The American Church’s Dirtiest Little Secret

It has been my privilege to lead churches since I was 18 years old.  I have watched both movements and movers move on and off the scene.  The American church landscape has been painted, erased and painted over many times, yet in all these years and in the passing of all that time, I’ve heard almost nothing about what I consider to be the American church’s dirtiest little secret.

The church’s dirtiest little secret is not the scandal of flock-fleecing pastors jetting around at their church’s expense.  Nor is it the outrageous salaries or even the oft expected and oft over-enjoyed sex scandal and subsequent fall from grace of a once revered leader.

No, the real scandal of the American church is something much deeper, and more pernicious than any of those tragic, isolated events. And I do mean isolated, because they are a very small percentage of what really goes on day in and day out, week in and week out in the hundreds of thousands of Christian churches all across this country.

The real dirty little secret in the American church is that we regularly, relentlessly, and without mercy beat-up, chew-up and spit-out our leaders.

You’d have to be blind, deaf, and stupid not to notice the long line of once effective and admired leaders limping toward the exits.  It was Peter Drucker who once said the four hardest jobs in America — not necessarily in this order — are President of the United States, a university president, a hospital CEO and a pastor.  Amen, but for those called to it, we at least don’t expect to be shot in the back by our own team.

Why isn’t anyone talking about this?  Maybe it’s because those who talk about church leadership, no matter whether they’re founding pastors or high-ranking staff members, have one thing in common: we’re all employees of our churches–leading without real power.  Pastors have the responsibility to lead their church to growth with none of the power to actually do so.

Churches, in our society are designated “non-profits.”  The “ownership” of these organizations is held in trust by the men and women who fill leadership positions whether elders, deacons, or board members.   So the naked truth is that pastors and staff don’t carry the ultimate decision or have enough legitimate power to affect much change.

We are so obsessed with the abuses of the few, that we have cut off our leaders at the knees.  As a result, the American church is being crippled by mean, petty, power-hungry bullies whose abuse of power is the great scandal  no one wants to address.

What does this abuse look like?  Here are the 5 most lethal ways we kill off leaders we don’t like:

  1. We starve them. Because of the abuses of a few, we think that paying our pastors and staff members a livable wage, a fair wage, will somehow corrupt them.  So without money to cover the bare necessities, some have to divide their time between the sacred calling, and keeping their family fed and clothed.  How tragic that while some abuse money, the vast majority simply don’t have enough.
  2. We have outrageously unreasonable expectations of our leaders. We expect them to work seven days a week, to be on call all the time, to have all the answers, and to be able to fix all our problems.  And while these expectations can be understandable, they are totally, outrageously unreasonable, and just more evidence that we don’t listen to the teaching of Scriptures or take them seriously.
  3. We strip them of power. Again, we are so afraid power will corrupt them, we strip them of it while holding them accountable for the success of the church.  As a result, our leaders have very little real power to make the strategic changes essential for the church’s future.
  4. We let pretend leaders bully them. Call them elders, deacons, or whatever, too many “lay-leaders” come to their positions puffed up with pride and an overestimation of their own spirituality.  Rather than leading along side their pastors in creative collaboration, too many, too often exercise their power by crushing the heart and spirit of the very people they are supposed to be helping and empowering.  As a result, a shocking large percentage of the American church is in the hands of spirit-crushing bullies, who love keeping the preacher humble and in line!
  5. We leave them in financial peril.  How many times have I answered an email or phone call and how many times have I sat across from a young pastor who thought everything was going well and within a seven-day period, they’ve lost everything?  Their salary, their reputation, and their future all at risk because of the capricious desire of a small group of people who feel called to protect the status quo.  Only in the American church can a pastor  be fired with nothing but a lie or salacious innuendo.  And a fired leader has no safety-net, no appeal, and no future in the ministry.

Whether you agree with my assessment or not, the results are all around us.  Pastors and staff are leaving the ministry at record rates.  They are tired, debt-ridden, disrespected, burnt-out, and in many cases, bitter.

If we really want to do something to turn the American church around, if we really want to see our churches flourish, we’re going to have to find a way to love, respect, honor, promote, protect, and care for our leaders.  Here are 5 ways you can start where you are;

  1. Let’s pay them a livable wage. Let’s stop being afraid of the abuses of a few and realize that with their dedication and training our leaders deserve a livable wage.  By that I mean, livable where you live.  Can they buy their own home, put down roots, send their children to school, take vacations, plan for retirement, and have a reasonable shot at living debt-free?
  2. Encourage them.  When was the last time you actually took your pastor, associate pastor, or other church staff member and just encouraged them?  Sent them a note or card, sent them a gift card to a local restaurant, took them out for dinner and paid for it?  Some constant, consistent act of encouragement lets them know that their work is not in vain.
  3. Give them time off for vacation, for training, for restoration. Why is it that in the American church the unspoken expectation is that you are always going to be there,  or when you step away for training, rest, recreation that’s a luxury that you really don’t need?
  4. Stop the complaints you hear about them at their source. If you entertain gossip, you are a gossip whether you originated it or not.  If you’re going to  help protect your leader, make sure they know you have their back.
  5. Give them a safety net. By that I mean just let them know that if something happens, we’re not just going to throw them away, kick them to the curb, and leave them penniless and destitute.  Yes, leadership transitions do need to happen, but the vast majority are not for failure, moral or otherwise.  Let’s let our leaders lead knowing that they won’t be out in the cold for one bad decision, or at the whim of some crazy elder, or board-member.

The church’s dirty little secret has to grieve the heart of God.  For how do we say we’re churches who love Jesus, respect God, and believe His Word, and treat His leaders so badly? If we want to set the example to the world around us of what Christians ought to look like, can we really do that and continue to fire, malign, and starve out God’s called leaders?

I, for one, am thankful for those who have loved me, taken care of me, supported me, and carried me; those who have come to my aid and watched my back.  Because I’ve gotten the love and support I’ve needed, I’ve been able to not only sustain my ministry for 38 years, I can say that I am more excited and have more vision for the future than ever before.

Love your leaders!  Those who serve you and lead you are worthy of double honor!  Think about it, if your church’s leaders are growing up in Christ and flourishing in their faith, won’t your church do the same?

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