Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Challenge of Pastoral Leadership: The Family Church

When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to pastor a small church in the hill country of Texas.  The first floor of the building was the church; the second floor was the Masonic Lodge.  There was only one deacon and he was in his eighties.  None of the other men in the church could be elected as deacon because they were divorced or had married a divorced woman.  They were kind and generous people who were used to having a seminary student as their pastor.  They expected him to be there for a couple of years and then to move on.  They were basically a big extended family who often had problems assimilating newcomers.  They loved me, but they knew I was not there to stay.

Many ministers pastor this type of church while in seminary.  It is a part time charge and gives a beginning pastor a place to “learn the ropes.”  This is the size church that many bivocational pastors serve and find it the place where they can do their most effective ministry.  We often refer to this as the family-size church or “the family chapel” because most members tend to be related to one another and, even if they are not, they operate the church as if they were a family (with all the joys and sorrows that encompasses).

Family churches usually have about 50 participants on a Sunday morning.  In this setting, the pastor is the chaplain of the family.  They just want the pastor “to love them” and accept them the way they are.  There is often a patriarch or matriarch who is the leader of the congregation, even if not officially designated as such.  This person has been around long enough to see a number of preachers come and go.  They are not necessarily opposed to change; they just see it as unimportant or irrelevant.

There are some necessary competencies for a pastor to be successful within the confines of the family congregation.  The pastor should be able to preach and teach the Bible with some level of skill and clarity.  The pastor also exercises pastoral care through visitation, calling on the sick, and performing “priestly” functions such as baptizing, officiating at the Lord’s Table, conducting funerals, and performing weddings.

In the family size church, the pastor is not seen as a leader but more as a “sounding board” and advisor to the patriarchs or matriarchs in the congregation.  Any influence the pastor has comes in relationships her or she develops with the real leaders of the church.

This is not to say that the pastor of a family size church is a lackey.  He or she must exercise all of the emotional intelligence at his or her disposal—self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, adaptability, etc.—in order to serve effectively and meet the needs of the church members.  Unless the pastor grew up in this congregation, he or she will never really be part of the family but can learn to meet the spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral care needs of the members. 

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