Who Owns Your Church?

May 18, 2011

None of you probably think you own your church.

My dad has been a pastor for most of my life.  When I was a teenager, my dad planted the second church of his career.  I also put in a lot of effort over the years to make things happen.  I was easily among the top two hardest working laypeople in the church.

When I was in college, I started working as a youth pastor, and I decided I should go to seminary.  Now I’m a pastor, with a real big-boy college degree!  Now, my dad and I cooperate as pastors, though his ministry and my ministry are on very divergent paths.  I never minded being a pastor’s kid, and I still don’t mind having my old man around at church.  He taught me what it means to be a pastor.

But I will tell you the one thing I have absolutely detested about being a layperson, and a pastor working with another pastor.  A few weeks ago, I posted about the church owning your pastor.  But maybe the opposite is true at your church…

“How are things at Pastor So-And-So’s Church?”

If I had a nickel every time someone asked me this…I’d have a lot of nickels to throw at people.  Since I was a teenager, dozens of friends, relatives and other people asked me, “How are things at your dad’s church?” Seems innocent enough.  But they’d always pose the question the same way.  They’d never refer to the church by its name.  And they’d never just say, “How are things at your church?” It was always “Dad’s” church.  Silly as it may sound, that one question, repeated hundreds of times, became one of the biggest thorns in my side.

That subtlety never let up when I became a youth pastor.  And even though I get the question a lot less now, I still got asked recently if I’m still “helping out” at my Dad’s church.  As I gritted my teeth and firmly resolved to not punch this old lady in the face, all I could think was, “I’m practically running the whole damn thing!  When does it become my church?”

Just to be clear, my dad has done nothing to cultivate this idea.  He’s a generous, humble, compassionate pastor.  He’d never claim he “owns” the church.  So why did everyone else assume that was the case?

Who Owns Your Church?

I guess it’s just ingrained in us.  This is America, and everything has to have an owner. And in an age of rockstar pastors, it’s easier to say “Rick Warren’s church,” or “Joel Osteen’s church,” rather than “Saddleback” or “Lakewood.”

Even though neither I nor my dad have that kind of name recognition, the attitude that one of us “owns” the church seems to trickle down even to our humble church, and probably yours too.  I think everyone who asked me about “Dad’s” church probably felt the same about their pastors.  Their pastors own their churches.

You may have never been a pastor’s kid.  But maybe your pastor is somewhat well known.  Maybe you told someone where you go to church, and they said, “Oh that’s Pastor Handsome-Face’s church, isn’t it?” Has anyone ever answered, “No, it’s my church.”

Even if you’ve never been asked that question, the thought is probably still there, somewhere deep down.  Because no matter how many chairs you set up, floors you sweep, Sunday school classes you teach, or toilets you scrub in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, your church will never put your name on the sign.  The sign is where the pastor’s name goes.  It’s just one thing that reinforces, “This is the Pastor’s church.”

Over-Achievers Club

So what’s the big deal that we unconsciously think of our pastors as the “owners” of the church?

It’s just not healthy, for you, your church, or your pastor.  Your church never becomes your church!  If you don’t “own” your church, then its purpose is distorted.  It’s not about lives being transformed, or becoming the body of Christ.  It’s just a stage for one really religious over-achiever.

Does the principal at your children’s school own the school?  No.  You say, “This is my children’s school,” not, “This is Principal What’s-Her-Face’s school.” But the principal makes all the decisions, and is far more mature, educated and “important” than any single student.  So why don’t we think of principals and schools the way we think of pastors and churches?

I know I’m griping over a little thing.  But your church doesn’t belong to your pastor.  It belongs to you!  And you have just as important a job to do as your pastor does, because we’re all just stewards of the whole dang thing.

What do you think?  Do we assume, even subconsciously that the church “belongs” to the pastor?  Does your pastor actually own your church?  How can church leadership help you feel ownership over the church?

44 responses to Who Owns Your Church?

  1. I’m also a pastor’s kid and so I’ve heard this phrase many, many times. I never thought of it as implying ownership before, and I’m not sure I agree that’s how people mean it. People often refer to Tom Brady’s Patriots and Peyton Manning’s Colts, Roger Staubach’s Cowboys versus Troy Aikman’s Cowboys. The Pastor is the one standout person in the church, the face of a particular church. In fact, I think it might be a good idea if the pastor DID own the church; then he could feel free to preach what he likes without fear of being kicked out.
    James Poteet II recently posted..Democratic Armies Dont Work

  2. From personal experience it’s usually the person who throws the most money at the church.
    Mike recently posted..My Tweets Spoken By Will Ferrell

  3. It may be a small thing, Matt. It may be that this is simply the language we use when talking about our different faith communities. James has a point there, that the pastor is merely the most visible member of the church. It should come as no surprise when the two are associated.

    But I suspect that it is more than that. I go to Rob’s church. yes, that Rob. I recall something he said long long ago in talking about church. He asked us who told us it was our job to just sit in the grey chairs for an hour each Sunday? Who told us that is what we do? Who told us that church was just that?

    Refering to a church as being “owned” by the pastor frees us from the responsibility of actively engaging in the community. When we talk like that, we send the message that church is merely something we do, not who we are. It’s not my church, it’s the pastor’s church. I just go there.

    I think the school metaphor fits perfectly. My son may be in Miss Sophia’s class, but he does not attend Principal Westervelt’s school. He attends his school.

    • See, you don’t even have to tell me which Rob you are talking about! (Which I’m sure you knew.) We make such a strong association between Rob and Mars Hill, that we subconsciously think of him as the owner. What would Mars Hill be without him?

  4. Having worked in many churches over the years, I think most people use the phrase to identify where a certain person is working. However you bring up a great point. We are the Church, even in the Catholic Church people feel this way. The hierarchy are those responsible for running things but we are the body of Christ, all believing Christians. Still, this “who owns the church” might be the tiniest mountain from an even more tiny molehill? hehehe

    Great post as always, my friend.

  5. One PK to another, I hope you got that out of your craw. The individual congregation is a group of God’s people, and a part of the Body of Christ. Who owns the building is unimportant, but God owns the church!
    vanilla recently posted..A Tale of Two Cities

    • I always felt that God was sending people to ask me that question in order to keep me in my place, and not let me get too big for my britches. :) It’s not that I want people to think of me as the owner. I’ll never put my name on a church sign. I think people have a healthier relationship with church when they make that subtle shift in their thinking.

    • Good discussion! In reply to vanilla – AMEN!! – “The individual congregation is a group of God’s people, and a part of the Body of Christ. Who owns the building is unimportant, but God owns the church!” It’s when we take human ownership of the church – the church of Jesus Christ suffers. I believe that’s why “the church” hasn’t changed for 2,000 years. We humans can’t “get outside of ourselves.”

  6. Interesting chain of thoughts, Matt. I come from a little different perspective, though I am familiar with both scenarios. I might even be a little bit regional, like soda and pop.

    I think that the church belongs to Jesus. I also think that you and me, “we are the church!” One of the problems with churches is that they are pastor controlled. Sure, it’s hard to have a huge leadership team in a small church, but the blueprint is being connected to a diversity of leadership and equipping gifts that are “sent” to the church. (Ephesians 4) There should be a diversity of gifts (1 Cor 12), they should be used with love (1 Cor 13), and everyone should participate as the Spirit leads. (1 Cor 14)

    Though we might not agree on the details for th basis of local church, I am so with you on the theme of lay significance/participation/ownership in the local body. I think the best churches are the ones where leadership of any kind, teaches and releases those they shepherd. Instead of the superstar role, they become the biggest cheerleaders of those in their midst.

    I have been working with my church to bring about that shift (I am not a leader, and don’t have a position which has ticked off a few people). People who need, want or desire titles and positions are having a hard time with training someone to do their job (which promotes commitment and ownership). They fear those they mentor may become better at it, or they will lose control of the ministry. In fact all of Faith’ ministries are now co-led, none having less than 2 in charge. The fruit? One of the elders has started a ministry to teach teachers. (He’s a Phd) His first classes are starting in a few weeks and he is open to dropping out of eldership to do this exclusively. And he is already praying for a co-leader!

    It is awesome when leaders like you encourage the spectators to take ownership and participate in Jesus’ church!
    David recently posted..How Well do You Fit In at Church – Remix

  7. I only refer to a church that way if the pastor is the only person I know there. Generally I refer to it by its name.
    David N. recently posted..What we owe our kids when we talk about the Bible- part 2

  8. Matt,

    I’m pretty sure you do own one church. The CoNP!!!

  9. I don’t think that I ever thought of my church being our pastor’s church…I always saw is at the tithe and offering givers and the people that have ministries there like sunday school teachers, the band, and heck the members too…

    but on the other hand…HE (the pastor) was called to found it. If you are the founder of the church…does that make it yours?…Do you “own” it as you would say….

    but then again…the builder who founded my house is not theirs cause i bought it and I pay the morgage on it and it’s not even mine till I pay the freaking bank…so yeah…that’s a tough one Matt…
    Arny recently posted..Top 5 Tuesday- What is your Top 5 Bands of all Time

  10. Bank of America owns ours…

    Charlie Chang recently posted..Broken Bones Movie

  11. As has been pointed out, the One who bought and paid for the Church is Jesus Christ!

    I tend to say “So-and-so’s church” when I cannot remember the name of the church. I often say “Joel Osteen’s churc” when I cannot remember “Lakewood”. I will say “Buck’s church” for a local pastor, because I can never remember what the name is. When I say “I attend FHL” and people respond “Oh! Raul’s church!” I respond “He is the pastor, yes.”
    Daniel M. Klem recently posted..What Religion Do You Follow

  12. The only time I ever thought a church was a “pastor’s church” was the time a pastor I knew dismissed all his elders and became a one-man elder board. (Why anyone stayed there, I have no idea.)

    Every time I’ve used that phrase it’s been in the context of essentially asking how his job is going. I’ve asked more than one person “how’s your dad’s job going?” For someone who’s dad is a pastor, “How’s your dad’s church?” is in that vein. I may be the exception to the rule but that’s how I’ve used it.
    Jason recently posted..Day 137- The struggle- the passion- the prayer

  13. Hmmm, interesting! Here in the boondocks of Wyoming, the churches are too small and the people are too transient, including pastors. So the identifiers are the denomination.
    “Which church do you go to?” To which you reply (insert denomination here) on such and such street.
    When I lived in civilization, (Twin Cities) I did know of a friend’s church that folded when the pastor left. They were so dependent on him, they just couldn’t exsist without him. Freaky!

  14. Our church never would have survived the massive disruption caused by our previous pastor’s indiscretion, had we all thought of it as his church. And since the congregation mostly predates the current pastor, we don’t think of the church as his either. We call it by name, and it is God’s church, purchased by Jesus’ blood.

    God builds the church… and doesn’t He live in it? He’s already paid for it in full! 😎

  15. Oh snap! You totally name-dropped my blog at the end!

    Yeah, I have had similar thoughts about this. I am pretty sure that pastors nowadays are different than they were back in the early church. Weren’t they just one of several very important leadership positions? There were teachers and apostles and such.

    Why do we make the pastor into the ministry version of a Swiss army knife?

  16. One of the things I’ve noticed is even though I’ve never heard any members call Saddleback Rick’s Church. We just call it Saddleback. However, when I went to college people called it Rick Warren’s church. Perhaps it is a familiarity thing.

    • Yeah, I think it’s a matter of convenience. Rick Warren probably has even more name recognition than Saddleback. So the subtlety creeps in there, even unintended, and apart of anything Rick Warren has done to shape the culture of his church. I have no doubt that he is a humble, compassionate leader too.

  17. Our church has 3 main pastors and many other “teaching elders” I guess, so I don’t think we’re in danger of thinking of our church as being “owned” by one person.

    I’ve caught myself doing exactly what you said though. One of my co-workers goes to Menlo Park Pres and I said “Oh, is that John Ortberg’s Church?” She quickly reminded me that the church was there a long time before he showed up.

    However, I’m of the opinion that my church is owned by comfortable, crankly old white people who blow a gasket every time they see an electric guitar on stage. Thankfully, the worship band believes they “own” the stage during that time, so they use one anyway :)

    Either that or my church is owned by the secretary, who is great so I guess I wouldn’t mind that.

  18. Sometimes I do forget the name of a Church. When I ask my friend how things are at her Church, I refer to it as her Church. No, she is not the pastor. She is a member. But if someone wanted me to understand where they went to Church and they belonged to Salem Baptist Church, they’d be better off telling me they went to Reverend Meeks’s Church. I suppose they could refer to it as “the Church of which Reverend Meeks is pastor”, but it would mean the same thing to me. On the other hand, they wouldn’t have to repeatedly refer to it as Reverend Meeks’s Church. They could just say their Church or Salem Baptist.
    My point is that while I understand that the wording could infer that one does not feel responsibility toward their Church, it really could just be a way of helping people picture where they go, or in your case, inquire not only how things were going at your Church, but how it was going for your dad.
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  19. James McLaren (Jersey, Channel Islands) May 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Over on this side of the Atlantic, this is not a problem that is unknown. But I have to say that the only churches I’ve heard referred to as “pastor X’s church” were house churches, and most of them formed when Pastor X walked away (or was encouraged to walk away) from a mainline denomination. In that sense it is – at least to start with – a case of “pastor X’s church”.

  20. Nice post, Matt. Could you please pull back on the language a little bit? For the weaker brother?

    • Got to admit, I haven’t been reading long and was shocked by that. Matt, could you maybe explain where you’re coming from on the language issue? I’m opened minded and if you’ve got an answer I’ll listen.

      • James and Will, sorry to shock you. I did not expect that. It was unintentional and not intended to be gratuitous. I was only being honest about the language that went through my head. If that one word is that troublesome to you, then I guess it’s an illustration of how much coarser my mind is than yours when I’m mad or insulted.

        Just because I’m curious, Will, why do you consider yourself a “weaker brother?”

        And James, what do you mean by the word “shocked?” Were you shocked that I in particular used a word, or shocked because the word is genuinely shocking to you?

        • Shocked because you, a fellow preacher’s kid, used it. In other contexts my mental filter would have all but kept me from even noticing it. So you have no problem with it? It’s just normal for you? I think this would surprise not just most christians, but non-christians as well.

          • That’s what I thought you would say. The word I used is barely PG-13, but the context shocked you. Do I use words like that in church or school? Absolutely not. I would have a problem with speaking that way in those contexts. But in the context of my mind in this instance, on this blog, that was the exact phrase that came to my mind, and I felt being honest about it better conveyed my thought process.

            I’m not going to resort to asking you if you’ve really never used any “bad” words before, although I feel the tone of your questions is vague, “So you have no problem with it? It’s just normal for you?” Those questions sound rhetorical, as if you have assumed that by using a word once on my blog, it must be “normal” for me to speak using all sorts of inappropriate language in all contexts, which is not the case.

            I wrote a post a while back about cursing and what I feel is the true meaning of using the Lord’s name in vain. Maybe it will lend further light to my thoughts on language. http://www.thechurchofnopeople.com/2010/07/a-really-great-blg-post/

            Basically, the gist of it is that although we shouldn’t be flippant about language for the sake of social mores, I feel that while we nitpick cursing, we’ve missed the real and much bigger issue of taking God’s name in vain.

            Honestly, and I mean this in no disrespectful way, I don’t think that word shocked most Christians. Out of everyone who read that post, you and Will were the only ones who commented on it. And I just don’t think any non-Christians are going to care one way or another. I’m sorry that one word distracted you from what I was really trying to communicate, because I felt it was worth communicating. I put way more thought into the other 700 words in the post than that single one.

  21. And this speaks straight to the heart one of of the most annoying things I find in modern ministry. No not the language Matt used in his post , but the fact that so many people either associate a ministry with a person, or the ministry is in fact NAMED after that person. For exhibit A, I give you Ed Young/Fellowship Church. While Fellowship may, in fact, provide a needed place for some – really, what’s going to happen when Ed retires?

    Because let’s be frank: odds are, if/when any “name” preacher leaves a particular church, the attendance will take a dip. Because people will have wanted to come and see that person. Because people may now think there is no “hook” to get them into that church. Because it’s the same reason a TV show will be cancelled the season after one of the lead actors leave: the stories don’t change, but we as viewers wanted the routine, safety, and comfort of seeing and hearing who and what we knew as opposed to anyone or anything new.
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  22. Read your awesome post on cursing. Totally agree.

  23. I don’t know about Will, but I’m new to your blog. I think your conclusion that most christians aren’t shocked is skewed. Of course most of your readers weren’t shocked, they regularly read your blog and so they know you cuss.

    It’s not like I find this to be a really big deal. I don’t. I don’t have a scripture that says Thou shalt not engage in whatever your current culture’s curse words are at that moment. Lacking that, I revert to the weaker brother corollary. I’m not going to be put off by it, and it seems your readers aren’t either. The Bible does say, however, that we’ll be called into account for every word we speak. Are you sure God isn’t offended by it? Would you be embarrassed to let one of those words slip in front of Him? If not, then either it’s not a problem or you don’t know God well enough to know what offends Him. Personally, I think God is actually difficult to offend.
    James Poteet II recently posted..Democratic Armies Dont Work

    • I actually don’t cuss on the blog, James. This is the first time in two years I have used that word. But maybe you’re onto something with your conclusion. God has seen the worst of humanity. One little word is a drop in the bucket.

  24. Unfortunately we have this weird understanding that the church is a building. If we thought of the church like a group of people, then it wouldn’t matter who “owned” what because if someone started trippin, they would just meet at someone else’s house or in the park somewhere. It was no big deal in th 1st century because they viewed everything as a family and as such, no one waved “ownership” over them.

  25. My church actually doesn’t even have a pastor. We have a bishop who has similar responsibilities as a pastor, but he’s not the one who does all the teaching. Every week, 3 different people (any random members of the church) give “talks” or preach about a topic in the main service. My Church is the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s as simple as that. It’s officially called “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” because to my understanding, It’s Christ’s church first and foremost and I guess it’s ours too in these latter days (the days before Christ’s second coming). When I tell people the name of my church, instead of saying “it’s so and so paster’s church” they say, “Oh, the Mormon Church.” A nickname dubbed to us because we have a book written by the hand of a man named Mormon. If we’re the “Mormon Church” then I want to see churches called “The Genesis Church”, “The Numbers Church”, “The 1 John Church”, or to sum it all up, “The Bible Church”. And if we’re “Mormons”, I want to see people called “Johns” because they believe in the book of John. Would be humorous, don’t you think?

    I am reminded of something I once read in 3 Nephi. This takes place after Christ’s ascention into heaven unto his father in the Book of John-after the last time the Israelites see Him. (Please note that this is still considered Christ’s first coming.) Jesus tells the Native Americans (whom the book calls Nephites) that they ought not to dispute the name of His church. For if a church is called The Church of Laban (or whoever), then is it not the Church of Laban? How is it then His church? He says to call His church the Church of Christ and trouble Him no more on the matter.

    That sums it up anyway.

  26. I love this discussion. I think that when a pastor becomes more about his own name than that of Jesus, there is a problem. I see, too, the perspective posed by many comments here that it is – for many – just an identifier. Overall, words have power and whether intended or not, understood or not, liked or not, referring to a church as “so-and-so pastor’s church” we DO, in fact, negate the fact that the church belongs to God and to the community who dwells within the walls of the church.