Is the local church the “farm team”?

Andy Rowell, at CT, examines the recent (and not so recent) announcements of Jim Belcher, N.T. Wright, Francis Chan, Pete Rollins and Brian McLaren … each of whom resigned from pastoring to become full-time authors, speakers, or (in the case of Wright) a professor.

What’s going on? Is the local church becoming the “farm team” for full-time conference and book ministry? Normal pastoral transition, pastoral stress, the personality of church planters, and American culture all probably play a role in these type of transitions.
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  • Understandable

    Our pastor is leaving the pastorate and feels released to do so after 22 years or so. I think people are just coming to a point in ministry where they are thinking beyond the local church and do not see that as an end anymore. And in fact, ministry can and should extend beyond the local church and if people feel that they can be more effective and less hampered in their attempts, I say, more power to them. In some ways, the local church has encouraged this with its restrictions that do more to hinder ministry rather than advance it. While not in professional, paid ministry, I know that I find academia more attractive with each passing day.

  • Interesting observations. The church where I am a member, the pastor actually came from a major Christian relief organization. He left an international organization to become Senior Pastor at a church that (at the time when he started) had around 1700 attenders a week. In a sense he downshifted. In another way, he up-shifted. He still writes, does some traveling, while balancing pastoral duties such as visiting the sick.

  • Kurt

    Being a pastor of a local congregation is the toughest, most demanding, crazy and rewarding task imaginable. I am grateful for the women and men who serve so faithfully.

  • Kevin Crooks

    In just left parish ministry after nine years. Every year was very tough. I’d run my own business for years prior to entering ministry and thought I could deal with people reasonably well. I used to think ministers were a bunch of whiners. I think much differently, now. My wife continues to pastor a small church, but I am done. Not to say that I won’t disciple people and have a personal mission, but at this point parish ministry has no appeal at all. I suspect as “Understandable” stated, that I will find plenty of ministry to do away from the walls of the church

  • TC Keene

    A noted evangelical of the 19C was JC Ryle. He was a great preacher whose sermons are still widely read today. He claimed that a vital part of preparing sermons was visiting the congregation. Visiting had two vital roles. First, it created credibility. The listener knew what kind of person the preacher was and this gave the sermon added power. Secondly, the preacher had greater insight into the issues facing Christians on a day to day basis. The danger of leaving the pastorate to focus upon a wider ministry is that these two advantages of pastoral ministry are lost, or at the least consigned to the past of the preacher. Thus, the move to a wider ministry has both advantages and disadvantages and need to be carefully weighed.
    I also have sympathy for the pastor’s wife who commented on the CT website and was so summarily dismissed by a subsequent poster. Pastoral ministry is a grind often with very little recognition. Sermons have to be new every week, while the travelling speaker recycles the same old stuff at venue after venue and can be presented through long practice with great skill and panache. And when all is said and done, it is at the local level that the rubber hits the road. It is local miniistry, whether by the pastor or the congregation, which tranforms people, transforms areas, actually wins glory for Christ. Travelling ministry is of value only as it feeds the local ministry. I also strongly doubt that these megastars of the speaking circuit are as financially hardpressed as the local pastor, whatever the arrangements for royalties from books etc.

  • Much is demanded of pastors, and (typically) little is given. It is a very hard job spiritually, mentally and physically. It is the highest calling, and we should give grace to those who can no longer meet the demands. There is nothing wrong with wanting more money, a wider audience, or simply to write rather than lead a church.
    If we’re using a baseball analogy: from a scriptural perspective, these guys are going to the minors. Or, at least, it certainly isn’t vice versa. If anyone thinks that leading a biblical church is is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, they will fail at their ministry, and become very disgruntled indeed.

  • I don’t know about all of them, but I have read enough of Wright to know that he would emphatically say, ‘no.’
    Perhaps a better way of thinking about it (to keep the baseball analogy) is to think of them moving out of the player/coach role and into a specialized coaching position; hitting coach…

  • I don’t think Chan should be tossed into that catagory. From what I understand (I don’t know him personally, I’ve just read what he has put out) he is leaving the professional pastorate out of frustration with the model of “attractional church” (to quote Hersch) he has built. I was a the Verge conference this spring in Austin and that’s what I believe he was conveying there.

  • B. H. Tucker — STL, MO

    The pastoral minisry has become an impossible job as the church’s expectations for what a pastor should be have become so horribly non-biblical. The preacher is to preach-teach via expository sermons. That’s his job. Not counselor. Not creator of ‘how to’ sermons that address every subject from marriage to personal finance. Not master organizer of countless programs.
    Pastor, preach truly expository sermons. Congregation, free your pastor from the endless list of tasks you’ve given him. There you have it… less stress, stronger churches.

  • “Not creator of ‘how to’ sermons that address every subject from marriage to personal finance.”
    It doesn’t have to be either/or. You can preach from the word with real life examples. That’s what Paul did. Why not emulate him? I do agree that many contemporary churches could stand to delve deeper into the word. Platitudes about Jesus’ never-ending love and pastoral opinions about politics are a waste of time.
    “Not counselor.”
    Why not? Pastors preside over weddings. Should they make no effort to understand whether the marriage is a blessing from God? Is there a biblical prescription for a purely ceremonial approach?
    There isn’t, and I’m not sure it makes for stronger churches, but to each his own preference.
    I do wish fewer pastors would take to writing books. In a country with tens of millions of Christians, and an adult literacy rate of 99%, if you can scarcely construct a proper sentence, God has probably not called you to write a book.

  • Jeremy

    Isn’t it a bit of a false analogy when only a small handful out of hundreds of thousands move on to the “super star” category? I also think it gets dangerously close to claiming we know what God wants for them and propping up the old idea that the only ministry is full-time ministry. This idea of “farm team” seems loaded with negative connotations (I could be completely wrong there, but it feels that way to me).
    I also think we need to see how it actually works out. I know a couple of these guys (not the ones mentioned sadly!) and they all keep their feet in pastoral work to stay grounded. They’ve just stepped out of the responsibilities of being a senior pastor or bishop to focus on the gifts and passions God has given them when they believed that God was telling them it was time to move on.

  • Phillip

    I am not sure if the “farm team” anaology works, since, as a previous poster noted, the move up (?) accounts for so few. Fully admitting my own struggles with envy at times over those big names, three things come to mind for me. First, writing is a ministry, but one that seems for the most part to benefit the affluent (those who are literate and can afford the books). Second, I am deeply suspicious of superstar status assigned to speakers. While I have no doubt that God has given them certain talents, I fear it sets an unrealistic bar for “normal” preachers and teachers. Also, again, access to such stars tends to be a privilege only of the affluent, who can afford the often high fees at the conferences where these stars appear (fees that are often high, in part, because the speakers are paid thousands of dollars to repeat what they’ve said already elsewhere; are there better ways to spend that money?). Third, over time, distance from the day to day life of the church may lead to a disconnect between what is said/written and what is actually going on in the church. God bless the women and men who continue to practice and play hard for love of the game, with no thoughts of making it to the majors. Too cynical and negative?

  • Brad

    I don’t think Piper or Chan should have been included in the list Rowell gave. Piper is not leaving for greener pastures; rather, he is taking a break to deal with, as I recall, non-ministry-disqualifying sin in his life as well as relationships. That is a far cry from the moving-up-the-ladder mindset. And he is planning to come back to his church.
    Chan, if I’ve heard and remember correctly, is heading to Thailand. Thus, here also, you have someone not moving up the ladder, but rather to a place where he could possibly be seen less.
    We should be thankful for such examples of these two men, assuming they are being genuine (and I’ll leave that up to God to judge).
    I don’t understand why Rowell included them in his CT article.

  • Scot: Thanks for pointing out this CT piece.
    It’s certainly worth asking if there is a telling pattern here and what it means. Pastoral exhaustion and/or discouragement may be a factor in some cases.
    I was personally involved with only one of the pastors mentioned in Rowell’s article. For this individual, the big question was one of stewardship: how best to use his gifts, time, talent, and opportunity for the sake of the kingdom. I faced a similar crisis in my own service to God three years ago, and ended up leaving parish pastoral ministry for Laity Lodge, where I lead retreats, write, speak, work with leaders, etc. I am still committed to the church and involved in a local church (though not as the pastor).
    An unexpected benefit in my leaving parish pastoral ministry has been the chance to experience church “from the other side,” as it were. It can be a very good thing for pastors and leaders to put themselves in the shoes of ordinary church members. I know it has been helpful to me as I seek to serve the church in my new role at Laity Lodge.

  • Robert

    Great post and thanks for the link. I agree, in part, with above posters that the analogy is a bit overplayed. That said I also think it is telling of what we’re doing to the Church.
    We’ve got a completely messed up definition of ministerial success and have absolutely fallen prey to making idols out of some speakers/pastors. Of course we have (as noted) dramatically changed the nature of ministry in the local church as well. To a point we have overburdened so many pastors with unbiblical expectations they often can’t attend to their biblical ones.
    When everything is about the latest book, the latest conference, the latest podcast, the latest whatever we lose the time of reflection and authentic engagement with the text that careful practitioner pastors need to have. Too much of what I’m seeing from the “hot” pastors out there isn’t worth reading, and the conferences are certainly not worth attending.

  • Thanks for all these good comments. [My editor at CT added the “farm league” question to spice up the piece. Scot, how does that work that editors always do the subtitle and title and edit pieces? Oh well–that’s another question.]
    The basic point of the piece was that all of these pastors mentioned (Chan, Wright, Belcher, Piper, McLaren, Peterson, and Rollins) have left their churches (Piper temporarily) in part because of the pressures and opportunities of book success. Regarding Piper and Chan, both have talked repeatedly of the pressures and opportunities of traveling and speaking. You can read their statements to hear about why they took leave.
    I tried to put this phenomenon in perspective–seeing possible good results, contributing factors, and downsides. The beauty of naming a bunch of people is that we have avoided picking on one or two people and rather have had a more general constructive discussion related to spiritual formation, accountability, Spirit, mission, balance, sustainability, gender, and succession–at least that is my hope.

  • MD Neal

    There are 300,000+ churches in the US. I read an estimated 600,000 clergy (not including independent/non-denominational churches) in the US. Let’s low ball it with 250,000 “Senior Pastors” in that number. This article is talking about .000028 of the pastors in America. Why all the fuss about a few leaving?

  • Hey Everyone,
    Stepping out of Redeemer was the hardest decision of my life. It took over a year to decide and we began making the decision well before my book, Deep Church, came out. We would have made the same move whether the book sold or not! 🙂
    Actually for the last two years we have been talking with our Session and other key mentors about the best way to use my gifts to serve the Kingdom. My strengths are entrepreneurial. I am good at starting and creating things. I am not as good at managing and running them long term. So for us 10 years at Redeemer is a long time! But it was needed to make sure Redeemer has a strong foundation. We now feel that after a decade, we have accomplished what we were called by God to do–plant Redeemer from scratch and help establish it as a deep church that has the foundation to be a missional church for years to come. We also wanted to chronicle it in a book, Deep Church, which would inspire more churches. We have done this, by God’s grace, and we pray that the church and the book continue to bless people both at Redeemer and around the world.
    Moreover, along with the best use of my gifts we have also been looking for a way to get some rest. I have been preaching every Sunday for the past 17 years and my wife and I decided (after much counsel and prayer) that it was time for an extended, year long furlough to recharge our batteries, spiritually, emotionally, and physically, so that we are ready for the long haul. Pastoral ministry can take a toll on pastors and their families and I want to make sure my family is healthy and strong for years to come because there are a lot of years of ministry ahead.
    Does this mean we are now “outside” of the church? No way! Not only will we be rooted in a church in Oxford, but when we return to the States I will be deeply involved in the local church as a teaching elder/and or paid pastor. I will continue to champion church planting, deep churches, and the health of the local church. Whether I do this as as a lead pastor, teaching pastor, seminary professor or something else I don’t know at this point but I am committed to the church.
    One final thing. What I love about Redeemer is that it is NOT about me. It has never been about me and my personality. It has been about starting a church committed to the four biblical commitments–Gospel, Community, Mission and Shalom. That is what Redeemer is and will continue to be for the next 100 years by God’s grace. I expect the church to thrive without me and do amazing things for the Kingdom. We may be stepping down as the lead pastor but Redeemer moves boldly into the future with tremendous leadership. The church is in great hands and has a great God guiding it.
    Please pray for my family and me as we head to Oxford in August for some much needed rest, a chance to raise our kids overseas for a year, and the opportunity to write the next book, which I hope will bless Christians and the church. At this point in our life it is the wisest and best decision for Redeemer Church and the best use of my gifts for the Kingdom. We look to God for His sustaining grace and continue leading.
    God bless you all,
    Jim Belcher

  • I really appreciate the comments above. In particular, I appreciate Jim Belcher’s response. I have great respect for him and his ministry. May God’s blessing be on his future.

  • Mr. Rowell,
    I find it difficult to grasp why your comment pre-supposed the reasoning behind a move in as transient a culture as we live. Was this analysis based in in-depth interviews? Do you discount the efficacy of the Holy Spirit in regards to guiding these men of God?
    Or is simply your deductive reasoning? Based on what?
    I don’t see it based in historical precedent. The authors who have put out books for decades, Schuller, Hybels, even Warren, don’t leave their pulpits do to the pressures of successful writing careers. So moving on isn’t historically based in that.
    Chan’s article talks about transitioning into another ministry plant, with some time in the field prior to that plant. Piper’s article is one more about rest. Comments from Jim Belcher’s people talk of who different reason than you project.
    Luther’s small catechism, in commenting on the 8th commandment, talks about putting the best construction on everything, so as to bot bear false witness. A more constructive dialog would be presented if there was a dialog.
    I have, in my ministry moved several times. This includes leaving one non-denom denom into my present place. None of these moves were easy. Each presented significant challenges to me and my family. Very few things hurt as much as a mentor who second guessed me in the way you have second guessed these men.
    Perhaps next time – could you have the respect to ask their opinions before the article?

  • Phil Hall

    Having done a lot of study (and not so much action) in the field of pastoring, it is my understanding that yes, there is a lot of pressure on pastors and their families. I have spent some time as a pastor of a small congregation and the countless phone calls I got a night from my congregation is definately a thing that has it’s pros and cons. To think that a pastor is on call 24 hours a day is a nice theory, but in reality, it isn’t feesible. I don’t know a pastor who doesn’t want to be there for his or her congregation, but it isn’t possible to be there 100% of the time. But a lot of us try to be, and with our own well being, our families well being, and growing closer to God in our personal life takes a considerable amount of time. It is easy for a pastor to get burned out from it all when they try to be superman but don’t allow time for regenerationg of self. Yes God will take care of everyone, but he gives us examples in His Word of rest that we cannot ignor. It should never be something that we look down upon for a pastor to give His all for 10-30 years in a church and say, “I have been used of God and now He wishes to use me elsewhere.” It should be something joyous and we should be anticipating how God will bless us in a new season; both the pastor and the congregation. It is always dificult, but it is also always needed to remember that God is the one in these men that makes them who they are, and God will be in the next man or woman that comes to physically take the place of an individual who was standing there before, but it is always God who should be noticed, not the man. I think in each of the men mentioned, we can all say that we have seen God in them and through their actions that should inspire us to learn more about God who indwells each of them.