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Does the Church Have a Senior Pastor Problem?

Does the Church Have a Senior Pastor Problem?

Anyone who has been in a church for any amount of time knows that every church has issues, but does every church have a senior pastor problem? The church is a collection of imperfect people seeking a perfect God. And we certainly tend to cause conflict with one another along the way.

A pattern of these conflicts recently occurred to me. And they all started with one specific kind of person within the church—the senior pastor.

So I began to ask myself: Does the church have a senior pastor problem? Here’s a few examples that help to make my point.

The Irreplaceable Senior Pastor Problem

A church I attended had the same senior pastor for 30 years. He was there several years before my family started attending, and he didn’t retire until I was actually on staff at the church.

During that time, he’d made a mark on the church. It wasn’t apparent that this was a problem until after he’d left. When his replacement started, the aging congregation made it obvious that they didn’t want any changes. They expected the same programming, the same style of worship, and the same kind of preaching they were used to.

So rather than bringing a breath of fresh air to the church, the new senior pastor tried to imitate his predecessor. He operated out of fear that he’d lose the church, which turned out to be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the congregation gradually realized that the new guy wasn’t the old guy and they began leaving.

As beloved as the old senior pastor had been, he hadn’t bothered to worry about the church beyond his tenure. He’d made the church so much about his style and personality that the church started to crumble as soon as he left. He made himself irreplaceable.

The Boomerang Senior Pastor problem

Meanwhile, the church where my wife grew up had a similar crisis. Years before, mismanagement had driven the church into financial trouble. Not wanting to handle it, their senior pastor at the time claimed to be called elsewhere and left the church.

While searching for a replacement senior pastor, the church was blessed with a capable interim pastor. He guided the church to financial stability and restored order to the congregation.

After a lengthy search, the church finally settled on a choice as the new permanent senior pastor—the same guy who led them into financial trouble and abandoned them in the first place. Many of the long-time church members (including my in-laws) were understandably upset and left because of this decision.

The King of the Hill Senior Pastor Problem

Then, there was the church my wife and I attended right after we got married. It was a small but growing community with a young senior pastor that we genuinely liked. We both got involved as volunteers and developed relationships within the church.

Until one bizarre weekend when the pastor fired half of the church staff and the other half quit. After worship that Sunday, the pastor called a church-wide meeting to explain what had happened. According to him, the staff had grown jealous of him and wanted his job. He said that he’d been betrayed and had no other choice but to dismiss the staff members.

What actually happened is much more complicated and too nuanced to recount here. But ultimately most of the church members decided to leave over this decision, including me and my wife. What had begun as a promising community of faith was undone because of the decisions of the lead pastor.

Sadly, when we started visiting new churches to attend, the first one we visited had just experienced the same thing. Almost their entire congregation had left with their former senior pastor who started a new church over a disagreement. Safe to say, we didn’t join that church.

The Prodigal Senior Pastor Problem

One final story helps to illustrate my point perhaps better than any other.

Another pastor I knew went on to lead a rural church. A few years ago, I heard that he’d been let go by the church and was no longer ordained as part of the denomination. Obviously, something had happened, but I never knew what.

Just recently, a faction split from a local church over a theological issue. They formed a new congregation and started recruiting members. Because they were not officially part of the denomination, they could hire this pastor to lead the new church.

Because of that hullabaloo, several people started investigating why this pastor had been decommissioned. Apparently, he’d made decisions that were less than ideal.

When other pastors found out, they reported it to the local bishop. The bishop told this pastor he could either leave the church or he would be charged with fraud. However, this is not the story the pastor told his new church. He claimed it was a misunderstanding blown out of proportion. His new congregation was willing to accept his side of the story without question.

This put several people in an awkward situation. Do they report the pastor for his alleged wrongdoings? Any complaints they take to the new church members could just be seen as bitterness toward the recent church split. Do they just let bygones be bygones? But this runs the risk that he could make the same mistakes again.

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Robert Carnes is a writer and author who contributes to a number of church leadership publications. He serves as the Director of Church Engagement for Orange in Atlanta. He's also the author of The Original Storyteller, a guide to telling better stories in 30 days.