Every pastor hears it: Just do what one of your predecessors did a few decades ago and all will be well within congregational life.
Yet, somewhere in that row of dusty and successive portraits — likely lining a wall enroute to the sanctuary — is the image of a pastor that some long-term members recall most fondly from their own days of greater vitality.
Appreciation is warranted; unfair comparisons are not.
The past gets idealized by remembering — even enhancing — the good and disregarding the challenges or even failures.
Understandably, great esteem is projected onto a beloved minister who baptized, visited, married and buried multiple family members.
Did I mention the pastor visited? And visited and visited – every member every night.
The pastor’s name may even be inscribed on one of the maintenance-challenging buildings erected during those romanticized years of growth and glory.
However, such yearnings for the past cloud the realities of the present and future. And, as a result, current ministers are unfairly measured by facts and factors not of their making.
Today’s ministers often face the dreamlike idea that all would be grand and glorious again — if only we had the pastor of yonder year or someone who’d mimic such leadership.
It would be a great return to the recalled glories of record attendance, full offering plates, extended revivals, morning-to-night Sunday programming — and Olan Mills pictorial directories with page after page of well-sprayed, abundant hair and questionable fashion wear.
Again, nope. It is a different time and different situation with different challenges and opportunities.
Here are just a few of those realities rooted in trends of recent decades. Even if known, they need to be raised and recognized as significant.
Many more people work on Sundays now. And the once-familiar five-day, 40-hour work week is rare.
Blue laws that kept most businesses closed on Sundays are gone. Of course, church people didn’t mind that not all restaurants closed — allowing for Sunday dining right after the benediction.
Kids (especially those on travel teams) play sports on Sundays now — an act that once would not have been permitted in many communities.
Travel in general has become easier and more popular. Vacations are not limited to one week a year. And many families have get-away homes.
Social pressures of the past have ceased. Religious expectations and shame don’t work. One of the reasons more people identify as having no religious affiliation today is that it’s more socially acceptable to do so.
Stark and often angry political divisions fostered throughout the week show up at church as well. The daily saturation of ugliness and untruth — found in social media, Breitbart, Fox News and other sources — is clearly tied to the embrace and support of Americanized Christians.
There are expectations that the sermon will align with these caustic weekday voices rather than those rants aligning with the gospel of Jesus Christ. One pastor told me he gets his angriest feedback when he quotes Jesus — adding that Jesus said it would be that way.
There is less loyalty to a church or denomination now. Threats of leaving are worse than leaving.
Compounding the multiple challenges of leading congregations today is the false expectation that simply doing what was done in the glory years will magically bring them back. In fact, the people advocating for such usually aren’t putting in the same time and resources as they did in the past.
One of the best gifts church members can give their ministers is to not talk about the way things used to be.
Being supportive and realistic is a more faithful response than criticizing pastoral leadership for not providing a time-travel experience to one’s favored chapter in the church’s history.
Likewise, it is unhelpful and unfair to hold up the numerical success of a neighboring church that just might be finding its growth in offering something less than Jesus’ inclusive call to “follow me.”
That booming church on the outskirts of town just might be the result of people going where they are told what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.
Your pastor is very likely to be as committed and gifted — if not more so — than any predecessor enshrined in portraits of the past. Today’s ministers face challenges unimagined by those who once held that role.
So be good to them, offering encouragement rather than cynicism or blame. Provide fresh ideas and the freedom for these ideas to be explored, rather than false expectations.
Be realistic about the challenges of congregational ministry today — and be willing to be bold when pastoral leadership calls for taking needed, even uncomfortable, steps to address those realities.
Often the greatest obstacle to creative and effective congregational ministry is those who cannot imagine a future that doesn’t resemble the past.
Good and gifted ministers are sticking with congregational ministry out of a sense of divine calling that isn’t limited by seeking to replicate some romanticized yesteryear.
Thank them. Help them.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.