leader. If people start to latch on to you and your ideas, that will undercut their trust in, affection for, and loyalty to their pastor(s). You’ll be Absalom at the gate, winning the hearts of the people away from his father David. Regardless of the professedly righteous merits of your cause, you’ll be undermining the man or men whom the Holy Spirit has appointed to shepherd this body.
And, you’ll divide the church. Since to agree with you is to disagree with the pastor, you’ll leave people no choice but to split into factions. Instead of reforming the church, you’ll be incubating a church split.
EXCEPTIONS? NEXT STEPS? NEXT THREE ARTICLES
Are there exceptions to this? Of course there are, though most of them prove the rule.
And if you’re a member of a church that sorely needs reformation, is there anything you can do to help it in the right direction, non-pastor though you are? Of course there is. I’m saying you can’t turn the ship around 180 degrees. I’m not saying you can’t work for lesser, incremental change or try to gently influence your pastor.
I’ll take up those points, Lord willing, in three more articles in the next week.
For now, just put the church reform gun down, walk away slowly, and no one will get hurt. And then go thank God for your church, even though it needs reformation, just like you and I do.
When Can You Change Your Church? (Part 2 of 4)
In my previous post I argued that, by and large, if you’re not the pastor of your church, you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. And I admitted that there are exceptions, though most of them prove the rule. This post is devoted to the exceptions, since I recognize that many readers will in fact find themselves in exceptional situations.
In my next two posts after this I plan to focus on what you actually can do in most circumstances to change your church, even when you’re not the pastor. But for now, the exceptions.
GENUINE EXCEPTION 1: WHEN YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR CHURCH
The first exception is if your church is drifting into serious doctrinal error, like denying the Trinity, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or salvation by God’s grace alone through faith alone. If that’s the case, you not only can but must work to change your church.
In Revelation 2, Jesus holds entire local churches accountable for what they did with false teachers (Rev. 2:2, 14, 15, 20, 24). If they threw the false teachers out, Jesus commends them. If they tolerated false teachers, Jesus condemns them.
Ultimately, therefore, it is the responsibility of the local church as a whole to uphold sound doctrine. This means that if your church begins to deny major doctrines, you personally have an obligation to do something about it.
What you do will depend on who’s teaching what, and on the magnitude of the error. Certainly if a pastor is teaching major doctrinal error, he needs to be removed from the pulpit. If other officially recognized church leaders can lead the church to take this action, good. If not, things might get messier, but you’ve still got an obligation to get rid of a teacher who is seriously departing from Scripture.
So if that’s your situation, pray for wisdom. Pray for unity among your church. Pray that truth would outshine error. And prayerfully get to work removing the unfaithful pastor and finding a more faithful one.
So that’s one genuine exception to the idea that you can’t change the church if you’re not the pastor. There’s another one I’ll mention at the end. But first, here are a few scenarios that look like exceptions but aren’t.
1. “Help Wanted”
First, in my previous post I did not at all mean that individual church members cannot contribute in any significant way to the ongoing reformation of a church. Just the opposite is true: church reform has to take root in the entire membership or else it’s not church reform at all.
To get specific, let’s say you’re part of a church that is in the process of being reformed or revitalized. And let’s say you agree with your church’s leaders about the church’s problems and the solutions to be pursued. Can you work to change your church in this situation? Of course! Can you take initiative and spearhead some of the efforts under the direction of the pastor(s)? Of course!
In other words, if a biblical, reform-minded pastor hangs out “Help Wanted” sign, by all means lend a hand.
In this situation, though, you’re not working to change the direction of the church so much as helping pull it in the direction the leaders are already pointing toward. You’re not working against the leaders, but with the leaders. And your work as a church member is absolutely crucial.
2. He Seems Open to Change…
Sometimes pastors seem genuinely open to change. They talk about wanting to go in a new direction. Maybe they’ve acquired a new set of influences, read some new books, discovered a new model. Sometimes, this will lead to concrete change, in which case we’ve skipped up into scenario one.
But sometimes, pastors can desire change, or agree with the theoretical need for change, without actually committing to lead that change. Sometimes pastors will be open to counsel, and will even sweetly, obligingly agree with a member who is pushing in a new direction. But here’s the thing: if a pastor isn’t willing to personally lead change, that change will never stick at the level of the whole church.
If a church is going to change, it’s going to cost the pastor more than anyone. The pastor will have to teach publicly. He’ll have to initiate practical reforms. He’ll have to answer questions. What’s more costly, he’ll have to be willing to take some punches, upset some long-time members, and generally make things a lot harder for himself in order to see the change through.
If a pastor’s not willing to do all that, no church member can make him. If a pastor is not convinced that he must change the direction of the church, you can’t play surrogate conscience for him. If a pastor isn’t willing to go out and lead change, you can’t shove him out there and feed him lines from backstage.
In short, just because a pastor seems open to change doesn’t mean that he—or the church—actually will.
3. Leading from Second Chair
What about if you’re a pastor of a church but not the primary preacher?
First, let me affirm that all of a church’s pastors or elders share together the responsibility to lead and direct the church. This means that if there is a “senior pastor,” he should regularly lose votes among the elders, and he should thank God for giving the church more wisdom than is in him.
Second, though, in most churches there will be one man who does the bulk of the preaching, and who possesses a corresponding amount of informal pastoral authority. And as I said in my previous post, most preaching pastors’ convictions about fundamental matters of ecclesiology and ministry are not wet cement. Further, practically speaking, the “senior pastor” will have to not only agree with any changes you propose, but in some sense spearhead them. So we’re back up to situation two.
The bottom line is, you can’t lead change from second chair. It will sow seeds of division and sour your relationship with your fellow pastor.
GENUINE EXCEPTION 2: CHURCH ABHORS A VACUUM
Finally, though, there’s at least one more genuine exception that I can see: a leadership vacuum. What I primarily have in mind here is a church that for whatever reason doesn’t have a formally recognized pastor, especially if a pastor recently left.
In the absence of a visible, universally acknowledged leader or leaders, the direction of the church will be well and truly up for grabs. And if there’s a leadership vacuum in the church, then someone will step in and fill it.
Therefore, church members who are qualified to lead and are committed to biblical reform should try, as in chess, to own the middle of the board. They should step into leading roles, gently set new trajectories, build consensus around biblical priorities, ward off unhelpful agendas, and work to call a pastor who will preach and lead faithfully.
We might call this move “church reform from below.” Those situations are rare, and they’re certainly messy. But it’s been done, and when God is pleased to bless the work, the fruit can be stunning.
MORE TO COME
Whether you’re in one of these exceptional situations or not, I pray God would give you wisdom to discern how best to serve, strengthen, and unify your local church, regardless of how you may or may not be able to change it.
And if you’re in a church that needs to change but you seem powerless to change it, keep tuning in. In my next two posts I’ll try to offer a few practical suggestions about how church members can change just about any church for the better, as well as how to live with what you can’t change.
How to Change Your Church (Part 3 of 4)
In my first post in this series I argued that in the normal course of things, if you’re not the pastor of your church you can’t change your church in any fundamental ways. In the second post I explored several seeming exceptions to this, including a couple that really are.
In this post, I want to answer the question, “Well then, what can I do if I’m in a church that seriously needs to change?”
Obviously, there are no one-size-fits-all answers to this question. Every church is different, and every person asking the question is different. So in this post I’m not giving universal, take-it-to-the-bank directions. Nor am I trying to speak to every situation under the sun. Instead, I’ll try to offer a few suggestions that should apply pretty well to many people in many churches.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR CHURCH
First, a general principle: find as much common ground as you can with your church and its leaders, and invest as much of your energy as you can doing ministry on that common ground.
If you disagree with your church’s leaders about election, at least you agree with them that people need to believe the gospel to be saved—so evangelize. If you disagree with your church’s programmatic approach to ministry, at least you agree that programs are meant to serve people and help them mature in Christ—so serve others and make disciples, whether through a program or not.
My point is that it’s easy to become fixated on the 10 percent you disagree about and ignore the 90 percent you agree on—and the countless ways you can joyfully minister together on the basis of that 90 percent. What if it’s more like a 50-50 split? I’ll address that briefly in my final post in this series.
Now on to some specifics. Here are several ministries which most people in most churches can exercise that should, by God’s grace, help a church grow healthier.
1. The Ministry of the Pew
First, the ministry of the pew. (I’d encourage you to check out Colin Marshall’s superb article on this.) The basic idea here is that every gathering of the church is an opportunity to serve others. It’s an opportunity to welcome a visitor, to share the gospel with a non-Christian who came with a friend, to help make things happen behind the scenes, to discover and bear others’ burdens, and to stir up others to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24-25).
So shift from being a consumer to being a producer. Don’t view church as a time for a private religious experience, but as a rare, precious opportunity to serve so many people in such a short time.
If your church suffers from the 20/80 syndrome—20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work—then your ministry of the pew should not only help necessary ministry to get done, but also set an example for others to follow. Over time, who knows how many people you might disciple into more active, selfless service in the church? More on that below.
Finally, this type of quiet, diligent, initiative-taking service is just the kind of thing that, over time, earns respect, trust, and sometimes even a hearing for new ideas.
2. The Ministry of the Pulpit Committee
Second, the ministry of the pulpit committee. Obviously, few people will have the chance to sit on a search committee. (Actually I don’t think churches should even have “search committees,” but that’s another story—and we have to do what we can with what we have.) But if your church is in need of a main preaching pastor, there is no more strategic way you can change your church than by working to call a faithful, godly expositor of the Word.
In a pulpit committee, a little leadership can go a long way. So suggest that you begin with the recommendation of a trusted pastor instead of hauling in a heap of resumes. That may well meet with approval, if only because it reduces the committee’s workload. And propose a biblical list of qualifications and priorities early on. That may point the committee’s focus in the right direction, as well as help prevent unbiblical preferences from torpedoing a godly, qualified man’s candidacy.
But my main point is this: however you can reasonably influence your church’s next choice of a pastor, do it. Of course not everyone will get to sit on a pulpit committee, but in most churches, every member will have some kind of say in who the next pastor will be. So steward—and leverage—that responsibility wisely.
3. The Ministry of Prayer
Third, the ministry of prayer. Praise God for the gift of your church. Praise him for his marvelous plan to call out a people for his glory, and his promise never to leave his church or let Satan triumph over it.
And, even more to the point, give thanks for your church. Thanksgiving pulls up bitterness and complaining by the roots—and if you passionately want to change your church, those temptations will be close at hand. So give thanks for every evidence of God’s grace in the church that you can come up with.
Confess your own sins, the ways you’ve wronged the church. And intercede for your church. Ask God to give your whole church discernment, love, unity, humility, patience. Ask God to give your leaders wisdom and courage. Ask God to grow your church’s understanding of, and obedience to, his Word. Pray constantly. And trust that God will work.
You may not be able to change your church, but God can. So pray.
4. The Ministry of Personal Discipling
Fourth, the ministry of personal discipling. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with “the church,” focus on how you can help individual members of the church grow in grace. You can change your church by helping members grow in their understanding of Scripture, love for Christ, love for the church, service to their families, boldness in evangelism, and more.
And you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to start discipling. Just start pursuing others’ spiritual good. Build relationships that are centered on mutually helping each other grow in Christ. Read through books of the Bible with other church members over lunch or on the weekend. Ask probing spiritual questions and set an example for others through your own transparency and humility.
In short, perhaps the single most effective way you can change your church is to personally help others be conformed to the image of Christ.
5. The Ministry of a Personal Example
Fifth and finally, the ministry of a personal example. One of the most effective ways to change a church is to be constantly growing in Christ and deliberately serving as a model for others. This of course goes hand in hand with discipleship.
You may not be able to change your church’s leadership structure, but you can set an example of humbly submitting to the leaders and making their job a joy (Heb. 13:17). You may not be able to convert your pastor to expositional preaching, but you can model an infectious love for the Scriptures that spills over to others.
You don’t want to set yourself up as a model in a way that creates a little troop of disciples who are more devoted to you than to the church. Instead, you example should have just the opposite effect. Your life should be such a model of faithful, unity-building service in the church that what other people learn from your example is not just how to grow in personal piety, but how to be a good church member.
In other words, you should set the kind of example that, if everyone in the church followed it, would make your church healthier, more unified, and more committed to each others’ good.
ONE MORE LOOSE END
You might not be able to change everything in your church that you want to, but I think this list is more than enough to keep most of us busy.
There is still one loose end I want to tie up: how do you humbly and contentedly deal with a church that has serious problems and in all probability isn’t going to change? I can offer only the briefest and most general of answers, but I hope to do that in my final post in this series.
How to Live with What You Can’t Change (Part 4 of 4)
In three recent posts I’ve argued that for the most part, if you’re not a pastor you can’t change anything fundamental about your church. And I examined exceptions to this and talked about what you can do to change your church.
In this final post I want to reflect on how to live with what you can’t change in your church.
LIVING WITH WHAT YOU CAN’T CHANGE
Obviously, you shouldn’t live with heresy or with major doctrinal error. So if your church starts to seriously head off the theological rails, work to bring it back on course. And if it leaves the track entirely, with no real chance of further reformation, you really have no choice but to leave.
But let’s say you’re in a church that is basically doctrinally sound, but which has a whole host of lesser, though still serious, problems. And it doesn’t look like those problems are going away any time soon.
Basically, you’ve got two options: leave peaceably, or stay cheerfully.
Whether or not you decide to leave will depend in part on whether there’s another, significantly healthier church nearby. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a necessary piece.
If you do decide to leave, preserve unity on your way out. Speak charitably and sparingly about your reasons for leaving. Speak as highly as you possibly can about your current church and its leaders. Work ahead of your move to minimize any relational damage or ministry strain your departure may cause. And pray for your heart, for your leaders, and for the whole church. Don’t let bitterness be your escort out the door, or the parting gift you leave behind.
But whether you leave also depends on what you decide you can and can’t live with. Think carefully about theological triage—which doctrines are more central, weighty, and practically significant than others. Think carefully about matters of preference versus biblical principle, style versus substance. Seek counsel. Prayerfully determine where your threshold is. And if the threshold is clearly crossed, leave peaceably.
…or Stay Cheerfully
But if you decide to stay, whether because you freely decide you can live with what you can’t change or simply because there’s nowhere else to go, stay cheerfully. Here are a few ways to do that:
1. Be Loyal to Your Pastor
First, be loyal to your pastor. Be a faithful, submissive, humble, and supportive church member. Banish the thought that your loyalty and submission depend on your pastor agreeing with you on every point of doctrine and practice. Don’t let your theological or practical disagreements morph into justifications for disobeying the Bible’s commands to submit to your elders and esteem them highly in the Lord (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13).
In other words, be a true friend to your pastor. Bear his burdens. Pray for him. Be for him. Silence others’ gossip and complaints about him with your own joyful appreciation of him. And let him know personally that you love him and support him.
2. Affirm the Good in the Church, Especially in the Preaching
Second, affirm everything you can about your church’s ministry, especially your pastor’s preaching. By “affirm” I mean give specific verbal encouragement, both to your pastor and to other church members.
When you’ve been particularly encouraged by your pastor’s exposition of Scripture in a sermon, tell him, and tell him why. Show him that his ministry is bearing fruit in your life. This will be good for your soul and for his.
3. Don’t Provoke Discontent among Church Members
Third, don’t provoke discontent among church members. If you’ve developed convictions that go beyond your pastor’s—for instance, about Reformed soteriology or expositional preaching—be very guarded and cautious about how you speak to fellow church members about them. The last thing you want is to sow seeds of discontent or start rallying people around your ideas over against the pastor.
4. Be Attractively Godly
Fifth, be attractively godly. Soak yourself in Scripture and prayer. Make obedience to Jesus your chief ambition. Be a fountain of biblical health and life that overflows to others.
5. Put on Love
Finally, over all this, put on love. Be patient with your fellow church members. Discipline yourself not to complain and critique. Master not just your tongue but your spirit. Take such joy in the good things God is doing in your church that it leaves little room for discontented moping.
In other words, love your church because Christ loves the church and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25). Love your church not because they’re lovely, but because they’re loved (Deut. 7:7-8). And if God can love your church despite all that might be wrong with them, so can you.