Now and Future Church Dynamics

I’ve just received the book The State of Pastors, 2017 by the Barna Group.  It has been a serious study of pastors and has many statistics about changing dynamics for the church.  A previous study was done in 1992 and some comparables are striking.  The largest part of this sampling is, of course, from the USA.

One interesting stat is there are now more pastors over the age of 65 than under the age of 40.  Another is that the average ministry tenure in 1992 was four years, but in 2017 is eleven years.  Yet another stat is over half of existing pastors are over age 55.

For me in my role as coordinating pastoral settlement for the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada this data needs to be considered as we look at the future of the pastorate, of pastoral training programs, and of the nature of the church in a mere decade from now.

One interesting statement is made in the book (pg. 15), “… even faithful, kingdom-minded teens and young adults are increasingly attracted to vocations other than full-time church ministry, where their desire to make a difference can have a more entrepreneurial expression without the (real or perceived) institutional baggage of the church.”

I see keenly Christ-following young people in this generation, but the aging of today’s protestant church has taken root and has created a difficult dynamic that affects our future.

So let’s ponder these things and pray.  But let us pray for a deep change that let’s us be Jesus’ instruments with capacity for this generation and the one to come.

Empathy Shortcomings

Ministry leaders hear this: In North America and across the world today we continue to develop deep polarization along ideological lines.  What is needed today is an extraordinary need to develop the skill of empathy.  Empathy will help us communicate; without it we will continue to divide.

Sympathy can be pity with a bit of emotion thrown in (i.e.: “Sucks to be you”).  Empathy is different.  It is the ability to put oneself into another person’s shoes, figuratively speaking.  A person who shows sympathy may also show some distance, keeping themselves from totally understanding another person.  Empathy, on the other hand, should involve capturing the whole sense of the other person’s emotions, the reasoning behind their actions, appreciation for their personality and, on an internally intimate level, understand why the other is the person they are.  At its best this skill is regarded as ‘accurate empathy’.

At the risk of being judgmental, there are many pastors who are weak in the skill of empathy.  A colleague of mine even suggested that some even have pursued ministry because the Christian community has been too nice, too loving and too compassionate.  Some pastors progressed through their schooling and even ministry situations out of a type of kindness that has not addressed critically their shortcoming of emotional and social intelligence.  The demands of schooling and internships might have been met, but the ability of having the ability to connect with real people in real need can be lacking.

To have a learning opportunity in this area is likely right in front of us.  It can be right there in the midst of a problem we are currently facing.  It could be a board member, a congregant or a sibling where there is friction.  David Swink in “Psychology Today” on March 7, 2013 stated, “Sometimes it may be necessary to act empathetically to achieve a desired outcome even when you feel antagonistic to a person.  I have trained hostage negotiators for many years. Hostage negotiators are trained to act empathetically toward the hostage taker in order to establish the rapport necessary to influence him to give up and not hurt anyone. In fact, the negotiator most likely despises a person that would hold a woman and baby as hostages. What is interesting is that after a couple of hours many negotiators actually start to feel some empathy toward the hostage taker as a result of ‘acting’ empathetic. Most of us will never find ourselves in that position, but you may need to fake empathy to influence someone to an important end. Hopefully, you won’t experience that frequently, because there is often a price to pay for being consistently inauthentic.”

Those with empathy skills can express feelings and connect on a feeling level.  The ability to listening on an emotional heart level needs to have higher value in our search committees for ministry leaders.  Those who can relate data, truth statements, and Biblical quotes without the ability to connect emotionally will have less impact on the world around them.

Yes there is risk in responding with empathy.  It will take time, which is a very precious commodity, and there will be emotional cost.  The stress and work is not to be negated, but with the ability to truly connect emotionally there can be joy, love, peace … shall I go on?  The reward far outweighs the cost.

I may not be able to fix society, but here is some work I can do on myself.  I am by no means an expert in this area.  In my past I learned the skill to ‘grin and bear it’.   I can protect myself.  Distancing myself from anything that might be hurtful is my natural inclination.  But I know Jesus knows me completely.  He is empathetic.  He is Emmanuel – “God With Us!”

Your co-worker,  Dennis


Pastors encounter transition from a ministry location for many varied reasons.  Those reasons might include retirement, another offer of employment or ministry, health problems, or a lack of ministry potential in their current setting.  Here are some factors that the leading board and remaining staff need to consider:

A church family needs to go through a grieving and loss cycle.  This is systemic, normal and healthy.  Whether or not people would consider the former pastor as successful or loved, there will be those who are attached to the individual and need to go through this cycle.  To move ahead before some have reached a measure of closure is more than unfortunate, it can be damaging to the next ministry or ongoing church health.  Many times the board or staff have known a transition was in the works, but for some in the congregation it does not impact them until the public announcement that the pastor is moving on.  The whole congregation includes those least informed, so take time for all to grieve and experience the loss.  Successes will be remembered.   Failures will be assessed.  There is generally no need to respond to the accurate or inaccurate statements of blame and blessing that will be made during this time.  Often there is an unrealistic and inflated views of both the accomplishments or the disappointments in the former pastor.  The way forward means time needs to pass before a healthy decision can be made on how to proceed.

The “Type A’ personalities with CEO-type gifting will think of the pastoral role like an employment hire.  Translation: “Just get on with the next stage and ‘fix’ the problem vacancy”.   This corporate model is less than helpful in this instance.  In truth the pastor has been seen more as a family member than as an employee by the congregation.  The feeling with some will be more like a divorce has happened rather than an employment restructuring with new opportunities.

Have an interim or transitional pastor.  In most cases I recommend slowing the pace with a six to twelve month interim or transitional pastor.  That term should never be longer than eighteen months as the attachment to the interim becomes the same as with a permanent pastor.   If, however, the church moves ahead too fast in hiring the next individual there is strong evidence that the next pastorate will be a short one.  This interim period can be a good time to do some congregational assessment on church health.  That information can be helpful to the next pastoral candidate.  The transition time is often a time of church growth as people come out of the woodwork to fulfill roles and needs of the church in the absence of the former pastor.  Ministries that are important will find new leaders and ministries that were marginal or less significant might fall to the wayside.

Wait to make significant decisions – at least for a few months into the interim period.  Our Western culture does not generally possess the gift of patience.  Waiting and postponing judgment until a more suitable time for key decision is generally wise in this situation.  There will be pressures by some who will say, “What are we going to do?”  This is an opportune time to draw people into prayer for the leading team.  Having a plan is good, but definite decisions with long term effects are generally not helpful in the beginning stages of transition.  If the plan is to set up a search committee who will work on a result in due time, that is fine.  If the leading team is anxious, others will also be anxious.  If the leading team is patient and confident God is in control, others will benefit from that attitude.  This is a time to show faith and not fear.  God has not left, nor will he neglect the needs of His Church.



Yes, it jumped unexpectedly off the page at me.

I was mentally checking on a Bible verse when I came across this part of a phrase: “It is true that some preach Christ out of … rivalry ….” (Philippians 1:15).  It struck me that I have heard messages like that and have at times preached in a similar manner.  There were times preaching when I would have ‘a bee in my bonnet’ over some lesser doctrine, but I worked hard to make it sound very, very important.  Silly me.

Paul goes on in the text and acts as though he does not care much about inaccuracies from the pulpit, even when twisted with wrongful intent.  In context it seems as though from a distance some preachers were in competition with Paul and his message, but as long as preachers were preaching Christ Paul showed no great concern.

He does get riled up when it gets personal, as in 2 Corinthians, but he evidently knew those preachers, their intentions and their audience … people he loved dearly.  He had the medium of making a written letter to appeal to discerning minds, so he used it to defend himself before those with whom he was in a meaningful relationship.

I’ve heard preachers preach against other preachers.  I’ve heard sermons against other sermons.  I’ve heard teaching against other teachings.  Correcting an error is one thing, but it is another thing is if the intention is selfish, to put oneself in a better light than others who may in fact be faithful to God.  We must not seek to have our influence be more important to us than the truth.  I’ve seen people spouting what they say to be truth while evidencing little or no fruit of the Spirit in the process.  We need to affirm the truth where we see it and in whomever we see it.  Let’s be complementary when we can be.   Let’s exemplify loving even our enemies.  Let us pray for those who persecute us.

“Lord, keep me from rivalry!”

Your co-worker,  Dennis

Seasoned With Grace

I remember when my oldest son was four years old it was obvious our family values towards smoking had rubbed off.  This was most apparent when we saw him walk up to someone smoking and say loudly and authoritatively, “You’re going to die”.   The words may be true, but timing and context is important to consider.

In Job 25 Bildad the Shuhite states a theological treatise to Job as to the supremacy of God and the low position of us humans, but there must have been something in the tone and timing that was off.  Job responds in the next chapter with some of the best sarcasm ever written when he says, “How you have helped the powerless!  How you have saved the arm that is feeble!  What advice you have offered to one without wisdom!  And what great insight you have displayed!  (NIV)”

At the end of the book Bildad is one of those told to offer sacrifice and to ask Job to pray for them.  God even states that Bildad and his two friends had not spoken of God in a manner that was right.

Speaking the truth is not enough by itself.  Just saying something merely because it is true can be judgmental, cruel, harsh and unloving.  To think we can say whatever we want because it is true is likely a serious character flaw.  This is why “speaking the truth in love” is an important filter.  I think that means we are to assess how our words will be heard.  The tone with which we say our words needs attention.  Sometimes to say “The Bible says …” can be totally appropriate, but it can also be, like Bildad’s words, inappropriate in its time and space.

I do not speak as a perfect person.  If someone can tame the tongue then perfect is what they are.  I do not pretend to have entered that phase.  I have at times committed my own errors by impulsive comments while trying to be witty or cleaver.  That is not to say that engaging laughter is a negative, and there are appropriate for those words.

My prayer today is for balance in assessing our words.  We must not ignore truth, but we must know how our words are heard.  Saying the hard things will be necessary at times, but may God give us an understanding of the situations we are currently facing that our words might lead to healing and wholeness for all.

Your co-worker,  Dennis


In the book of Numbers is a quirky story of Balaam and his donkey.  The story is of Balaam the prophet being courted by Balak the king of Moab to prophesy against the children of Israel while on their way to the promised land.  Balaam is evidently on his way to a perch where he can look down on the children of Israel when his donkey sees an angel from God that Balaam does not see.  The donkey seeks to go around the angel and crushes Balaam’s leg against part of a wall.  This leads to the Balaam getting more and more annoyed to the point that he beats his donkey three times.

At this point the donkey talks to Balaam.  Balaam is evidently so upset at his donkey’s apparent disobedience that he does not see the unusual nature of the donkey speaking back to him.

We all can recount times where people have set their sights so earnestly in a single direction that the perception of the actual terrain around has become skewed.  Too often the circumstance can be traced back to thoughts like “God, here is my plan, now bless it” rather than “God, what is Your plan?”

Motivations can be varied but personal esteem or reward is usually near the top.  Perhaps we want to look good before others, our church to look good, our opponents to be outdone, our appeal to the community to be greater, our logic to be affirmed, or our future to be more secure.  These still come down to selfish interests.  The King Balak would likely have given reward to Balaam, and though Balaam seemed verbally to distance himself from that compensation, likely it was a motivator.

So on Balaam’s journey after his experience on the donkey he finally has the angel speak to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me” (Numbers 22:32 NIV).

How many times have I followed a ‘reckless path’, one of my own devising?  It could be a path where I was not technically disobeying but pushing the boundary.

May God give us all more ability to see our blindness caused by our self directed paths.



On Church Boards

Questions on roles, expectations, training, and evaluation of deacons and elders come to CBWC offices regularly.  What is often really behind the question is not what is biblical but a curiosity of what might be culturally common within those roles.  Yes, in the Western World we have a fairly well developed ‘church culture’.

Culturally there has been the development of some rather rigid roles for deacon and elder. Biblically deacons served tables, but not many do that specific role any more.  The roles for an elder can vary quite widely in Scripture, but certainly there were some that were used to administrate or ‘rule’ with regard to a church’s functioning.  Biblically there is no specifics on the election or appointment processes for those who would serve as elders.  Timothy was to appoint elders, but not much is there on how he went about the pragmatics of making those choices.

Too often we think of elders as those serving on an elders’ board.  In reality, however, if an elder takes a year or more off from the elders’ board, are they no longer one of the elders for that church community?  We may have used the term ‘elder’ too rigidly.  It is my belief that it is a good thing for people to desire to be an elder in character and role and that they do not need to be elected as such to serve in that capacity.

There are Biblically no details regarding meetings of elders or deacons, unless one would possibly include Acts 15.  Was there a committee chair, the taking of minutes, a schedule of meetings, or a devotional?  All of these are additions from our culture.  True, they may be helpful assets to committee type roles in our modern world, but they are extra-biblical pieces.

The word ‘elder’ can be used scripturally as those whose jurisdiction was over a very broad region, not merely a specific church family.  In the small town in which I was a pastor I think the town’s elders could have been a fellow who was a printer from the Pentecostal church, a high-hoe operator from the Lutheran church, and a few farmers from the Nazarene and Baptist churches.  If people wanted reputable Christian advice the community knew who these elders were.  Community members were likely to go to them as much as to the pastors of those churches if they needed advice or counsel.

One church I worked with intentionally did away with elder and deacon boards.  They had a ‘leading committee’ and that committee had ‘committee members’.  This took away much of the inappropriate attachments of trying to tie biblical verses, which were for a more ancient context, into a more contemporary one.

I am not against deacon or elder boards, but at least let’s be honest about the cultural pieces attached to how we use the terms.  Those serving in those roles are to be humble, careful not to ‘lord it over others’.  There is nothing more dangerous than someone having responsibility without accountability.  Everyone needs to answer back responsibly to the congregation.  Entitlement and self-inflated egos over being a deacon or elder need to take the way of the dodo bird.