The Problem with Talented Pastors

popart tennantIt used to be true that the pastor was the best educated person in town. We Presbyterians were all about that – historically – and our educational requirements for ordination reflected the desire to academically prepare pastors well. We were known for exegeting scripture, understanding church history, and teaching theology. One of us signed the Declaration of Independence. Another founded Princeton.

I remember one of my childhood pastors telling me – after I myself became a pastor – how hard it was to serve my home church in Chapel Hill, NC – a university town. Yes, the pastors were always very bright. But so were the parishioners. “An elder might be the head of the botany department and he assumed that he was an authority on everything,” I was told. These kinds of elders were sometimes a pain in the neck to work alongside, I was told.

But what if we – as pastors – appreciated the experts among us? Imagine if we turned to the construction workers, the bankers, the chefs, the librarians in our congregations, and then we partnered with them to serve our people and others. What it we pastors acknowledged that we cannot possibly do it all or know it all? What if we considered our parishioners to be colleagues in ministry. Imagine.

When I was a parish pastor, working with a computer science wizard, he often identified me to others as his boss. And then I would add that he was also my boss. He added immeasurably to the ministry happening in our congregation.

About once a month, we would have a tech day when he would share with me all the cool things he’d learned in the past month about social media or office machinery. And I might teach him how to do a Hebrew word study online.

This is the future of ministry. We are all in this together. The bakers in our community have much to contribute to the community. The barristas, the lawyers, the pediatricians, the anthropology professors, the middle school Spanish teachers – all have a ministry in the realm of God.

Here’s a special word to the small church pastors who Do Everything: Stop it. There are people in your congregation who can school you on all kinds of things. Let that happen.

The 21st Century Church realizes that we are connectional in terms of sharing gifts as well as nurturing relationships. And . . . the pastor can’t be the smartest person in the room.

Warholized image of William Tennant, Presbyterian Pastor and one of the founders of Princeton University.

2 responses to “The Problem with Talented Pastors

  1. I completely agree with a number of points in your post.
    –pastors seem to think they need to do everything
    –we should utilize the giftedness of the congregations we serve

    But when I see it playing out, I’m not sure it is a function of over-valuing our own education.
    I often hear pastors (often female–discuss amongst yourselves about that) say, when I ask them why they are trying to do EVERYTHING for their congregations, “well, if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.”
    My reply is “okay. It won’t get done.”
    And then they freak out.
    I know many of them have fought long and hard to find a Call in this climate of scarcity. Perhaps they are afraid of job security?
    Perhaps they feel being a pastor involves being a martyr, sacrificing themselves for the sins of their church. (I’ve seen plenty of male pastors do that too).
    Perhaps they just have really poor boundaries, and have no idea how to stand comfortably in their own space, which means they can’t invite other people in and help, and they can’t communicate to people why they can’t do it all.


  2. The pastor may be the “smartest” or most “technically learned” person in the room and still wise/learned enough not to “do or know it all.” And even if s/he knows a lot (about whatever is at hand/needs doing/under discussion), s/he is wise enough to allow/encourage/invite others to do what they are gifted and called to do.
    And letting go is hard. I know. I practice and still don’t (always) get it.
    Teaching/modeling/coaching to this -hard work. Necessary. I’m thinking of the importance of good mentors and the development of self-awareness, as in any leadership development (veiled shameless plug for the Leadership In Ministry workshops we are hosting here beginning fall 2014).
    Good stuff as always, Jan. You speak truth.


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