The Church Owns Your Pastor

April 15, 2011

I’ve complained before about pastors that seem to think they “own” their churches.

But I’ve noticed the opposite among many churches too.  They own their pastors.

Chances are if you aren’t a pastor, you don’t feel that your place of work owns you.  Many of you probably don’t even like to be identified by what you do.  It’s a job; it pays the bills.

But not so with pastors.  It’s not just a job.  It’s an identity. No wonder we have so many pastors burning out.

Today’s post goes out to all those indentured pastors, but really, no matter what your job is, this post is for you.  Today, you will stop being owned by your job (or lack thereof.)

That Pastor Is Totally Church-Whipped

You had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get a job.  You had to submit resumes, have interviews, get training.  But if you’re a pastor, you have to have another huge qualification, a “calling.” Most men already have a hard time identifying themselves outside of what they do for a living.  But then, we have to add all this lofty language about divine callings.

And by the time many guys have gone through seminary, ordination and have landed a church, many of them have made the very first mistake.  They start to believe their “calling” comes from a church, and not God.  God provides your calling.  Your church provides your job.  You know how guys are looked down on for being “whipped” by their ladies, right?  Consider this becoming “church-whipped.”

Forget who you answer to, and check off step one to being owned by your church.

Reality Check: You Don’t Have a Ministry

There’s a lot of obvious ways that pastors become owned by their churches.  Maybe they start neglecting their families or their free time so they can spend more tending to the often trivial needs of the church.

But there are more subtle signs that a pastor is owned by his church.  I can see it on all the pastors’ Twitter profiles that feature a link to their church’s website, rather than a site of their own.  Or the pastors whose blogs do not have their own domain, but are on the church’s domain.  Sounds small, but you don’t really see that with other professions.  I have never seen a chemical engineer link to his factory’s website on his Twitter account.  But everything the pastor does, says and is becomes tied up in the church.

Those pastors don’t realize it, but they don’t have a ministry.  They are completely sold out to the church’s ministry. And there’s a big difference.  Because when that pastor burns out on his job, or is fired, or moves on, or the church crashes, suddenly he doesn’t have a ministry.  Chad Holtz was fired because his church believed they owned his blog and they didn’t appreciate him speaking his mind.  My last church split because my Dad (the pastor) built a ministry to Sudan that didn’t fit into the denomination’s ministry.  If they couldn’t own it, they didn’t want it to happen.

Do you think Saddleback Church owns A Purpose Driven Life? Does Rick Warren even name Saddleback Church on his Twitter bio?  Nope.

Confuse your ministry with your church’s ministry, and you’re well on your way to being owned by your church.


Two years ago, I wrote a pretty crap-tacular post that I won’t link to, but it had this little gem that I still like…

“A lot of pastors think of their churches as a measure of their manhood (or man-of-God-hood.) And what do guys like to do with their manhood?  Compare it to another guy’s manhood and see if it’s bigger.  Bigger church = bigger man.  There was more than one day that seminary felt distinctively like a sweaty locker room with guys giving each other quick sideways glances.  Everyone knows you have to make it look like you weren’t actually looking…”

It’s unhealthy for all of us to identify ourselves too much by our jobs.  Because the economy is stupid, and people get fired, and the suicide rate skyrockets because unemployed people feel they have no purpose.

Pastors, you need to do the same.  Stop identifying yourself so much by your church.  Your job is not your identity.  You are your own man (or woman).  You have your own calling and your own ministry…or you should.  Maybe John Wesley was on to something when he trained all of his pastors to be like nomads.  No one ever became the property of a church.

That goes for the rest of you too.  You know that you have an identity and purpose and calling outside of how you pay the bills.  So tell us how you identify yourself.  Is it by your job, your family, something else?  Have you struggled with identity outside of your job?

33 responses to The Church Owns Your Pastor

  1. Good morning Matt,

    God loves me better than He loves those other guys; He did not call me to become a preacher!

    Or maybe He does love them better; after all, “Whom the Lord, loveth, He chasteneth”.

    For a time one of my sons went through something his church called a “Discernment Process” to determine whether or not he should become a professional Christian. Thank God he was not “called”. I prayed he would be spared. I felt that a church ministry would destroy his soul–I’ve seen it happen.

    I was so happy when he decided to not go into the professional ministry; instead, he volunteers regularly without pay at a local rescue mission while working at a bank for his livelihood.

    Me? I, being a layman, just get to be a common, ordinary, garden variety Christian and enjoy the Lord. Maybe God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb…

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed that we layman have a tougher time explaining our actions and attitudes to the world; whereas professional Christians have a ready-made excuse to hide behind. We have to think through a real reason for our beliefs and practices.

    P.S.: I’ve noticed over the years, that when a pastor talks to me about “ministry”, that word means he wants me to do for free something he is getting paid to do.


    • Morning, John. Yes, pastors have a word for it when they talk to you about doing something for free that they get paid to do. It’s called “empowering.” :) To be fair, what he’s asking you to do may not actually be in his job description. I think the best way to head off a pastor pestering you to do something you don’t like is to come up with a way to minister that you do like.

    • Hi, interesting language being used.. ‘professional Christian’… we have become used to this dualism in church unfortunately. Within Nazarene circles, I think we need to lose this thinking.. we also have to get rid of the notion that because a Pastor is paid, then he must do….

      There seems to be the line of thought that something for free – volunteered, is of less value than paid ‘professional Ministry’. Sorry, all very wrong headed. I quote “I was so happy when he decided to not go into the professional ministry; instead, he volunteers regularly without pay at a local rescue mission while working at a bank for his livelihood.” I would suggest that he is more Christlike with a much better motivation…. there are too many in ‘professional Ministry’ as a means to a career… also very wrong.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for the wake-up call on this one. I’m not a pastor, but even life as a youth worker has started to swallow up my work-life balance, and it’s disconcerting how quickly all the junk you mentioned slips in even there.

    So much of it is remembering to breathe. Too often it feels like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and everyone needs you. It’s a seductive feeling, that, especially if you’re a guy. Who doesn’t like being indispensible?

    I’ve been actively, intentionally pursuing interests for myself. Reading great books, watching shows that stretch my mind and learning how to cook like a badass. That, and taking a break from writing a blog. It’s good. Reminds you that the world still exists out there!

  3. I identify myself as the protector of my family. Sounds dumb but I really feel like a hero when I know that my family is fed, warm, and the doors are locked.

    But you’re right. The pastor at my church literally lives at the church. He’s there all the time. And I’m grateful for his dedication but you can tell he’s tired and feels like Atlas at times. And sometimes this leads to missing relationships and carrying out his job very mechanically.
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  4. Matt, you don’t talk about how you, as a pastor, deal with these issues. Hmmm?

    It’s not just pastors–the whole church-parachurch ministry-mission world seems to work this way.

    I disagree about the blog hosting. For many in ministry, writing a blog is part of their job description, so of course it’s hosted on the ministry website. My blogs are hosted by our ministry just because it’s cheap and convenient.

    I was between careers for 5+ years, and it was hard not to feel worthless and depressed. It wasn’t that I needed to define myself as a teacher or mom or photographer, but that it seemed that God didn’t want to use me at all.

    I finally learned that God loves me, not for what I do, but because He made me in the first place.

    • I know, it’s not just pastors. That’s why I hoped that everyone would get something out of this post.

      I guess my larger point about blogging is that many pastors pursue no interests for themselves. In everything they do, their interests are deferential to the church’s. To me, if a pastor is blogging for his church, it’s his writing and he ought to have it on his own site (or both his site and the church’s). Because when he leaves that church, all that writing is out of his hands.

      As for me, I pursue interests on my own time. I blog on my own time. And I’m bi-vocational on my own time. :)

      You mentioned the feeling of worthlessness while between careers. I think what I’ve learned while desperately searching for new employment is that I can’t make my job my identity. My identity is in Christ, it’s who I am. My job is what I do.

  5. Well, Matt. I am happy to report that after many years of church, I have finally decided to follow Jesus, and only Jesus. My longing is to hear from God and do it. There is nothing else, no titles, no positions, no jobs – just Jesus.

    I need to hear him in my family, in my work life, around town and at church. This where I have come to a place of peace with my spiritual gifts. I pray for my friends and family – even strangers. I write, I teach, I pray for the sick, I cast out demons if they show up, and I share the word of the Lord as I receive it. It doesn’t matter where I am; my church has no walls.

    I have a local church where I am released to do ministry, and I am under the authority of leadership. We don’t make a big deal out of it, we don’t have membership, but the pastoral staff works to make sure that the sheep are safe. It gets a little messy once in a while, but we are moving forward, and Jesus is do some amazing stuff there. Every week there is some sort of healing, and people are encouraged. I am just one of the dots on the map; I am myself warts and all.

    Great blog, good message!
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  6. Thank you for the reminder
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  7. I don’t have a Ministry….. its God’s Ministry

  8. Thanks for this post. I had to go back and look at my Facebook and twitter accounts to see how I identify myself and I noticed the first I identified myself as is a minister. Not a husband or follower of Jesus, so even in that little area I noticed it was a little out of whack.
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  9. Excellent post. I’m obviously not a pastor, but I do see what you mean. I once identified myself as a teacher, and then my position was cut. My mom was ill at the same time, so instead of looking for another teaching position, I decided to take care of her, and identified myself as her caretaker. Then she died. Teaching jobs are few. I do feel a sense of purposelessness that I try to stave off by helping in minor ways daily. How do I identify myself now? I’m not always sure, but I’m starting to wonder if not defining myself is really such a bad thing.
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  10. Man-of-godhood! Crackin me up! I love the post and the encouragement to pursue interests independent of the church. I have my own blog and recently planted a church. I have a link to my blog on my church website, but I don’t write “for” the church as much I write for myself and want the people I shepherd to know what’s in my heart.
    Still, there’s a lot I’ve held back on for the sake of not pissing anyone off TOO much. Still wrestling with that responsibility to who I am and to the people I lead.

    Thanks again,

  11. Well, you made me go look at my twitter page, because I couldn’t remember what I had written. I do list my church, but I think my bio sums up how I view myself: husband, dad, pastor. Those are my callings, and those are the orders. I am completely inflexible when it comes to having time with Sarah and Jakob. If I’m here late, which doesn’t happen too often, you can guarantee that I will show up late the next day. I’ve even been accused by some in the church about making too big of a deal about protecting my family time. Both times, I just thanked the person for noticing that I love my family.
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  12. the thoughts… of watching out what can start to “own” me and my heart, and
    those things that i can begin to hold onto that are not God… is wonderful to hear (read)
    you speak about.

    these things are like layers of dead hard shell layers that surround our heart and hinders
    our open hearted relationship with our God. we get to a place where it is hard
    to hear Him and feel His presence. we become lost and can take others with us.

    we must remember to peel back the world’s layers to a child’s fine heart before our God…

    and then we know who we are and it is good.

    • It’s interesting to realize that nothing in this world, not even the church is meant to own you. We belong to God alone.

      • it is a good understanding to have. and better for us all for it to work that way.
        this understanding has just become clearer to me in the last couple of days.
        and with the help of the Love and patience in a brother on-line.
        as well as other comments left on one of my posts.
        i am thankful. i want to remember who i belong to and hope and pray for that
        message to be more real to many in understanding.

        perhaps many hearts are being prepared for this understanding.

  13. Today there is so much value put on finding your identity. But when you put your identity in something you do or did you usually end up broken-hearted and wondering who the hell you really are. I learned after years of trying to succeed in many areas to create an identity and a sense of self-worth to stop looking for who I am. This finding yourself thing that is prevalent today is lame.

    I am a follower of Jesus Christ. My identity is in Him. And I’ve never been let down by that identification. And being a child of God overflows my self-worth barrel.
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  14. A sense of identity is one of the greatest lacks in the American church in my opinion. First and foremost we are children of God, and our identity needs to be rooted there more then anywhere else. When we accept our position in the place of heirs to the kingdom of God we really live different lifestyles. I could literally write 1000 words about this right now, but I will spare you and maybe just post about it next week.

    Thanks for this Matt. I really appreciate you writing. You are not afraid to speak some truth (and be pretty funny doing it).
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    • I think you’ve hit on one of the biggest problems that churches have. They come to “own” the pastor because often times he/she has an identity and the church itself doesn’t. So the church takes their’s over. This puts the pastor in double trouble because they are committed to their own vision, which is taken over by their church which they are also committed to.

      Often times churches will say that they have an identity, which is to make disciples, or be like Jesus, or save the world, but that’s all the farther it gets. They feel good about having something, but they never actually think about it. I think one of the primary jobs of a pastor should be to make sure that the church has their own identity.

  15. I think a huge problem is that many people think they are called when they are not (as you touched on). I have found a great tell for whether or not one is called to be a preacher is to get a formal education. I used to disagree with this, until I read someone’s textbook. Now I am getting a formal education, and I am finding it more true all the time:

    Study hermeneutics, theology, and Church history. If you find yourself getting angry/frustrated/confused/burned out quickly then you are not called to be a preacher.

    While I know it is not quite universal, if you cannot handle studying the Bible or get more frustrated than inspired or compassionate while looking at our history then leading a church is not for you!

    Another test is leadership. I know a man who loved studying the Bible and history, but he did not utilize all he learned. He could lead a military unit effectively, but that systematic leadership mixed with the Bible can work only if you do not get rid of vital information. He ran the church more like a business than a congregation. He was let go six weeks ago.

    If you cannot handle either studying the Bible or effectively teaching/preaching it or leading others in the Christian life, you should not pastor a church! If you are more worried about numbers than accuracy or actual salvation, then you should not pastor a church.
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    • I forgot to include:

      If you get this stuff figured out, it becomes easier to not be owned by a church. You realize you belong to God, and it is easier to follow Him when you are not bogged down with making sure the church is happy. It is not about happiness, it is about God’s will. (Though happy is nice, too)
      Daniel M. Klem recently posted..The Gospel of Nothing

  16. i think, for me at least, that the temptation is to forget who i am [a child of God] and let my identity be warped into the combination of titles that come from what i do [ministry leadership, discipleship group leader, child care worker, psychology leader, etc]. and it’s when those ‘titles’ become an identity in my mind, whether i am consciously aware of it or not, that i am more likely to lose a real grasp of my value in Christ – without the addition of whatever institutions i participate in.
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  17. i wanted to add that opening our heart to God leaves us open to understand one another as well, and understanding leads to compassion and hope.

  18. I was proud to identify myself as a Christian teacher in a secular school because I had such a rich social life outside of work. Now that my friends are all married with children and I’m still single my social life has reduced as I have gotten older; let alone the job I do has eaten away my energy, health and motivation, I am a bit lost and am finding or searching for at least, what my identity is. It is a journey I am on at the moment.

  19. I have a real problem with this kind of thing. Although I am not a pastor I do have this thing in my head where what I do isn’t worth anything unless loads of people are into it. Which is so stupid because something causes me to sit up and feel inspired so I work at it. Maybe it is writing, maybe it is a cause. Whatever. It is intrinsic. And then somehow it becomes extrinsic. So quickly. Before I even notice.

    Something to really think about
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  20. Thank you for the reminder. Right now I’m on a Pastoral Search Committee for my church and I think I should share this with the rest. It will help us keep perspective and a listening ear.

  21. Um, yes. My husband and I left the ministry a couple of years ago because we were tired of feeling as if we were owned by the church. It can be draining in a way that is difficult to understand unless you’ve been there. I know there’s a place for us, but I pray it’s not in pastoring. I don’t know that my heart could take anymore. Great post :)

  22. I had to go back and look at my Facebook and twitter accounts to see how I identify myself and I noticed the first I identified myself as is a minister. I have a link to my blog on my church website, but I don’t write “for” the church as much I write for myself and want the people I shepherd to know what’s in my heart. We don’t make a big deal out of it, we don’t have membership, but the pastoral staff works to make sure that the sheep are safe.

  23. Funny Proffessional and Lay Christians..very reminicent of the Levite Priesthood….very OT and Law…that was abolished and those under the Law are under the curse of the Law. No wonder so many burn outs and criminalk activities in Churchianity.
    Guess what, these distintions are made and descend from that old beast called Rome..all this ordination stuff came from that curse.
    YOU ARE ALL OF A ROYAL PRIESTHOOD..where you are who you are is The Temple of Christ with Christ within you. YOU ARE THE CHURCH. This beast that masquerades as light is a deception which is why Jesus says GET OUT. Sorry if your a Pastor or supporter of the system you are part and a parcel of the system and LIGHT has no felowship with choose are you light or dark??