Some of the complexity arises from formal rules of the church that determine the authorities and powers of a pastor. These involve things such as the degrees of autonomy in scheduling, worship leadership, committee involvement, and a host of other specified areas of responsibility. Ordinarily these formal rules are found in bylaws, books of discipline, books of order, and such.
Superimposed over all of these formal guidelines are informal ones. One set comprises the expectations laid upon a pastor by the congregation. These expectations arise out of history, social dynamics in the congregation, personalities, what some pastor did or did not do in the past, the stresses on the congregation, to name a few. There are expectations of leadership styles, inter-personal skills, preaching ability, theology, and other personal attributes.
The pastor also will bring expectations to the ministry. She should be treated in a particular way. He is due deference in certain areas of ministry and administration. She may claim authorities that are not written. He may have a vision for the church that he believes is necessary to its success, prosperity, and mission. Like the expectations of a congregation that develop over time and experience, pastors also come to a church with their own histories.
If the system of finding and calling the pastor works well, there is sufficient compatibility between the expectations and skills of the pastor and the expectations and realities of the congregation that the level of disagreement is tolerable. But pastoral search processes sometimes fail, not surprising given the extraordinary expectations of the different parties, developed independently. So conflict between a pastor and her congregation is not uncommon. Indeed, addressing such conflicts is a major element of the work of those called to serve as staff of any regional church body. It is time consuming, emotional, very difficult, and sometimes downright dangerous.
Typically, an allegation is made that the pastor has done wrong. Sometimes the pastor will respond that the church has done wrong. The problem can get very hot very quickly for the reasons any employment or divorce lawyer can explain: in order to win one’s case, it is necessary to prove the other party is somehow bad. In the state of high emotions that are frequent in such cases, it is all too easy to get into a kitchen-sink argument, the kind of conflict where everything is thrown in except the kitchen sink. Sorting out the different factors in such a conflict can be hard to do in a way that allows for a continuing relationship between pastor and church, even in those cases where the real conflict involves a very small portion of the church.
One of the major difficulties in this kind of conflict involves distinguishing among those allegations that involve violations of the formal rules that govern what a pastor must do from those expectations of what the congregation thinks a pastor should do, and from the pastor’s expectations of what she can do. If the distinction between these classes of allegations is not made, then the eventual judgments will rely heavily on subjective rather than objective conclusions. Failing to distinguish between subjective and objective expectations can cause great damage to a congregation and to a pastor.
If, for instance, a pastor violates the written rules — bylaws, rules of discipline, rules of order, etc. — then he can be measured according to these rules in a way governed by the rules themselves. Ordinarily these kinds of standards are objective standards, known by and applied to all.
Sometimes, however, the pastor has violated the subjective expectations of a congregation. Actually, it can be even more limited than that, for frequently individuals in a congregation can be so vocal or have so much authority that a personal gripe can be extrapolated to a grievance of the whole church.
What can all too easily happen with such subjective allegations? The pastor is encouraged to move on. The serious difficulty with such solutions is that the problem can just as easily rest with the expectations of the congregation, which leaves a congregation with a distorted set of standards. Not only is the result a seriously damaged pastor, but also a sick church.
Sorting out the allegations is particularly difficult in situations where the allegations made against the pastor involve things he actually did. There is a very big — and often overlooked — distinction between acts done out of ignorance, stupidity, contumacy or cupidity, and those done intentionally out of conviction it is the right thing to do but which people don’t like. The task then reduces to sorting out those things the pastor has done that are wrong in an objective sense and those that the pastor has done that are violations of subjective expectations. The challenge is how to address something the pastor did but that was not a violation of the formal rules and norms of pastoral behavior and discretion, and which indeed may have been reasonable things for the pastor to do under the circumstances. The general strategy used in the law is the notion of “reasonable.” The specific definitions vary according to the issues — reasonable time, reasonable cause to believe, reasonable precautions, reasonable expectations, etc. — but the intent is to establish and measure by some kind of objective standard.
Establishing such a standard and measuring behavior by it is the only way to counter the eternal temptation of an investigator to decide a matter according how she would have handled the situation. When this happens, findings of fact and proposed resolutions are not based on how a “reasonable pastor” would have behaved in the given circumstances but on how the investigator would have done it.
In beginning an investigation into such a matter, the inquiry could begin with defining the term “reasonable pastor.” It could look something like this: What would a reasonable pastor do in this situation, taking into account the formal rules and ordinary roles of a pastor in a church of this size faced with the kinds of issues she faced?
The definition could vary in many ways: reasonable pastor right out of seminary; reasonable pastor in an urban church; reasonable pastor in a church with financial stresses; reasonable pastor in a country church, reasonable pastor in a highly conflicted church, etc etc.
Using a definition such as this, conclusions could be of several types. They might be things such as:
» It happened, and the pastor violated formal rules
» It happened, and the pastor acted reasonably
» It happened, and the pastor acted reasonably but unwisely
» It happened, and the pastor acted unreasonably
» It happened, and the pastor was not responsible
» It did not happen.
If an inquiry starts with establishing such an objective standard, it can render the complexities easier to address and articulate. Moreover, such a definition may shorten investigations and deliberations.
There are additional benefits to the use of a reasonable pastor standard. A congregation can develop expectations of its pastor that are damaging to the church. Expectations develop over time which, as times evolve, can impede the ability of a church to make the changes necessary for the congregation to prosper. In those cases where the expectations of the church are not well aligned with objective reality, a finding that the pastor acted reasonably may force the church to learn new ways of relating to its pastoral leadership.
Likewise, defining a reasonable pastor in such circumstances can be the occasion and foundation for guidance to the pastor. The claim to unfettered use of discretionary powers is something that pastors will sometimes lift up in defense of their unwise actions, and they sometimes will reject advice given by anyone who does not accept their interpretation of the rules, the situation, or the events. Setting a reasonable pastor standard, particularly if established by a recognized authority, allows a supervisor to raise issues of behavioral choices, and allows the pastor to defend by attacking not the supervisor or protecting self, but by questioning the standard. It may also allow discussions of the distinctions between actions that are illegal, unwise, an abuse of discretion, or unreasonable.
For when a conflicted matter begins with defining what it means to be reasonable, the conversation may be driven into a broad discussion of realities that are ignored at the peril of all parties.
EDWARD H. KOSTER is an attorney with a practice in Ann Arbor, Mich., and is the stated clerk of the Presbytery of Detroit, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).