Karl Vaters 4: Being an Effective Small-Church Pastor

The following is from Chris Bolinger’s fall 2015 interview with Karl Vaters, whose 2012 book The Grasshopper Myth has led to a twice-weekly Christianity Today blog and frequent speaking engagements…in addition to his many responsibilities as the pastor of a church of around 200. That church is in what Vaters calls the Megachurch Central region of southern California, and emulating the church growth practices of his larger neighbors led him to doubt his abilities and even his calling as a pastor.

The complete interview is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 2.


Bolinger: One of the reasons that I have sought a leadership role in small churches is because I and the vast majority of the congregation live in a world that is very different than the “church world”. We work in environments where most people are not Christians. Our kids are in dance class or on sports teams where most of the parents are not Christians. The pastor does his best to understand the world in which I live, but he is immersed in the “church world” and has a different frame of reference than I do. In a big church, all leadership roles are filled by staff people, and most of those staff people are immersed in the “church world”.

Vaters: I agree that there is a Christian “bubble” in which we have ensconced ourselves. Many church pastors live in the Christian “bubble” but don’t realize that they are in it. Our primary relationships are not just with other Christians but with other pastors. To get out of [the “bubble”], we have to start listening more than we talk and understand the reality of the lives of our congregation members. At Bible college and seminary, we are taught how to study the Gospel and how to share the Gospel. Everything is about output. We are never taught how to listen, how to discern the lives of our congregation members.

For example, we think that all Christians likes churchy things, that they are dying to get up early on Sunday morning and dress up in more formal clothes than are required where they work and sit in rows on hard seats and listen to somebody talk for half an hour to 45 minutes. We think that the evidence of how committed someone is to Christ is how much they want to go to church on Sunday. I am convinced that there is a massive market of Christians out there who just don’t want to jump through all of those churchy hoops and, if we gave them an alternative, they would take us up on it. That’s one of the reasons why I like small, quirky churches that don’t do things according to the normal pattern of things. Those churches give people alternatives that they don’t find elsewhere.

Bolinger: Small churches have more freedom and flexibility to innovate. They can take more chances, take more risks. And small-church pastors who don’t want to work 80-hour weeks are motivated to find laypeople who can help with leadership and offer a different perspective, and insight on a group of people in the congregation.

Vaters: Yes, we have the freedom and flexibility, but that is not our reputation. Our well-earned reputation is for being stuck in a tradition that they won’t let go of. Big churches often are more willing to innovate. Small churches really should be the innovators, should be more nimble.

Small churches that don’t change stay small.

Bolinger: What makes small-church pastors risk-averse? Have they tried things in the past and gotten burned?

Vaters: Some of them are just worn out. They’ve been beaten up for too long. They’re done. When you are hurt and exhausted, sometimes you just stop trying.

But I also think that, just as small churches attract control freaks in the congregation, they also attract control freaks in the pastorate. There are too many small-church pastors who think that it’s their job to control everyone’s life – from how often they show up at church to what they wear to the language that they use. They constantly police everyone as if they think that it’s their job to be everybody’s conscience or to get everyone to act just like them.

We need to disciple people to be more like Jesus, not more like us.

One thing to remember, however, is that we live in a ridiculously fast-paced world, and some people look to church as a place of stability. You have to give them that stability, and stability can cause a church to resist innovation. After all, we get together every Sunday to talk about a book that hasn’t changed for 2,000 years. We need to anchor ourselves to that book, but that should be the only thing to which we anchor ourselves. Everything else should be up for grabs. But many Christians are comfortable with lots of traditions that they feel shouldn’t change.

Bolinger: What is your advice for small-church pastors? Where should a small-church pastor start with moving his or her church in the right direction and making it more effective?

Vaters: The easiest thing for me to do is to mention certain aspects of my story that may be universal.

When I showed up at my church 23 years ago, there were 35 people there on a big Sunday, and the average age was late 60s. They had gone through a church split a year-and-a-half before. They had gone through five pastors in the previous 10 years. Nothing was working. They had almost voted to close the church and said that they would give one more pastor one last shot. I was that guy.

When I came in, I told them, “All I know to do is to try things until we see what works.” They said, “Okay, let’s do that.”

About six months in, after my fourth or fifth spectacular failure, I apologized for spending all this money on a particular thing that didn’t work. Partway through my apology, I was interrupted by one of the two lead deacons. He said, “Pastor, stop.”

I thought, “Oh, man, did I keep my packing boxes at home?”

He said, “I don’t know if I’m speaking for everybody else in the room, but I think I probably am, when I tell you that I’m just glad to see somebody trying some things. We give you permission to make mistakes.” There were nods all around the room.

I was blessed with that. Most church pastors are not. In most small churches, you have boards that are trying to restrict you. But most often, a board that will not allow its pastor to make a mistake are that way because it has had pastors that would not allow the board to make a mistake. We need to allow people to experiment and try things and fall down and not have it be fatal.

Too many pastors treat mistakes like sins and sins like mistakes. What I mean by that is this: When a sin is discovered, it needs to be exposed, it needs to be repented of, but we tend to shove it under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.

When a mistake is made, we don’t need to expose it and seek repentance or make anyone feel guilty; we simply need to ask, “How can we do that better next time?” And then we need to forget about it. But we reverse that.

I’ve talked to so many youth pastors who have had this experience. They’ll have a Youth Night. It will be a great event. They’ll draw double the number of kids. Some kids will come to know Christ as their Savior. It’s an amazing time, a real high. They come in the next morning, so excited to tell the pastor how great it was, and when they walk in the pastor greets them with a red face, yelling about how they didn’t lock the door or empty the garbage the previous night. Instantly, the youth pastor shuts up and doesn’t want to share the good news with the pastor anymore, because the pastor is more concerned with order than with encouraging.

I don’t want my guy leaving the place unlocked or leaving the garbage in the building, but I have a 10-minute rule. They will not hear anything negative in the first 10 minutes of seeing me, because I don’t want them to dread walking into the church or dread me walking into the church. In the first 10 minutes, they have the opportunity to tell me how the previous night was and went well.

The first half of every staff meeting is positive things. Tell me ministry stories. Tell me whom you met last Sunday who is new to the church. I want to start the meeting on a good note. I want to encourage those things. When we do get to the negatives, we get to them in a positive atmosphere, and people know that mistakes aren’t fatal. When a mistake happens, we say that we all thought it was a good idea and we determine if we can tweak it or if we should just not do it again.

One of the primary jobs of a lead pastor is to figure out how to say “yes” to people’s crazy ministry ideas. Our church is known for doing a lot of creative things; I don’t think that I have come up with one of them. I just like saying “yes”. Nine out of 10 of them have failed, but I have forgotten what those nine were. We just keep doing the one that worked.

I believe in the priesthood of believers. The body of Christ matters. The plumber in the second row has as much direct access to God and God’s creative ideas as I do, and I want to listen to that person.

In a small church, you can do that. In a bigger church, you can’t. In a bigger church, you can’t crowdsource everything. You can’t try every idea. You can’t have everybody pitching in and everybody’s ideas going. You have to narrow down the idea pool to that of a smaller group of people. You can’t function otherwise. In a small church, you can hear from everybody, and some of these folks have great ideas. And if an idea is half-baked, you can help them bake the other half.

Bolinger: Someone who is excited about an idea won’t just give you the idea but will work to make it happen.

Vaters: You know you’ve got buy-in. At big-church conferences, they often talk about finding a vision and then selling that vision. The biggest challenge always is in selling the vision to the congregation. Big-church pastors say that you have to repeat your vision until you are sick of hearing it and, by the time you are sick of hearing it, they are just beginning to get it. So you have to keep at it and at it and at it. But when someone has bought into a vision, you don’t need to keep selling it to them. If the vision comes from them – if it is something that God has put on their hearts – then your job is to help realize the vision, not sell them on it.

The Day of Pentecost was not God speaking [just] to Peter and Peter pulling in the 120 and telling them that the Holy Spirit had just fallen on him. The New Testament model is that the Holy Spirit fell on the entire group; Peter was just the spokesperson. The smaller your church, the more you can do that. I believe that the Holy Spirit waited for the group to work its way down to 120 so that the Holy Spirit could speak to the whole group at the same time and have the entire group respond as one.

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