Because the pastor said so

Ben drew a deep breath and closed his bank account. All that he had saved for the past decade of working in the premier Administrative Service is now in this cheque that he would put in the offering bags on Sunday. He had been saving to invest in a private property he had been assiduously evaluating. Now he wrote the church’s name on the cheque. There was hesitation, but once he put pen to paper it was quickly over.

He was not the only one. Many in his cell group from the church had already done the same thing over the last few months. In fact he was his usual cautious reluctant self – turning things over in his head till his mind was exhausted and drew a blank. It was not just a matter of copying others in the cell group, or the many other cell groups. The whole church had been feverish about being ready for this greatly anticipated event the pastor had spoken about. Now he has decided to dive in too with the rest of his friends.

The pastor’s words had reverberated in the corridors of churches in Singapore. As the messages were being broadcasted in other countries in the region as well, there had been a groundswell of hostile reactions in Facebook. Many heads of denominations and pastors have taken to pulpits and pen to write against the pastor’s prediction. “Heresy!” they declared. “Dangerous doctrine!” they shouted.

Ben, 34, had heard from colleagues about how other churches had raised the alarm about his pastor’s prediction. This must be how the early Christians felt when opposition battered them, he thought, shaking his head. The pastor had said it, with scriptural backing, scholarly argument and numerical precision too, and that was convincing enough for him. Like him, many in the mega-church, cannot accept what the critics have said, for their lives had changed and became better and happier as a result of being part of the church.

On August 4th, he was among the first to go to the top of the Marina Bay Sands to get a better view. All the earth will see and know, the pastor had said. It would be a spectacle that cannot be ignored by the world’s media.

Ben had not married, not even fallen in love once. He had wanted to travel more, especially to visit the Holy Land, but was too busy to have done so. He hadn’t even had a chance to vote once! Though he was high up there in the civil service, he had not even attended a National Day Parade in his life. As the elevator shot up, regret bit him as he thought of all the things he wished he had done.

He also wondered, How would his meeting with the Lord be? What would he hear the Lord say? He had mixed feelings about meeting the Lord in the air, but the pastor said it would happen on 4th of August, and he had done all he could to prepare for this day.

Because the pastor had said so.

Why pastors resign

pastors salary

Recent spate of resignations

News of the resignation of two prominent pastors surprised me. It was announced in Riverlife Church, a megachurch in Pasir Ris, that Rev Vincent Lun, their senior pastor has resigned. Then I heard that so has Rev Melvyn Mak, the deputy senior pastor of Faith Community Baptist Church. These two in the wake of recent resignations of pastors from New Creation Church, City Harvest and Church of our Savior who have served faithfully in their respective congregations. Then there is the forthcoming retirement of many senior and experienced Anglican priests in the next few years.

Push and pull factors

It made me realize that though I have given thought to why members leave a church, little have I thought or written about why pastors resign. It was a rare thing in the many years that I have served, but recently it seemed like the drizzle of the past has turned into a tropical downpour. So why do pastors resign? Common sense, anecdotal hearsay and guesswork is all you need to draw up a list of push and pull factors. A combination of push and pull factors are usually involved in any pastor’s resignation.

resisting change

Push factors

-Frustration over resistance to positive change.

-Unhappiness with some in church board or congregation, usually precipated by conflict or disagreement.

-Pastor finds insufficient support for his vision or strategy.

-Pastor is discouraged or burnt-out and there is no provision for sabbatical or rest.comparisons and competition

-A stifling system invented out of distrust of a pastor’s consecration to God, dedication to the ministry.

-No chemistry with leadership or staff team. Personality clashes with key people.

-Disillusionment about people, leaders, and the way church is done.

-Frustration over inability to meet up to unrealistic expectations of church and self.

-Disunity and politicking in the church.

-Autocratic, unreasonable  “boss” or board.

-Poor fit of one’s gifts with the position.

-The shove of mandatory retirement age or poor health.

endless needs, needs, needs

Pull factors

-Called to another kind of ministry: whether missions, a para-church ministry or to plant a different kind of church.

-Attracted by greater freedom, flexibility and trust, or by its opposite: a clear structure and order and policy.

-Children have grown up and are independent and the need to provide financially for their education is lifted.

-Greater awareness of one’s true passion, gifts and wiring and the fit is better outside church.

Its time to move on.-Too long in a place and restlessness beckoning for a change of scenery or challenge.

-Pastor’s conviction that they have done what they could with the team and people and a change would be good for the church.

-Emigration to another country.

-Finding expression for one’s changes in convictions about doctrine, philosophy of ministry or vision, that the church cannot provide space or acceptance for.

– Better compensation and terms so that there is more than enough to meet the family’s needs, and to give to others.

-Maximizing one’s experience and insight in the senior years to focus on passing on the baton to the next generation.

And you might want to add other factors in the comment box…..

Lost shepherds in the city

Lost shepherds and waiting sheep

The Rt Revd Rennis Ponniah, the Vicar of St John’s-St. Margaret’s Church, and Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Singapore, gave an insightful message to priests and ordinands recently that was excerpted in the Diocesan Rt Rev Rennis PonniahDigest(Nov 2010). He was reminding the church of what it meant to be an Anglican priest in the church of God –the classical role of Anglican priests. Over the years, this has been greatly eroded, obscured, obstructed, and pushed aside by the pressures arising from expectations of congregations for their priests to function like CEOs. The result: lost shepherds in the church, and the consequence – more lost sheep waiting in the pews for their shepherds to do what they are truly called to do, and other sheep leaving for other pastures. The irony is that members want their priest to act like a CEO so that the church would grow, but the outcomes are exactly the opposite: priests and lay leaders suffering burnout and members leaving because they soul care has been ignored.

Lost shepherds can find themselves

What he said so accurately reflects a clear and present danger in the other churches in Singapore too, not just the Anglican. The unbiblical expectations members have of their pastors to be like CEOs,  reminded me of what Goh Keng Swee and his team of systems engineers did to the Singapore education system in the 1970’s (they killed its soul, and teachers felt lost). What Rennis said would resonate with many pastors in this land. The same has already happened in urban churches in the United States too. Shepherds today, like the ones at Christmas, need a fresh and heavenly revelation of who God is. They need to eagerly seek the One in Whom they can find their true self and calling.  Here is an excerpt of his message:

So much is expected of the priest in the modern city – chairing meetings, organizing major projects, replying emails at the speed of smartphones and sometimes initiating financial ventures – that it becomes easy to lose our way and neglect the major tasks of our calling. The affirmation of men and meeting the expectations of our congregation for dynamic leadership and management can become our priorities instead of pleasing God through our faithfulness to our calling. As one of my clergy colleagues recently remarked, “If there is a parable to describe our modern situation, it may well be entitled the ‘Parable of the Lost Shepherd.’  The hundred sheep, safely in the fold, wait hungrily for their shepherd to find his way back to them.”

We do well therefore as priests to heed the call to vocational holiness – to being true to the central tasks of our calling. What then is our vocational calling as priests? In a word, I would say that our call is not to run an organization or meet people’s felt needs, but to build a community of disciples. I often have to remind myself, “I am not running a church, I am building a community.” With this in mind, the key vocational tasks of a priest can be identified as:

1.     Preaching / proclamation of the Gospel

2.     Discipling/teaching and equipping bands of people

3.     Interceding/shaping and leading corporate prayer and worship services

4.     Pastoral care and spiritual direction(ie the role of the “wise man” in the Old Covenant)

5.     Leading the people out in mission and community service

6.     Oversight of the flock and governance.

The greatest threat to fulfilling our vocational tasks is our management responsibilities in our urbanized parishes. I am not saying that management work is not needed in priestly leadership; however, they should not stand in the way of our primary tasks. This is clear in the early account of the early church where the apostles found themselves diverted from their vocational calling because they were personally managing the task of food distribution to the needy. They learnt to delegate this task to others in order that they may give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Sadly, priests today may be delegating away their primary vocational tasks, while focusing on secondary ones. We are farming out the task of pulpit preaching to frequently-invited guest speakers, and the task of intercession to church intercessors. We are called to “prayer and the ministry of the Word”. We are called to “attend to God” in prayer and the study of His Word, and then to minister to people out of the strength of His presence. Are we attending to the needs of men (emails and mobiles) but ignoring our Lord (eg. Prayers and devotions)?

Young adults at Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church

Trends in the Singapore church

The senior pastor Eric Chua invited me to speak with his young adults at Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church, on the topic, Trends in the Singapore Church, and I politely refused as I had no hard data on the subject.”All I have are years of observing the church, collecting anecdotes among pastors, reading articles about the church online, and some study on the church. No conclusive, hard facts based on sociological studies or any such thing, is that okay?”  So that was how I gave this talk of 30 minutes, with 20 minutes for questions and answers. The recent articles on the Glitz and the Gospel in the Straits Times and my background work formed the backbone of what I shared with them.

1. Megachurches are growing bigger and small churches are growing more numerous.

2. Megachurches owe their growth mostly through members of other churches switching over.

3. Consumerism is a pervasive influence on the Church’s culture.

4. There is an increasing corporatisation of the church.

Negative about the megachurches

There may not be any questions, I was told. But as it turned out the topic about 4 trends I have observed in the Church seemed interesting enough for intelligent, interesting questions to be asked. “You seem to have painted a negative picture of the megachurch?” , someone asked. Never was it my intention in my preparation to do so, but it came out that way. My reply was, “The megachurches do have a role to play in the overall scheme and they are reaching people the small church cannot reach as effectively.” And I continued, “Of course, losing 5 families to megachurches in the last few years, may have colored what I think and feel about megachurches.”

talking to the leaders

Four trends of Singapore church

they discussed before asking questions

Reasons why members leave or stay in a church

sheep migrationThe topic was important. Sheep-stealing is a derogatory term, especially when thrown at you. You turn defensive and reply, “The hole in your fence is too big. Can I help it if the grass over here in my pastures is crunchy, smells better and is more nutritious?”  That adds salt to the wound, and a fight is about to break out in the body of Christ.

Well many of the pastors who gathered at the discussion of membership loss and gain found that they had similar reasons for why members left their church. About eighty pastors discussed in twos and then in tens. These are some of the main reasons that were listed, but not in order of importance:

1. Unresolved conflicts and disagreements with other members or leaders.
2. General dissatisfaction and frustration with their, their children’s or church’s progress.
3. Location and convenience.
4. Members from other churches enthusiastically inviting them to their churches.
5. Attractive and better children’s and youth programs of bigger churches.

And what about the main reasons why people choose a particular church to start attending?
1. The pastor and his strengths, usually the preaching.
2. To a megachurch in order to have minimum involvement, no questions and commitment asked, and to remain anonymous while recovering from hurts or burn-out.
3. To a small church to know and be known, love and be loved, and to find an avenue of service.
4. They were persuasively invited by a friend.
5. Great music or other programs that meet the family’s needs.

A sketch of west Malaysian churches

map of west malaysiaA pleasant surprise awaited me in the dimly-lit basement car park of Trinity Theological College. Rev Benedict Muthusamy, my classmate, a Presbyterian moderator and the pastor of a church in Kulai, had come for some business.  We had some coffee in the canteen and our conversation turned interesting as he gave me his personal sketch of the west Malaysian churches.

Big cities

There are many churches in Kuala Lumpur and the biggest ones in the country are there too. Penang is not far behind. English congregations thrive there as they have a ready pool of English educated people. Here are the resources, the networks, the seminars and conferences . There is no lack. The Bahasa congregations are also doing well what with job seekers, used to worship in Bahasa, coming from Sabah and Sarawak.

Small towns

The Chinese speaking congregations are stronger in the smaller towns like Muar, Kluang, Sitiawan, Gua Musang, Kota Baru, Kuala Trengannu and others. They often have an offshoot English congregation but these are getting weaker with the brain drain to the capital city and the little red dot. The Indian churches: they suffer from feeling inferior and small, and are usually financially in the shadows. However, the bright spot for small town churches is that the fellowship among pastors in these places are strong and that is great.

Well this is just one pastor’s off the cuff opinion of the general church scene. If you can help fill out the skeleton, do make a comment.

John Maxwell: what I would have done differently as a pastor

John MaxwellJohn Maxwell is well known in the church world and in the secular organizations. He is a trainer and motivator of leaders. As an author he has sold 13 million books. His training organizations have trained more than 5 million people. He left Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego to concentrate on training leaders. He has enough distance from his pastoral ministry to offer insights that would help younger, and even experienced pastors. Here is his reflection on what he would do differently if he had a chance to, fifteen years after he has left the pastorate. This extract comes from an interview done by Michael Duduit and was published in the Preaching magazine (Jul-Aug 2010).

Question: You have been at this for a long time- you have been preaching since you were a young man and you continue to preach. What are some things you have learned about preaching, things you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

John Maxwell: Well, something interesting has happened. I resigned Skyline in San Diego, Calif.- this just shocks me – 15 years ago. when I left the local church after pastoring it for 25 years and loving it so dearly, I felt pretty satisfied, successful. I felt that my churches grew, that a lot of people came to faith in Christ. I felt I had the respect of the Christian community as far as being a “successful pastor.”

Now that I’ve gotten away from it 15 years, I get more disillusioned with my work every year. I told Margaret, “I’m not sure I can live long enough here in this process. I just feel like I didn’t do a good job.” I wish now that I had done this differently.

Just like I was talking about – I would talk to my people about how to share their faith. I didn’t teach them how to get respect in their business world. I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t do nearly enough social stuff that really would get into their world – help people with hunger, clothing needs or whatever. I didn’t do that enough. Now I look back and think, “I could’ve done so much better in my teaching and communicating.” I just came from my perspective all the time. I never would do that again.

If I was developing messages on a weekly basis, I would find un-churched people – hopefully uninterested people – and I would ask them to meet with me on a monthly basis. I’d bounce ideas off of them and see if I ever sparked their interest, see if I ever connected with them in any way. I would put a lot more of that teaching into my messages. One of the things I love now is that I don’t have to develop a message weekly, so I have more time to let it work in me.

When I was younger, I wanted to do a great work for God, which I over-emphasized and under-emphasized God doing a great work in me. I see it now, my shallowness. I get disappointed. I thought, “Wow, If I had been more interested in God doing a great work in me, my messages would’ve been more transforming. They maybe would not have been applauded as greatly, because they maybe wouldn’t have been as well honed, but they sure would have been from the heart. They would’ve been out of brokenness and out of a journey I was taking.” I wish I had known that when I had that opportunity.

Again, I look back and am very surprised at how disappointed I am in where I was. The only comfort I get out of it is that I know I did my best. I didn’t lack integrity in trying to give my best effort; I just lacked direction and wisdom about things that I could’ve done  a lot better.”