Altar Call – Opelika-Auburn News

Walter Albritton

February 2, 2003


Sharing still more of the little known secrets of the retired life


            One of the benefits of retirement from pastoral ministry is that I am not evaluated every 15 minutes. My wife seldom comes across as my evaluator. She is my companion, friend, supporter, and best of all, my number one encourager. We understand each other, and we work together as a team.

My denomination, the United Methodist Church, tends to be overly zealous about quality control. The system requires an awkward and premature evaluation of its pastors and too little coaching in the skill of becoming an effective leader of a congregation.

I am not a disgruntled United Methodist. I love my church and am deeply thankful that it took a chance on me and gave me the privilege of serving as a Methodist pastor for half a century.  I do have a lover’s quarrel with my church, or actually with its hierarchy. 

Mainly I have two concerns. One is the constant pressure upon pastors to raise and pay the “apportionments,” money each church is expected to give for connectional work beyond the local church.

I do not object to the church giving the money. For the most part, I support the causes for which the money is given. That is not the problem.

The problem is the constant pressure upon the pastor. What change would I recommend? Every pastor should receive from the hierarchy THREE TIMES as much encouragement to preach the gospel and win the lost to Christ as he receives pressure to raise money.

Actually, pressure does not raise money. Warm, loving persuasion raises money. Money follows mission, so pastors need to be taught how to present the mission of Christ in winsome ways. They are not likely to learn this skill from pressure to raise money.

We focus far too much on raising money to save our institutions. We should concentrate more on saving souls for the Kingdom of God. When that becomes our chief priority, God himself will provide all the resources needed to do the work of Christ in the local church and in all our connectional institutions.

My other concern has to do with the evaluation of pastors. Instead of moving so hastily to have a church evaluate its pastor, the hierarchy should devise a plan to assist a new pastor to develop a relationship of trust with his key leaders.

 He could even receive hands-on coaching in the fine art of bonding with the men and women he has been sent to serve. Until that happens the pastor’s ministry will remain on the runway, unable to lift off and take flight.

Leadership does not exist in a vacuum. There has to be a team that is willing to be led before leadership can become a reality. Coach Jon Gruden led his team in Tampa to victory. However, it was his team that won the game while Gruden coached from the sidelines.

The pastor who does not understand that concept will never coach a winning team in a church. 

             Look at our system with me. A pastor is appointed to his church or charge in June. By August one of his church leaders is instructed to have a committee of nine persons to “evaluate” the pastor. After such a brief period of time, such an evaluation will be shallow at best. Even the key leaders of the church barely know the pastor after 90 days.

            Four or five months later the church’s leaders must decide if they want the pastor to be sent back for a second year. The question posed by the presiding bishop is essentially this: Is your pastor a “keeper,” or do you want me to send you someone else?

            People need more time to get to know the gifts and graces of a pastor before having to answer such a weighty question. Some pastors may be “late bloomers” and need more time to demonstrate their true value to a congregation. Strong teams that can grow a church forward cannot be built overnight.

            What might be extremely helpful to the pastor and to the church would be for the bishop and the district superintendent to provide a process of coaching the pastor and his key leaders in building a strong leadership team. This could be done with the expectation that such a plan would be implemented during the first 18 months of a pastor’s service.

            Encouragement is always more valuable than evaluation. Instead of asking church leaders to evaluate their pastor, why not ask them what they are doing to encourage their pastor and to help him find ways to use his gifts to inspire the people. Only with the careful guidance and affirmation of his key leaders can the pastor help his people become motivated to embrace a common vision for the church.

            Wise key leaders will spend hours, over many months, helping a new pastor to understand the church, its history, what makes it tick, and what motivates the people to move forward. These leaders can affirm him, offer him their acceptance, and most of all, help him understand what kind of leadership they need from him. They will encourage him by complementing his strengths rather than criticizing his weaknesses.

            Key leaders must bravely tell their pastor the truth. Pastors make mistakes. They are not all wise. But they can learn from their mistakes. They can become vulnerable, acknowledging their errors in judgment and inviting their people to help them become effective pastors. Without this chemistry, failure is a given.

            A strong team usually emerges only when a pastor and his leaders learn to accept each other, warts and all, with love and understanding, and embrace a mutual vision of God’s mission for their church.

            Most churches are not waiting for a new pastor to bring them a vision. They have a vision. They have a mission. A wise pastor will prayerfully discern what that vision is and do all he can to help his people accomplish their mission. His great joy will come in seeing them succeed in fulfilling their mission, not in having them to surrender to his will and do what he thinks should be done.

            Now that I am retired, I must confess that I do not miss the pressure to raise money or the constant evaluation of my pastoral skills. What a relief it is to know that Dean is not required to file a report on whether or not she wants me to remain her husband for another year!

 I do miss the thrill of being bonded with people who see the big picture and are working together to realize the mission God has given them. When a pastor and his people come together, in mutual love and respect, to share such a dream, even the gates of hell cannot stop them! -------30-------