by Sam Rainer
I once made the mistake of giving my cell number to a suicidal transgender alcoholic. For several nights in a row, I had the privilege of answering my phone at 2:00 AM, only to have the same conversation ending with the same advice: “Stop going to gay bars, getting drunk, and picking fights with drag queens.” My advice was simple. The situation was not.
The mistake was not that I reached out to someone desperate for help. Of that I have no regrets. The mistake I made as a pastor was buying into the perception this person had of me. He thought I was going to “fix it” and give some magical advice to make the pain go away. Of course I shared the gospel. Of course I shared how Jesus heals. But I did little to lower the lofty expectations of my abilities to solve his issues. He believed I could fix it. I played the part. I am a pastor after all. It’s what I do, right?
The Exchange. Crises are daily occurrences for most church leaders. Fires rage. We charge in with water pistols. We want to help. It’s what we’re called to do. The leadership mistake is not the visceral reaction of jumping into a crisis. The problem occurs in a common exchange between shepherds and sheep, and this exchange only deepens the crisis and further entrenches the challenge.
In a crisis, the innate reaction of a most followers is to call upon a leader to solve the problem. Presidents, counselors, teachers, dentists, and pastors all receive this call. Some problems are technical: I have a cavity; fix it! Other problems are adaptive, embedded deep within the culture. For instance, a pastor may make the technical change of reworking the worship style in a week, only to realize the adaptive problem is built into the culture of the church. It was just a drum set, why is everyone upset?
A cycle of distrust can form over time between followers (flock) and leader (pastor). A congregation places unrealistic expectations on a pastor, giving him the positional authority to lead them out of a problem. The pastor makes unrealistic promises to gain power. When the pastor inevitably fails, the congregation rushes to place blame on the pastor. In Leadership without Easy Answers, Heifetz calls this the “leadership straight jacket.”
Sin nature pushes people to give problems and power to pastors in exchange for impossible promises. This exchange makes both leaders and followers feel better about themselves, for a time. Followers get to say, “It’s not my problem anymore.” Leaders get to say, “I like the power of being the problem-solver.” But the cycle of distrust builds as people realize pastors cannot solve all their problems and rescue everyone from an intensifying crisis. The exchange slows as the congregation recalls power from the pastor and blames him for the unresolved crisis.
The Prototype. A crisis exacerbates the tendency of pastors to fall into the trap of their congregation’s perceptions. Leadership in the church is—to a degree—the product of social construction by the congregation. In other words, perception is reality. What the people perceive about a pastor becomes the reality of how he is defined. This attribution grows into a self-fulfilling prophecy for leader and church.
If the leader fits the profile of expectations, then the exchange between congregation and pastor works more smoothly. A congregation is more likely to perceive a pastor as successful if the pastor’s characteristics and behaviors match the congregation’s implicit ideas of a pastor. The more a leader represents the congregational prototype of how a pastor should look and act, the more likely the church is to trust him and give him power. It’s why some people don’t trust pastors who wear ties (or jeans). He just doesn’t look like a pastor. It’s why we talk about pastors being a “match” for a particular congregation. In general, prototypical leaders have more of a license to fail. In general, non-prototypical leaders have less leeway in what the church deems as acceptable behavior and leadership style.
A crisis pushes people further into camps. When a congregation likes a pastor (a positive prototype), people are more likely to grant authority and power. When a congregation dislikes a pastor (a negative prototype), people are more inclined to assign blame.
The Fix. The goal for pastors is to avoid the trap of exchanging power for promises. The goal of a congregation is to get beyond their desires for an ideal prototype. In a crisis, however, the exchange becomes a drug. Pastors get their fix by being the drug of choice for their congregations. Congregations get their fix by a false high of temporarily discarding their problems.
Church leaders are called to equip people to see Christ as the solution. We cast vision. We lead. We teach. We do a lot. If we’re not careful, then people might actually think we’re the ones who are doing the fixing. Stop trying to fix people’s problems. Lower the expectations of your ability to solve the problem. Raise the expectations to see Christ as the answer.
Sam Rainer serves as President of Rainer Research and Senior Pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He is the author of Obstacles in the Established Church and co-author of Essential Church. You can follow him on Twitter.