Church staff as ensemble cast, congregation as audience

Reed and Linda* relocated to a new city so Reed could lead a faith-based nonprofit organization after many years of pastoring a church.

It took the family several months to find a new church home, which was a disconcerting experience for them after spending so long at the helm of their former church. They finally settled on a mid-sized non-denominational congregation in a nearby town, and met with the church’s pastor to introduce themselves and put their gifts and experience at his team’s disposal. The leadership team seemed thrilled to have the pair “on the team”, but as time went on, Reed and Linda discovered that the paid staff did just about everything there was to do in the church. Oh, Linda helped out in the nursery, and the pastor would occasionally offload a pastoral counseling case or hospital visit on Reed, but it slowly dawned on them that they would forever and always be outsiders looking in. The congregation seemed to believe that their role in the church was to applaud (and write checks) as the staff did the meaningful ministry, and show their fealty by showing up, writing checks and cheerfully volunteering to do nursery duty and cut the lawn.

The lightbulb flickered on as the pastor regaled the congregation with yet another insider-joke-filled anecdote about the fun times and special bond he had with the rest of his staff. “They were a really tight crew,” Reed said, noting that at first, he and Linda believed this was a mark of church health. He eventually arrived at a different conclusion. “I know from a few conversations the pastor and I had over the years that they believed they were modeling real community to the congregation, but they’d kept real community at bay – and limited both numerical and spiritual growth in their members – by functioning as as the ensemble cast, and treating the rest of the congregation as their audience.” He understood the reasons the staff had succumbed to the temptation to circle the wagons: control, fewer messes, ease of communication, various unhealed past ministry wounds. But the tighter they drew the circle, the more institutional the church became. “There was no space for anyone to grow,” Reed said. “Including them.”

Though practioners far more experienced (and wiser) than I have addressed this phenomenon at great length in all manner of  blog posts, articles and books, the way Reed and Linda handled the issue showed me something I’d never seen before in any discussion of the clergy-laity divide.

Reed took a staff position at a church in another city. “We missed being involved in local church ministry,” Reed said.

“We missed being a part of a team with a common goal. We missed real community,” Linda added. Neither had any ill will toward their current church, and were invited to come share their observations and recommendations with the staff before they moved.

The time leading the non-profit clarified Reed’s pastoral vocation, to be sure. And the couple, who’d always been very relational and welcoming in their previous ministry position, agreed that their experience in the church here had given them a renewed sense of mission to cultivate true, messy community in their new church as they moved back into paid pastoral ministry. They’d never been clique-y people, but they were freshly-sensitized to the effect that leadership clannishness could have on the ministry potential of others. “We don’t want to waste the lesson were learned at the church. Jesus had his twelve. It’s more than appropriate to have a close group of friends. It’s great to have a close bond with colleagues. But if those things become an end in themselves, healthy  ministry stops and the show begins.”

Have you ever felt like a spectator at church? How did you handle it? 

*not their real names

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  • Pingback: Church staff as ensemble cast, congregation as audience @ Michelle van Loon()

  • Tim

    I’ve seen leadership clannishness at church and elsewhere. My coping mechanism is to shove my way in whether invited or not. Usually works. Sometimes it doesn’t. In the latter instances, I come to two conclusions: 1) it’s their loss, and 2) God has something else for me to do.


    • Michelle Van Loon

      Knowing Reed and Linda, they probably didn’t shove. I do know they were persistent, mature and gracious as they offered their gifts and made themselves available. I met one of the “insider” people from their church at a ministry event a few months ago, and she sang the praises of this couple, telling me that the leadership team felt so blessed to have Reed and Linda in their church. At the time, I didn’t think anything of the way she phrased this, but after a couple of conversations with R & L, I could hear a bit of the “us staffers and everyone else” vibe in her comments.

      I’m a bit of a bull in a china shop, so shoving comes naturally to me. (Not shoving is an act of self-denial at times!) I am learning that it may be wisdom not to shove too often, because if I have to push my way into somewhere, I may not be welcome there. 🙂 God indeed may have something else for me to do that uses my “shoving” energies more productively.

  • “I’m a bit of a bull in a china shop, so shoving comes naturally to me.”

    Oh this is good, I’ve always been called that too!
    Thanks for this post.

    • Though a bull in a china shop can make a mess, I wonder if some of the negative associations given to us forthright types is because we’re iconoclasts, or because we ask too many truthful (uncomfortable) questions. Let’s hear it for the bulls!

      • AMEN sister!

        It reminded me of something I wrote recently:

        “Matthew 7:7 says:
        “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
        I really love this saying of Jesus’. It’s always felt like divine justification for being persistent. But I’ve found that many people I’ve encountered in this life would re-write the above to say;

        “Accept my obfuscation and ambiguity; don’t be so intense; quit being such a bull-dog.”
        Okay, it’s true, I can be relentless.”

        I like how you think Michelle!

  • My husband and I have had similar experiences. My theory is that church leaders can be a little over-protective of pastoral authority and doctrinal purity. Perhaps churches that hold an appropriately high view so Scripture unintentionally develop two tiers of Christians: those with the authority to teach and lead…and everyone else. It is a great underutilization of passion, gifting, and skill to relegate willing contributors to passive pew-sitting. I believe church leaders are at their most effective when they equip everyone in their congregations to develop and use their gifts. I believe that is the kind of leadership that God models.