What Happened When I Stopped Being A Senior Pastor

Last year I finished my ministry at the church which I had been leading for 13 years. For about seven of those years my role was Senior Pastor. So that’s seven years of leading, vision casting, pastoring, nurturing a team, implementing change, managing conflict in a local congregation. Seven years of joy, frustration, pain, hopes fulfilled and dashed, sacrifice, abundance and love in action for better or worse. It’s been quite the journey. I have been out of the role now for only three months and I’m still trying to identify and articulate what I’m feeling. However, recently when I was reflecting on how I feel now that I no longer have the Senior Pastor role and I was trying to give words to my thoughts, a very clear sentence came out of my mouth: “I feel more human.” It was a very surprising thought really, even to me, as it surfaced. I feel more “human” now that I no longer have the title Senior Pastor. Does that mean I felt less than human before? Or did I feel more than human? Super-human perhaps? Was the role of Senior Pastor somewhat “de-humanising” in my perception and experience? Why do I feel more human now? As I thought about it some more I realised that this had very little to do with the church I led which, while it had its joys and struggles like any other church, was a good church to be a part of and lead. My sense is that this “de-humanising” which I believe can accompany the Senior Pastor role is a broader systemic issue in the Church, an issue perhaps that we all buy into as church community. It is perhaps the result of an unconscious contract that we have between us as leaders and congregation members.  Maybe the terms used here are a little strong, maybe not every Senior Pastor experiences this, maybe people in other leadership roles also encounter this effect however, I believe this is a not so healthy occurrence that exists within today’s church culture which must change. What are some things that can sometimes make pastors feel less human in their role?

Consumer Culture

There has been a lot written about our consumer culture and the way that this has infiltrated the church to the point where it could be said, as it has been, that the church has become a “vendor of spiritual goods and services.” Eugene Peterson asks that if  other professions have not escaped this consumerization then why should the pastorate? Then he explains how this affects the psyche of the pastor saying,

The question operates subliminally, shaping my behaviour: what do people want from me, their pastor? Something surely along the order of a better life: encouragement, insight, consolation, formulas that enable them to get along better in a difficult world, that uplift them… We of course, are conditioned to comply. Why should we not please the people who pay our salaries if we can do it with good conscience? And why should not our consciences be good, ratified as they are by the vote of the congregation after congregation? This consumerism shapes us without our knowing it. There is nothing in our lives that it does not touch in one way or another (1).

The question, “What do I need to do to meet the needs of my congregation?,” sounds like an innocent one, but it can snare leaders into a performance trap hindering them from remaining true to who they are in Christ. If as a leader of a congregation I am out of fear continually trying to placate the various demands of the people, then I am not engaging with my true self in Christ, rather I am operating from a more self driven place which strips me of my authenticity or humanity.  As I project and engage with this false self, the danger is that I become a performer in the congregation that I lead.

Expectations in the Church

I still remember the day that a dear lady in our congregation made an appointment to see me. On the day, she came to my office holding a scrumptious cake she had made so we could eat together, she sat down, then proceeded to tell me what a terrible pastor I was. It wasn’t a bad experience at all, we had a good discussion- and there was cake! However I did find it interesting to hear her rationale regarding why she thought I could do a little better at pastoring. The issue lay with my title. Since my title was Senior Pastor, the logic went, that meant that I was the one responsible for the overall care of the congregation. The care of the congregation was ultimately up to me and no other. It didn’t matter that we had a Care Pastor and a care team who were responsible for and gifted to care for the congregation, because I was the Senior Pastor, it was basically up to me. That day I became aware of the expectations that some in the congregation may have had around my role and also that I did not share those expectations. The responsibility was all on me and there was little room for a shared sense of ministry with other leaders in the church. I remember feeling burdened by that sense of responsibility. Of course, a role which oversees an organisation will always have that sense of weight and pressure that comes with it, however leadership should and can be shared. Perhaps there is a problem here with the title Senior Pastor which many leaders have now re-thought and so other more helpful names are being used. Names which don’t allow expectations to rise in the congregation that the leader of the church is on his or her own when it comes to leadership. This is obviously de-humanising because we are made to be in community rather than living or doing ministry alone.

Under-developed Sense of Identity

Everyone is in the process of discovering who they are however, unless leaders are somewhat confident in their self identity, ministry can turn them into machines rather than better human beings. Work, all work, should be an opportunity for people to become #TrulyHuman since it is not a curse but a gift from God. There will always be frustration, boredom and dissatisfaction associated with work this side of eternity, however, through Christ all work can be redeemed. How true that the work of ministry needs to be included here! However, a leader is often placed in demanding situations where their identity is tested, and sometimes this leads to the misguided act of too closely associating their roles with their personhood. “Demanding leadership contexts will expose leaders who have not settled the question of their own identity in God apart from their identity in their roles. Tendencies to be driven by performance will cause a leader in demanding systems to engage in compulsive behaviour, working harder and harder to meet the expectations of the system” (2). Being a leader in a church is strenuous and the temptation is to work harder and harder, trying to meet demands, becoming machine-like, giving less and less space to spiritual formation. Ultimately, the leader can begin to measure their self worth based on their success, and their identity rather than being connected to Christ, becomes synchronised with the leadership role or title. The leader is then equated with a role rather than being seen or seeing themselves as a whole person.

Strong Leader vs “Weak” Leader

I hear frequently that pastors need to be more vulnerable and need to be prepared to reveal their failings, trusting that God is the one who is leading through them. I agree with this whole-heartedly. One way that Senior Pastors can convey their humanity to the congregation is by being open about some of their sins, struggles and imperfections. I think pastors need to do this very often because of the strong tendency that people have to put them up on pedestals. In church ministry, people would often tell me what a godly person I was, how God speaks through me and also how much they admire me. While all of this on bad days fed my ego and on good days enabled me to hear God saying “Well done,” it was generally somewhat unhelpful. People want to compliment and this is understandable and to be appreciated however, the more that people complemented me the more I felt myself be firmly placed higher and higher on that pedestal and further and further away from the “normal” person. It’s something that I tried to combat continually yet it was very hard to do. Obviously this then results in putting pastors in the “super-human” category which only serves to perpetuate the myth of the pastor as the one who is somehow more godly than other ordinary Christians. Paradoxically, being seen as super- human can be de-humanising.

How can we help pastors of local congregations to become #TrulyHuman as they work in their jobs? What permissions must the congregation give in order for this to happen? Are there unstated “contracts” that exist between leaders and congregation members that need to be identified and changed? How can we come alongside of pastors and see them as human rather than sub-human ministry machines or demi-gods above the ordinary crowd? Can pastors experience true community in the churches they lead? I hope so.

My experience of leading a church was an overall good one as I muddled along trying to work out the Senior Pastor role, but I know others have had harsh and devastating experiences due to some of the characteristics of church culture mentioned above. If you are a pastor, what do you do to make sure that you are becoming more rather than less #TrulyHuman in your role? 

1) Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987)98.

2) Rick Lewis, Mentoring Matters, (Oxford: Monacrch Books, 2009)82.


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