Nu-Uh #1 – Expectations on the Preacher

I think that many youth pastors don’t make the transition to being senior pastors for one of two reasons.

The first reason is that they really love working with teenagers and youth ministry and the joys of retreats and mentoring kids and summer trips and gathering to share both food and lives every week in a small, intentional community.   Youth ministry is a calling, not a stepping stone, and they are quite content to be the cool old person who has given up trying to be hip years ago.

The second reason is that they look at the senior pastor down the hallway and say “Nu-uh.  No way.  Forget that.”

It is this second reason that intrigues me.  Of which I will attempt to explore.

I think there are two main reasons for this.

Nu-Uh Reason #1

The first, is NOT job description, but rather job EXPECTATION.

As pastors, we get to do lots of cool things.  We get to preach.  We get to worship lead.  We get to do weddings and funerals and baptisms and child dedications.  We get to set directions for congregations.  We get to walk with people when life is easy and when life is hard.  We get to explore the meaning of life and are allowed access to some pretty deep parts of people’s lives.  We get time to reflect on Scripture and pray.  Some of us even get to go on cool trips.  And if it’s your thing (which for some people it is), we get to sit on some boards and committees that are hopefully engaging in life-changing work as opposed to spending hours taking minutes.

I sometimes think that we are jacks of all trades but master of none.

But I think that while the original job description isn’t the problem, the job expectation is, so thus the job description becomes the problem.

There are a couple of things going on here.

The first, and biggest, is that Christendom (where everyone in a society is considered Christian) is dying.  Christianity is not relevant on the large scale that it once was.  Church attendance in major urban centres range between 2-20%, and one is considered an attendee of church if they show up once a month (Yes.  That would be 12 hours a year, or less than two days of work).  Church is no longer the priority it used to be.

I like to think that with the passing of Christendom, every sentence about church starting with the words “People should” gets thrown out the window.

People should give money to church.  But while overall charitable donations are going up, the percentage going to churches is declining.

People should show up for worship on Sunday mornings.  But they’re not (see above numbers).

People should volunteer at something that’s life giving at church.  But between work and hockey practice and going to the gym and sitting on the library board and cleaning the RV, we find all sorts of reasons not to serve at church.

Usually this transition out of Christendom doesn’t bother me.  I am actually quite excited about the small and faithful remnant seeking to be followers of Jesus.

But what this means for the pastor is that almost every task they do requires that much more work.

Planning a Bible study and putting it in the bulletin doesn’t mean people will show up.  Nor does announcing it from the front, hoping that the Sunday you extend the invitation is the one Sunday a month that people will be at.

Getting people to volunteer for a board can be like pulling teeth on the best of days.  Now you have a model that worked when people came to church, but now less people to ask.  I know of one church where the members would screen their calls and if it was someone from the nominations committee, they wouldn’t pick up.

Finding ushers and Sunday School teachers and piano players and people to sing in nursing homes gets harder and harder.  Let alone inviting people to put their trust in Jesus Christ on days other than Christmas Eve and Easter morning.

So we have structures and systems in place for when church was easy.  Now that church is harder, we expect our pastors to be as competent at everything as they were 40 years ago.

Which leads us to the next part of having really high expectations.

If someone attends a “normal” worship service, they will probably encounter some congregational singing, a solo or two, an offering, some prayers, some silence, a sermon, some coffee after the service, with maybe a children’s story thrown in there.

And when they meet their friends for lunch after and someone asks, “How was church?” what is the number one thing that we comment on?

The sermon.

“Church was boring.”  “Why?” “I fell asleep during the sermon.”  “The preacher lost me.”   “Watching grass grow was more exciting than that.”

While I believe that the sermon shouldn’t be the only important part of a worship service, by and large, it is still considered the most important part of a worship service.

And, given the reality that every task a pastor does takes more time and energy than it used to, what do you think gets the shaft?

The funeral?  No.

The wedding?  No.

The important pastoral visitation with someone whose partner passed away two years ago?  No.

The committee meeting?  No.

The sermon?  Yes.  I’m going to venture that most pastors show up at their weekly staff meetings on Tuesday morning with a Scripture passage and a blank screen.  Many of us even show up Friday morning with a Scripture passage and a blank screen.  Oh, yes, it always gets done, but here we go with expectations again.

If the sermon is one of the most important parts of Sunday morning worship, we had better do a good job.  Otherwise we’re going to have a lot of people going home disappointed.  And if every task that pastors do requires more effort than it did in the past, we have less time to do a good job.

In addition to all this, the final kicker is that our expectations are remarkably high because we have instant access to some of the best communicators in the world.  Didn’t like the sermon on Sunday?  Just download your favourite podcast or watch one online.  Almost every church puts their sermons online, so we get to be remarkably picky about whom we listen to.  And if this week’s online sermon from Preacher X is sub-par, we just stop listening and start a new one from Pastor Y that engages us.

No wonder people want good sermons.  Our expectations are through the roof.  We’re listening to the best of the best while stuck in traffic driving to work.

And so, preach a couple of bad sermons, and why come to church?  I can just listen in my car!

We put up with bad or boring church services when everyone attended church.  It’s what you did.  Nowadays?  Nope.  I’m going to have coffee at home and watch the birds.

Unrealistic expectations?  Yes.

Transitioning to a Post-Christendom reality?  Yes.

So, as churches we have two choices.  We either change the senior pastors job description to free up more time for preparing for worship and sermons.  Or we show up to church expecting an adequate sermon and go home happy with it.

I’m not sure which one will win out.

In the meanwhile, most pastors who work with youth are going to keep preaching their 2-6 times a year and doing an awesome job on those 2-6 sermons.

Post Script: There is so much I don’t like about this post.  I don’t like how much emphasis we place on the sermon.  We need good preaching, but we also need good community, good silence, good contemplative prayer practices, good music, good conversations over coffee.  But I guess that as long as we answer the question “How was church?” with “Awesome!  It was a great sermon!”  then I’m stuck here.  I would much answer the question “How was church?” with “I am grateful to be part of a community that is following Jesus as they try to love God and love their neighbours.”  Maybe that’s what my next sermon should be about…

Nu-uh Reason #2 – Will hopefully be written in the next few weeks.