How Pastors Can Paralyze Growth


By: Don Sewell

Pastor Earnest of Calvary Church laid down for a well-earned but rarely taken nap. He set the alarm for only 20 minutes because he carried the usual bulging appointment list for the evening. During the nap, Earnest dreamed he was accused of hindering his church’s growth. He awoke with resentment in his eyes. How could I be accused of limiting our church’s growth? I’m just about to kill myself with work. If the church fails to grow, I’m not to be blamed, he thought.

Brother Earnest reacted with anger and confidently defended himself with his personal energy record. He returned to his Olympic-paced schedule without considering the subtleties of the dream. Earnest failed to pause long enough to see the potential truth embedded in the accusation. Because of his disregard, both Earnest and his church had a blurry future.

We sometimes jump at the chance to read about church-growth tools but decline to read about growth problems. The topic certainly isn’t pretty, but it exists. We all are susceptible to at least some of the reasons for growth paralysis, so “heeding is better than ignoring.”

* Pastor-Initiated Analysis Is Needed

A pastor can be instrumental in the edification – or the destruction – of a local church. Making the issue more complex, a pastor’s actions sometimes are counterproductive. He may provide excellent Bible teaching but fail in pastoral ministry. Or the pastor may spend hours in prayer but ignore long-range church planning. A combination of positive and negative pastoral actions produces a weakened, if not comatose, church.

Any analysis must consider that a pastor (or missionary) may misunderstand church-growth strategy. For example, why do we continually refer to baptism numbers without reminding ourselves of death rates, denominational transfers, and nonresident members? And why do some church leaders continually de-emphasize a proven church-growth tool such as Sunday School?

Our analysis also must admit theological concerns that brood in pastors’ minds. Should each local church grow numerically? How should the church grow? Should the local church have a consuming concern about its own growth, or should it be more attentive to new mission growth?

Whether we wish to admit it, pastors share varying opinions on the meaning of church growth. Some pastors urge their congregations to reserve large portions of money for their own use. Others influence their leaders to apportion sacrificial levels of funds for causes beyond the local church. In both cases, the pastors are revealing their stances on church growth through their actions.

Before continuing, we should remember that pastors cannot halt the work of God; they can paralyze or distort but not stop His will in the world. God continues His good work through many servants who never are called “pastors.” This truth can be accepted as a comfort or a tension, depending on the individual pastor.

* Typical Pastoral Behaviors That Halt Growth

The following self-explanatory names describe some, but not all, of the common foibles that stymie church growth. Remember that pastors sometimes are the last to recognize their own weaknesses. Take a moment to acquaint yourself with the Local Church Hall of Shame inductees. They include:

Reverend Ralph Always-Right. He trusted his own judgment when constructing the new children’s building. Without heeding codes and suggestions, Ralph dictated the sizes of the rooms and their fixtures. The congregation now languishes with a 65 percent efficiency factor in this structure.

Brother Cyril Uncertain. Due to a lack of self-confidence, Cyril floundered for three decades in the ministry. He actually worked in a most admirable manner, considering his self-imposed limitations. Cyril suffered from feelings of inferiority. He allowed various people to mold his opinions, even before seeking God’s guidance.

Pastor Perry Comparer. This good-hearted pastor fell into the trap of comparing his church and ministry with a supposed “rival” pastor on the other side of town. Perry had his congregation compete with the sister church rather than cooperate with it. Each time the sister church developed a new ministry or renovated its facilities, Perry became inspired to do the same. Perry became a mirror instead of a light for his community.

Reverend Harry Hero-Follower. Everyone needs someone to look up to. Harry took the idea one step further. He tried to preach and lead like his megachurch hero in the next state. Harry’s enamored allegiance grew to the point that some church leaders could see the evolution. A deacon finally dared to remark, “We called Harry, but now we have Bart Big Church in our pulpit.”

Reverend William One-Tune. This intense pastor takes a good concept to a suffocating extreme. William endlessly encourages the formation of Bible-study groups and personal devotional times. He spends so much time touting the virtues of Bible study that his congregation is lopsided. They exclude personal evangelism from their schedules. No place remains for community ministry or stewardship training. William’s ministry has lost its balance and effectiveness.

Pastor Larry Laying-Low. Actually, Larry makes all the right moves when he’s before the people. But his problem is just that. Larry is a recluse. He’s rarely seen except for Sundays and Wednesday nights. He delights in his “private study time.” Various church members grumble about Larry “hiding” in the office. Some call him lazy; others think Larry can’t handle small groups and one-on-one relationships. Larry is a mystery. His church needs a leader who sports a daily profile rather than a religious jack-in-the-box.

Brother Terry Talker. From his earliest days, Terry possessed the gift of a beautiful voice and clear self-expression. He depended on this ability to the point of abuse. When other pastors struggled to prepare poignant sermons, Terry developed a cursory outline. After all, he received showers of compliments from all sides about his communication skills. Terry’s oratorical aura eventually faded. Church leaders resented Terry’s leaning so heavily on his eloquence rather than on his Lord.

Reverend Phil Friendly. Phil feared that his preaching, teaching, and church administration lacked staying power. (He was right.) Instead of trying to retrain himself, Phil decided to overcompensate in the area of his known strength – his friendliness. Whenever he could find the chance, Phil showed personable qualities. His people were mesmerized by his kindness and affability. In fact, Phil received widespread acceptance during his 12 years at the church. Curiously, the church failed to grow in numbers and stewardship during those years. No struggles with the pastor were experienced, but neither were there in the field. Phil portrayed the role of buddy and ignored the role of prophet.

Please remember that all these members of the Church Hall of Shame had good intentions and honorable actions. They weren’t necessarily “bad guys,” and they certainly performed notable ministries. Their unaddressed weaknesses led to their downfalls. Regrettably, their names surfaced on the list of anemic church-growth leaders.

The reflective reader may decide this article simply attacks various weaknesses of good ministers in a vindictive or hypercritical way. The purpose of the article goes beyond putting pastors on the griddle. Our charge is to strive to recognize and eliminate all nonproductive actions for the glory of our Lord.

This article isn’t long enough to offer many suggestions for rectifying these unhealthy actions, but awareness of the problem is the first step to renewal. The following counsel “fits well” for dealing with any area of personal concern:

First, begin now to address the weak areas of your ministry. Don’t allow this issue to plague your work any longer.

Take your concerns to a confidant who lovingly will work with you. Resolve to be accountable to God and to this friend as you grow in the upcoming months.

Remember, you can become the change agent to rejuvenate your church. The former paralysis can miraculously transform into a vibrant church. Soaring with the eagles can start today. Don’t pass up the view!


The list of ways a pastor can paralyze church growth is as long as the list of nonresident members in the Southern Baptist Convention. For purposes of conciseness, they naturally cluster under the following general headings. Make yourself a personal checklist to assess your ministry in each category. Dare to be honest with yourself. Even better, ask some insightful people in your congregation to assess your ministry on each point. You may discover a personal weakness you hadn’t noticed in past church experiences.

* Misunderstanding the pastoral role. – Some pastors have to perform the pride-swallowing function of admitting they misunderstand the role of pastor. This new illumination begins with a scriptural study of all references to ministers and Christian leaders.

After careful Bible study, each pastor must ask himself, “Who’s in charge?” We all are tempted to insert our will in place of our Lord’s leadership. Recognizing this improper loyalty is easier to mention than to detect.

After serious personal introspection, the pastor must venture into a reexamination of the role of the laity. With Christ in charge of His church and the pastor in his proper role of undershepherd, where do laypeople fit in? Sadly, some ministers unwittingly disregard lay involvement in planning and promoting ministries. Those ministries obviously fail to understand the talents and joys embodied in the laity.

* Personhood issues. – Even when the pastor has dealt with the organizational concerns of the church, he still may suffer from numerous personhood issues. Admittedly, some pastors operate from a position of personal insecurity. Some carry tons of unresolved emotional baggage. Many Southern Baptist pastors defer from serious scholarship in areas such as ethics, Christian history, or denominational heritage and polity. These issues must be addressed in the lives of all capable pastors.

* “Calling” issues. – Although certainly not a simple area for consideration, a pastor frequently should reaffirm his calling into
vocational ministry. Students leave our seminaries each year with a clearer understanding of God’s purpose for their lives. Even pastors with 30 years’ experience find joy and strength in reflection and reaffirmation of their original calling.

* Discipline issues. – Much of the stymied church growth in our day can be attributed to a lack of discipline within the body of Christ. Both ministers and laity share this failure to some degree. The root of the problem could be greed or laziness. We certainly cannot forget “the lust of this world” or the “pride of life.” Those concepts can lead a congregation into a myriad of situational problems.

Although the idea of poor study habits already has been mentioned, it now bears repeating. Some pastors exercise poor discipline by spending too much time “in the field” and too little time at the desk or on their knees. They may never recognize the imbalance until church momentum drags to a halt.

(The above material appeared in the January/February/March 1993 issue of Growing Churches.)

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