Sunday morning quarterbacking: if I like the new preacher

In January of 2022, I started my eleventh year of working for our church. In truth, those ten years are a blur.

Church time is as speedy as the roadrunner in a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon. Blink, and time is gone.

When I started the job, my title was property manager, changed to director of facilities and administration, and now, the director of operations.

My thirty one years working in public schools helped me with my transition into church work. I have often thought about churches and schools and their similarities and differences, but I think a lot about their one significant commonality—people.

For better or worse, churches and schools evolve around people.

In the spring of 1975, I was starting my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, North Carolina. My cooperating teacher, Wallace Pegram, gave me some advice that I have never forgotten—“There is a lot of psychology in teaching.”

Mr. Pegram was correct. But, I have come to realize—“there is a lot of psychology in churches too.”

Churches are full of “turf and personality” skirmishes. Usually those skirmishes are grounded in one of the most difficult words in our language—change.

Turf and personality collisions can occur over worship order, a program change, a building renovation, and personnel decisions.

Recently, churches have experienced an uptick in issues related to the political climate in our country and the disruptive COVID-19 pandemic.

Our political division seeped into health and safety decisions made by church leaders in their attempt to protect their congregations and staffs from the pandemic.

At our church, the mask policy became a trigger for some families to exit with lots of emotional anguish.

But in truth, even before the pandemic, our church had its struggles. When churches struggle, fingers are pointed, and usually fingers are singularly pointed in the direction of the preacher.

If I have learned anything in my ten years of church work, it is this—being a preacher can be very difficult.

The role of the preacher in a church is not much different from that of a school principal. Lots of demands are placed on their shoulders.

Dealing with those demands requires a special skill set to constantly deal with the barrage of short and long term challenges.

In today’s environment, preachers can’t be one dimensional. Their set of skills must give them the capacity to wear multiple hats to meet the diversity of needs in an ever changing congregation and community.

From my perspective, one of the most critical of those skills is the capacity for the preacher to develop relationships with every demographic in a congregation.

Church members no matter their age, their status, and how frequently or infrequently they attend, want the preacher to know their names. Along with knowing the names of members comes getting to know a bit about them. That getting to know a person can be helpful to a preacher in the life of a church.

A preacher can score a ten in the pulpit, but a preacher can’t score a one in building relationships with the congregation.

That disparity in the scoring from pulpit to relationships is not a morale win for a preacher.

Morale is just as important in churches as it is in schools. Morale impacts both preachers and congregations.

No doubt, COVID-19 lowered morale in churches.

But, according to multiple studies, morale in American churches was already in a downward spiral.

After thirty five years of church leadership, our senior pastor is retiring this year. I know decisions related to the pandemic wore on his morale.

Recently, I spoke with a long time friend in North Carolina. He told me that the senior pastor at his church was retiring too. My friend shared his pastor’s comments: “ I don’t feel like I can win anymore.”

In any setting, I believe this preacher’s comment captures how morale impacts leaders too.

Again, I sense the political division in America impacted the thinking of congregations. No matter the decisions made by a preacher, it is impossible to make everyone happy. Even a win can have dissension.

At our church, our annual stewardship campaign takes place in February and March. I wonder how many financial pledges in a congregation might be grounded in this comment:“ I might contribute more if I like the new preacher.”

That comment is one more example of the diversity of challenges preachers face in the daily operation of a church. Additionally, that comment illustrates a sample of congregational thinking, and a preacher must be constantly thinking about the psychology needed to work with a congregation.

Preachers like school personnel can’t be one dimensional in their leadership skills. A strength in one area is not going to compensate for for lack of leadership in other critical areas.

A preacher must have a wide range of leadership skills, but in this post pandemic environment, the ability to build relationships across a congregation might be the most important.

Churches must determine how to reach out to members who have not been in church for two years.

Strategies on how to reconnect with these members will be in some instances critical to the survival of the church. Preachers who can use their interpersonal skills to rebuild these relationships will have an edge in winning people back.

As tough as it can be to be a preacher and lead a church, preachers need to recognize the extraordinary possibilities in this post pandemic environment.

There is an opportunity to create an “I like the preacher” atmosphere.

To do this, preachers must build relationships.

Photo by Bill Pike

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