How to Spot an Immature Pastor and What To Do About It

V3 2016 immature pastor

“How to Spot an Immature Pastor” is the fourth in a series of five articles on recognizing immaturity in fivefold ministry and what to do about it. If you have no idea what fivefold ministry is, check out Alan Hirsch’s brief descriptions here, or JR Woodward’s video introduction here.

If you’ve ever planted a missional church, you know it isn’t exactly a walk in the park.

You’ve got a vision for cultivating a certain kind of community, but because it doesn’t quite exist yet, you can’t point to anything concrete for people to experience.

Because of this, one of the major temptations in church planting is to try to “make things happen.” We grow impatient with the pace of the kingdom and begin to take shortcuts in development to get something off the ground.

One of the ways we do this is by releasing leaders into authority and responsibility too quickly. It feels like such a relief to find a competent, gifted, and willing person that it’s easy to overlook character issues and immaturity that may be present.

Putting people into positions of leadership before their character can bear it is a recipe for disaster, so we need a way to evaluate not just giftedness and competency, but also character and maturity.

This is the fourth article in a series on recognizing immaturity through the lens of fivefold gifting (sometimes called APEST – Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, Teachers).

So far we’ve talked about immature apostlesprophets, and evangelists. Now we turn to the pastors (or “shepherds”).

How can we recognize an unhealthy pastor? And what should we do about it if we spot one in our church?

You Might Be a Pastor If…

Before we talk about immature pastors, let’s talk about pastors in general. How are they Christ’s gift to the church?

First of all, the terminology can be confusing because “pastor” is a word that we typically use to describe any leader in a church. But within the fivefold ministry framework, a leader in a church could be any of the five, not just a “pastor.”

So we’re using “pastor” as it’s used in Ephesians 4, as one of five gifts that Christ gives to his church for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.

The word “pastor” simply means “shepherd,” which is a rich metaphor for how this gift operates in the church and what these people are like.

Pastors are those who are motivated to care for the spiritual well-being and growth of the church. JR Woodward calls them Soul Healers, people whose primary concern is “helping people to pursue wholeness and holiness.”

You need a lot of these people in your church! Here are some signs of pastors in general:

  • They really care deeply about people (apostles tend to care about “the big picture” and how the whole group is doing, but pastors notice and stop to care for individuals in the church).
  • The tend to create a safe environment for people to be real and find healing, moving them from their false selves toward authentic community.
  • “They create a sense of family and belonging, helping the congregation to love one another, encourage one another, exhort one another, get along with each other, comfort one another, as well as play with one another.”
  • They seem to have an innate ability to empathize with the pain of others, and people typically experience them as great listeners.
  • They tend to dislike conflict and pursue relational harmony.
  • They tend to focus on cultivating community within the church (in contrast to evangelists, who primarily think about those outside the church).
  • They have a lot of patience for other people’s brokenness and feel an impulse to help others.
  • They are very committed to protecting values and principles within a church or organization.
  • They easily perceive how organizational actions or initiatives will affect the people involved.

Signs of an Immature Pastor

But pastors need to grow from immaturity to maturity, just like all of us. Their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Here are some signs of an immature pastor:

  • In their care for individual people, they lose track of the bigger picture of being on mission and create a false dichotomy between building community and living on mission.
  • They take up other people’s offenses, especially towards authority figures.
  • They are so focused on cultivating harmony within a group that the group never grows and ends up becoming a “holy huddle” of insiders.
  • They have trouble setting boundaries and can adopt a “savior complex” toward broken people, spending an inordinate amount of time obsessing about certain relationships.
  • Because they don’t like conflict, they are unwilling to bring any kind of challenge or truth to people who need it, for the sake of “relational harmony.”
  • They assume any new initiative that will potentially cause discomfort for people must be “bad” and will oppose it in a knee-jerk fashion.
  • Because they are so transformation oriented they can resist movement in the church because “we’re not ready.”

Does any of this remind you of anyone? Maybe you’ve got an immature pastor in your church plant. Maybe you notice these characteristics in yourself. Read on for what to do with the immature pastor in your life (even if it’s you!).

What To Do with an Immature Pastor

There’s a lot of movement and change in any church planting environment. Because of this, you need pastors in your church who can take the relational pulse of the community and cultivate harmony as you move.

If you notice an immature pastor in your midst, one of the temptations will be to simply use them as a “good cop” who can help comfort those who are struggling with change in your church plant. And because immature pastors tend to lack boundaries, they’ll spend a crazy amount of time and energy trying to please you and care for the hurting!

You might also experience pastors as people who “slow you down” (especially if you’re an apostle!), so it can be tempting to reject an immature pastor as someone who isn’t “on board,” but pastors are a tremendous gift to a church plant, and our job is not to “get stuff done,” it’s to bring the church to unity and maturity, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).

So don’t use immature pastors, and please also don’t reject them. Instead, disciple them so they become mature!

How To Disciple an Immature Pastor

So how do we disciple an immature pastor? In some ways we disciple them like we disciple everyone else: we love them by offering them an abundance of grace and truth so they can grow into the character and competency of Jesus.

But discipleship looks different for a pastor than it does for a prophet or evangelist; the grace and truth they need take on a certain shape.

So what do grace and truth look like for pastors?

Grace for a Pastor

Here are a few notes on bringing grace to a pastor:

  • Listen to their insights about how people are doing and what the culture of your church feels like.
  • Give them opportunities to lead in environments where they’ll be able to bring wholeness to people’s lives over time.
  • Don’t ask them to move on from or multiply their group too quickly. Give them time to cultivate safe environments where people can share deeply with one another.
  • Ask them to tell stories of transformation in their groups during church gatherings.
  • Express that you value them for who they are, not what they can do. Relationships are foundational for them, and if they feel like a “function,” they’ll quickly become resentful.
  • Proclaim their identity in Christ to them often because they are prone to being attacked in the realm of their identity.
  • Back them up when they need to say “No” to people for the sake of good boundaries.

Truth for a Pastor

Here are a few notes on bringing truth to an immature pastor:

  • They are often highly self-critical, so recognize that you may not need to bring them nearly as much challenging truth as you think.
  • Pastors need to embrace boundaries, but it’s hard for them because they feel like they’re abandoning people. Help them understand how enmeshment works and how sometimes the best thing we can do for people is let them experience the consequences of their choices.
  • Encourage them to invest in people with the goal of spiritual reproduction, not just spiritual growth.
  • Encourage them to have an apprentice at all times, someone that is learning to pastor like they pastor, so they can pass along what they know how to do.
  • Help them embrace movement and mission, even if it means that not everyone will go with us. Help them see places in the Gospels when Jesus had to “leave people behind” for the sake of being on mission with his Father.
  • Pastors can tend to create their own “little church” within the larger church, which can be a good thing, but it can turn into a bad thing if pastors are allowed to simply do whatever they want in those groups. Insist on accountability for what is happening within groups.

A mature pastor is a wonderful gift for a church plant to have. But they don’t just fall into your lap magically. Church planters often have to disciple their team into maturity before they can lean on their team to disciple others into maturity.

Questions for Discussion

How about you? Have you had experiences with immature pastors? What have you learned about discipling pastors? If you are a pastor, what has been most helpful in your growth?

Great News! Ben will be teaching at Praxis Gathering 2016. Sign up today!

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Ben Sternke
Ben is a church planter who also trains, coaches and consults with leaders to help them build Jesus-shaped cultures in their churches, communities, homes, and businesses using simple, reproducible tools that are proven, practical, and powerful. He does this locally through a church he is planting in Indianapolis called The Table, and more widely through an organization he co-founded called Gravity Leadership. He also writes at bensternke.com. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife and kids.
Ben Sternke

2 Comments

  1. Christa Jun 9, 2017 Reply

    I grew weary of mothering our immature pastor, and he let me down dreadfully as my relationship with my pseudo-Christian boyfriend unraveled. Because the immature pastor is a pleaser just like the pseudo-Christian boyfriend, he refused to confront the situation, even though we were only a small, intimate community–it’s not as though he had a congregation of 200 people on his hands. He just buried his head in the sand. Then, when the pseudo-Christian boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, he became the immature boy-pastor’s charity project. I am disgusted with the lack of accountability for immature pastors who want to avoid the counseling responsibility of pastoring. Is the Reformed church so hard up for pastors? It’s as bad as the Catholic Church with priests.

    • Spencer Nov 13, 2017 Reply

      Dear Christa,
      It can sometimes be all too easy to father or mother people, who ought to be brothers and sisters in Christ. Of course, I have never met you, but your choice of words is interesting. A true brother/sister relationship is quite profound.

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