Pastoral Expectations

Wizard Island
When people want a mountaintop experience expectations often get in the way of spiritual growth

Today I was out at a party where a member of central was also attending. At one point he joked, “I need to watch what I say, I'm sitting next to my pastor.” This brought forth a cry from the other side of the room, “Pastor's shouldn't judge, they can't judge you, pastors shouldn't judge.” I don't know the person who uttered this cry, and the guy who made the first remark didn't mean anything by the statement, so I just let it drop. Thankfully, I was updating Java on an ancient Windows XP install so I never even looked up from the computer screen. This did get me thinking about the expectations people have for pastors, so I came up with a short list.

Pastor as Prostitute

Ancient religions occasionally incorporated temple prostitutes as part of their worship. Sometimes the act of intercourse was meant to provoke the deity to a showing of fertility – the prostitutes were simply tools through which people could show they were keeping their part of the bargin.

I often get the feeling this is the way most people approach pastors. We live in the temple, and we're there as tools through which people can show their deity they haven't forgotten. So people come when their children are born “to get them done” through baptism or dedication, they show up wondering what it will take for me to preside over a wedding, and get invited to “do something nice” for a funeral. There's no intention of relationship, and often times the parties asking for services want to know how much I charge for access to their deity. There's no intention of forming a relationship, or continuing down life's journey together. People get their services, and get on with life. Wham. Bam. Thank you, sir. To be honest, it makes me feel cheap.

Pastor as “trophy Christian”

This is a view I've only recently come to understand among people. In this expectation, the pastor is expected to be the paragon of Christian virtue. They dress nicely, have a gentle disposition, speak rather blandly, and admit no obvious vices. People who want a “trophy Christian” pastor want one who has never tasted a beer, doesn't watch movies, understands nothing about popular culture, and is seen in a tie and suit-jacket so much it seems odd when they are wearing anything else.

Here's the thing with this expectation, it exists so that other people feel like they don't have to live out the faith. The pastor does that, and it's good that the pastor does that because it shows how blessedly boring the Christian faith can be. The average person with this expectation, however, wants only to show their pastor off – the same way insecure men do with a “trophy wife.”

Pastor as autocrat

Some people really want a “strong pastor” who will literally tell them what to do in every facet of life. These people expect their pastors to tell them what books not to read, movies not to see, beverages not to partake of, and TV shows not to watch. Many folks think that living under an autocrat pastor can only be a life of torture, yet it's shocking how many people actually seek out this type of pastoral expectation. It's easier to be told what to do in order to attain salvation, than it is to bear the terrible responsibility of freedom in Christ. This expectation isn't limited to religious circles either, a lot of people from all sorts of backgrounds seem to crave being ruled. Ironically, it's often the people calling out against perceived tyranny who flock to the autocratic expectation – both within the Church and without.

Pastor as “the Man”

This expectation is a close relative as “Pastor as autocrat.” Often, people with this expectation have been burned out by the security of being dictated to. As such, they form a strong antagonism towards authority in general and seek to undermine it at every turn. These folks rarely work in the open, as their lives under autocratic pastors have taught them how dangerous it was to speak openly. Instead, they work on the sidelines, subtly taking the opposite tack as the pastor on small issues. People with this expectation also tend to publicly display their opposition through acts of faith which are good on the surface, but are meant to be seen by the targeted authority figure as a way of saying, “You're not the only spiritual one here.”

Many folks with this pastoral expectation are wounded, and need to have their ability to trust healed. Others have unintentionally become abusers in their own right, and frequently leave a wake of confusion and anguish in their wake.

Pastor as CEO

Many people see the pastor as the chief executive of the company, answerable to the board for the growth or decline of business. Among low-church Protestants, many of whom are enamored with the mega-church movement or memories of times long-gone, the “Pastor as CEO” model is predominant. If the congregation grows, it's the pastors' success. If the church shrinks, it's the pastor's fault. Chances are, when there is a congregation which has cycled through pastors every couple of years for a couple of decades, the CEO expectation is dominant. The “board” is still looking for the right person to lead the business back into growth.

Know harm done

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, nor is it mean to throw the church under the bus. These are simply the most common pastoral expectations I've encountered during my time as a pastor. Many I've encountered personally, others I've encountered through friends and colleagues who have bared their struggles to me during conversations. None of these expectations, however, is healthy.

The CEO and trophy Christian models relieve the congregation of the wonderful privilege of being the image of Christ in this world, stunting their own spiritual development. All the benefits and consequences of success or failure rest solely on the pastor's shoulders. It's a burden not meant to be carried alone – and the pressure of these expectations often do violence to a pastor's faith.

The kin expectations of autocrat and “the Man” leave a wake of mistrusting, wounded, people behind them. Churches filled with people who have these expectations often look stable, but are frequently engaged in a cold war. Those on the side of the autocrat attempt to smoke out resistance, and those who see the pastor as “the Man” quietly try to topple the regime. Pastors who relish being the autocrat may revel in the exercise of authority. Sadly, many are haunted people looking for sense of security.

Finally, as alluded above, the expectation of the pastor to be a religious prostitute cheapens the entire faith. It leaves pastors feeling used, and creates an expectation of an “on demand” faith among the general populace. Where this expectation is popular, religion is a commodity item to be purchased or tossed away depending on the present need – spirtual depth and religion as commodity do not co-exist well.

I have a much different pastoral expectation.

Pastor as fellow pilgrim

I expect my pastor, and thankfully I have one as many pastors do not, to call me to walk together in the journey after Christ. On this journey I can be encouraged and encourage, learn and teach, be humbled and humble. I expect my pastor sometimes to take a slightly different path than me, if that's what the journey calls for. When we have disagreements we still share the same goal – binding us together. I don't expect the undivided attention of my pastor, because there are other pilgrims to walk with and I know I can't be selfish – but I know when we find ourselves at different points of our journey we'll be able to meet again along the path.

This the pastoral expectation I try to encourage in the people I pastor – walking with folks in all things, being free to disagree and learn from one another, and always saying “Jesus is our goal.” Sometimes the other expectations people have blur this one – but the quiet power of a shared pilgrimage is usually more than enough to help people move along together.

Now, pastors also have some equally unhealthy expectations of the laity – so perhaps I'll meditate on these post those in the coming week.


One Comment

  1. coffeezombie says:

    On the point of the “autocrat Pastor,” if you haven’t yet you really should read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. If you can’t make the time for that (it is, admittedly, a large novel), at least find a copy of the chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.”

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