Preachers and Preaching (XI)
The Moving Game
J. P. Needham
One of the greatest hindrances to the progress of many churches is what I am pleased to call "the moving game." That is a very apt description of it in many cases; it is a sort of game. Either the preacher or the church is trying to beat the other to the "draw." Some very serious consideration should be given this matter by both preachers and churches. Both are involved. Neither can rightfully be charged with all the responsibility for the deplorable situation. Let us explore the whole matter of the moving game.
I. Reasons for It:
I am sure I do not know all the reasons for the moving game, but observation has suggested several. Let us look at them:
(1) The church thinks it will solve its problems: We are all prone to seek to shift responsibility for our short comings to others. This started in Eden, and has continued to the present time. When problems arise in congregations, some brethren's first thought is that moving the preacher will solve them. Admittedly, this will do the job in some cases, but only when THE PREACHER is CAUSING the problem. (And let nobody be deceived; they sometimes do just that). It is quite absurd, however, to think that moving the preacher will solve problems he does not cause.
It may be that the preacher sees the problem, determines its cause and is preaching the truth that would solve it, if it would move the brethren instead of the preacher. The moving game does not solve the problem in such cases, but only glosses it over. It sweeps the dirt under the rug until another preacher arrives. Such is about as absurd as a person with terminal cancer thinking he can be cured by removing his tonsils!
2. The preacher hurts someone's feelings: Many preachers have been moved on "for the good of the cause" simply because they offended someone. The offense may have been the preacher's fault, and he may have done what was necessary to correct it, but that does not matter; once he has offended someone in the church, "he has to go!" Other members who make mistakes can repent and stay, but the preacher must repent and go. And remember, it matters not how many times the preacher's feelings have been hurt; he is supposed to have the hide of a rhinoceros! If he were to move because someone offended him, well, the most thin-skinned brethren in the church would charge him with childishness. "Preachers are supposed to be able to take such." Brethren often apply a double standard; one for themselves, and another for preachers.
Then, there are times when the preacher may offend some of the brethren by a plain proclamation of the truth. Since they have no intention of yielding to the truth, they become sour on the preacher. The "honeymoon" is over! They may have previously lauded him as the best preacher they ever heard, but now he becomes "a sorry excuse for a preacher." We hear expressions like, "This church will never do any good until it gets rid of the preacher." They have previously acted like they could eat him up; now they wish they had! They used to think he could preach like Paul, but now they say "he has missed his calling; who ever told him he could preach?" (Most likely, they did).
As a young preacher this writer was told by a group of elders that "any time a preacher offends someone, he has failed!" When it was pointed out that their rule made Jesus a failure as a preacher (Mt. 15:12), they retorted, "But you are not Jesus." To which it was replied, "Correct, but Jesus is my model as a preacher. If I cannot follow him, whom should I follow?" If the Lord could not preach the gospel without offending people in error, who are we to think we can? Should today's preacher be expected to do what the Lord could not? The Lord would be barred from many modern pulpits! He would have to "move on for the good of the cause."
3. Setting arbitrary limits: Have you ever heard it said, "I think two years in one location ought to be the limit for a preacher?" If not, you have not been listening very well! The author of this proverb is unknown, but its popularity with some brethren is unquestioned. It is, at best, an opinion based upon human judgment. There are some few instances where it is probably true, but many more where it has been enforced to the detriment of all concerned. How we need to learn the difference between "the faith" and our human opinions! How we need to stop making laws where God made none! The length of time a preacher should remain in a given locality cannot be determined by any blanket arbitrary rule, but circumstances. Two years may be too long in some instances, but much, much too short in others.
The two-year time limit is a sad commentary on both churches and preachers. It goes without saying that any church subscribing to this philosophy has not learned what it means to work WITH a preacher. They very, likely expect him to do their work FOR them, and it takes them two years to discover he cannot. This indicts the two-year time limit philosophy as being motivated by a "hireling pastor" concept of the preacher's work. It exposes shortsightedness and lack of vision. It takes most preachers two years really to get adjusted to a new work to the point that an effective program can be carried out, but this is what most "two year" churches DO NOT HAVE and DO NOT WANT. They want the preacher to help them KEEP HOUSE, and it takes him two years to learn this. So it is time for him to move on lest he "quit preaching and start meddling" like trying to get a good program under way. It tells of shallow spirituality. The brethren do not want a preacher who knows about their "pet" sins, so they want him always to be a fresh acquaintance lest he learn too much about them and gather too much sermon material from their personal lives, and preach what they need rather than what they want (2 Tim. 4:3).
The moving game also reveals some very undesirable traits in preachers. It may tell of a CANTANKEROUS DISPOSITION which, to the church, makes two years seem like two hundred! It may indicate a PUTRID PROFESSIONALISM in the preacher; he has copied just enough of somebody else's sermons to last him two years. He then "runs out of soap" and must find another church that will furnish him a living while he repeats them again. It may manifest MENTAL LAZINESS. The preacher does not "give attendance to reading" (I Tim. 4:13), and "study" (2 Tim. 2:15). Hence, his preaching is as dry as desert air and as stale as last week's tea cake! Two years of this is definitely enough!
We all need to learn that the two-year time limit philosophy is without any basis in the Bible. It is HUMAN in origin, and in most cases DETRIMENTAL to the work of the Lord. It is arbitrary, and therefore should be discarded.
4. Churches demand too much: Many preacher moves are brought about by the excessive demands of churches. They expect the preacher to work like a Trojan horse at pulling a load no human can pull. This grows out of their misconceptions of the preacher's work which were previously discussed. One brother said that a preacher should be dealt with like a salesman; if he does not produce, fire him and get one that will. This error is based on the unscriptural idea that the preacher should do all the producing. He cannot produce IN SPITE OF the brethren. The preacher's work load in many churches is more than any one man can bear, and when he does his very best, it is not good enough because he has not met the brethren's demands. They either ask him to move on, or he becomes frustrated and beats them to the "draw."
5. The preacher is taken for granted: When the preacher is new, the members go all out to make him feel appreciated. They definitely want him to be happy with them, and to enjoy living among them. But, after the new wears off, and he settles down to the routine of the work, the members gradually drift into a state of indifference toward him. He is just one in the crowd. Everything is fine as long as he does his work. He hears few words of encouragement, and he wonders if he is communicating. Without some expression from the church, he is left to his own surmising.
This should not be taken to mean that the church should constantly brag on the preacher. It does mean that he needs to feel appreciated like any other human. Otherwise he gets discouraged. A few favorable words from the members cost so little, and yet mean so much to a preacher. He needs to know if his work is appreciated and beneficial, just as does anyone else. If your employer never came around to see you or said anything favorable about your work, would you be pleased to continue with him? Would you be happy in your work? When he gives you an "end-of-the-year bonus," how does it make you feel? Do you not appreciate his taking note of your dedication to your duty? The preacher needs and deserves this just like anyone else. Do not forget that he sustains a sort of an employee-employer relationship to you. His working conditions can be good or bad, just like yours.
This situation often shows up most vividly during gospel meetings. The brethren will brag on the visiting preacher to high heaven! They praise his preaching, and often say things about him he knows are not so. He is often embarrassed, and seeks to relieve such by calling attention to the good work done by the local preacher. At the end of the meeting, the local brethren graciously and gladly give the visiting preacher all the credit for all the responses, and a pay check that is often far out of proportion to the local preacher's. They are dead certain that his preaching has wrought great wonders. While they may not mean it so, the implication is that the day-today labor of the local preacher and other members means nothing. It is very strange indeed how that ONE MAN can do in eight days what the whole church cannot do in a whole year!
The reader can rest assured that many preacher moves are precipitated by this feeling of uselessness. There is no effort here to argue the propriety of moving for this reason. The aim is to establish this as a reason. Whether it is right or wrong is not now the question, but rather pointing out some of the reasons for the moving game.
6. The preacher disagrees with the prominent opinion: Some preachers move, or are moved, because of the unhealthy atmosphere resulting from their disagreement with the opinions of some who seem to be somewhat in the local church. They are self-willed individuals to whom the church has learned to knuckle under to keep peace. At the time a preacher is employed by such a church, he is unaware of the condition. Nobody wants to tell him about it lest he refuses to come because of it, and they do want him to come, hoping against hope that he might be able to solve the problem. Sooner or later, he crosses the entrenched idea! "He has had it!" He either bows in humble submission to Diotrophes' decree (3 Jn. 9, 10), and does "penance" or a war is declared in which "all is fair." The preacher must resign himself to "a long hot summer" of strife, or look for a new home! The business meetings will become all-night wrangles (nightmares), the atmosphere at every service will be charged with tension, and will seem more like a wrestling match with no holds barred than periods of worship. The ringleaders are constantly jockeying for a position of advantage. Before and after the services they will have brethren clustered around them. They are either seeking to proselyte new support or are caucusing with cohorts to decide the next move. They may propagandize the church with the idea of settling the matter, but they spell settlement: S-U-R-R-E-N-D-E-R!
Most any preacher can testify that a little bit of this goes a long way! It does something to one. Very soon the pasture looks greener somewhere else, and the preacher will be on his way. It seems to mean nothing that several hundred dollars of the Lord's money were spent to move him there, and now, several hundred more will be spent to move him away. Of little consequence is it to the party leaders that everybody loses a little of himself in each one of these debacles. All that matters is that Diotrophes had his way, again pampers his pride, and further intoxicates himself on the wine of carnal victory.
7. The preacher refuses to line up with a clique: Some churches are dominated by a clique. Others are kept in constant turmoil by rival cliques struggling for the balance of power. No preacher can work in peace with such a church unless he lines up with the dominant party. His sermons must propagate its convictions, and scathe those who are outside it. He must spend a great deal of his time socializing with the party leaders and support their proposals in the "business" meetings (which are just what the name implies: "business meetings" where the clique is always seeking to give somebody "the business.") In short, he must become the spokesman for and the rubber stamp of the party in control.
The preacher who moves to such a church and who has enough self-respect and regard for God's word to condemn such partyism (Gal. 5:19-21), and does "nothing by partiality" (I Tim. 5:21), must brace himself for some miserable days. It would also be wise for him to keep his suitcase packed! He may be ordered to vacate the premises "before next Sunday."
It is sad but true that there are preachers who will submit themselves and their convictions to such political machinery. To them it seems an honor to be a part of "the in crowd."
(8) A running fuss: There is no peace in some churches. There is always an issue. It may be just a matter of opinion, but that usually makes a better fuss than a matter of faith! The atmosphere is constantly heavy and a holocaust may erupt any moment. Every road to progress is blocked by an elephant of internal strife. Every proposal becomes an occasion for a first class wrangle. Somebody always stands ready to oppose just about every suggestion anybody makes. The moving van seems the only way out of such a situation.
(9) Expecting perfection of churches and preachers: The moving game is often motivated by what amounts to a church looking for a perfect preacher, or a preacher looking for a perfect church. We all know that no man can be perfect, but churches sometimes unwittingly expect the preacher to be. If he is not, he becomes the object of the church's wrath, and feels the cold climate of their dissatisfaction. When they finally freeze him out, he moves on, but after six months with the next preacher they would almost give him a raise to move back, or they discover that they are no better off than before. Their real problem is that they are looking for something that does not exist - a perfect preacher. There is no such animal!
Then, there are preachers who are constantly moving about from place to place. They are never satisfied where they are. They are looking for a perfect church; they have not yet learned that there are no such. To them there are no little problems. Every incident has MAJOR proportions, and precipitates the hasty decree: "I can do no good here." He moves on, only to find that he did not know how well he had it in the previous location. To be sure, there are congregational situations that can render one's work almost useless, and moving seems the wiser course. But there are many moves that are based upon petty incidents that should be forgotten.
(10) Immaturity: Many preacher moves are based in the immaturity of the preacher and/or the church. Some preachers use their freedom to move at will as a threat to the church to get their way. They have the attitude, "If they do not do it my way, I can always move." Or, if the preacher's bad judgment gets him into trouble, he uses his right to move as a safety valve. If the pressure of his immature judgment becomes too great, he can always "pop off" and move in a huff.
There are congregations which also show a lack of maturity. They have a very vague concept of what a preacher should do and how he should be treated. They are irritated by just about everything he does: the amount of time he spends at home; their ideas about his "office hours," whom and how much he should visit, how he spends his money, how he and his family dress, his little mannerisms in the pulpit, etc. They are constantly "on his back," and "breathing down -his neck." They resemble a group of irritable children at play; nothing suits them. Six months after he moves to work with them, they are up in arms for him to move on. This is all too prevalent these days. It makes one sick at heart (if not at his stomach). No wonder there are so many pulpit drop-outs! Both preachers and churches need to grow up.
(11) Selfishness: Selfish moves on the part of preachers are not uncommon. A work becomes available in a more suitable climate, or near ones native home, or with a more attractive salary, or with a larger church. When this happens, the preacher justifies his move by his health, or his need to be closer to his aging parents, or his strained budget. I would not rule out these reasons for moving if they are legitimate, but, sometimes they are definitely used as mere pretexts, as evidence will clearly show.
The fact that the church has made future plans that include the preacher, does not seem to bother him. He has a chance to move to Florida, and nothing else matters! He can, seemingly, with no compunction of conscience, interrupt a good program to satisfy a purely selfish desire.
Churches are not above using such selfish lures to entice a preacher to move. They may not have anything that would really interest a preacher but a bigger salary, a warmer climate, a large membership, and a fabulous home, and these are the points they use in trying to persuade him to accept their invitation. All such is a reflection upon our spirituality. Such motives do not justify interrupting a good work.
II. The Results of It
We need to take a look at the results of the moving game. They should be sufficient to cause the brotherhood to revolt against it.
(1) Makes the preacher an outsider: He is always on a "get acquainted" basis. He is considered a temporary necessity, never a "permanent" fixture. The church feels little obligation to treat him fairly from the standpoint of salary because they inadvertently consider him to be a short-term employee: Here today, gone tomorrow! They terminate him at the same salary at which they "hired him in." He is not due any increment because he is not employed with us long enough. Hence, the preacher and his family are always kept at "arm's length" from the church. They never really feel like they belong.
(2) Keeps the preacher and the church unsettled: The moving game keeps both the preacher and the church in an unsettled state. They are constantly trying to get acquainted and adjusted to each other. About the time this is accomplished, either the preacher or the church decides he should move. Thus, the church shies away from many meaningful programs of work that involve the preacher because he is liable to move right in the middle of them. The preacher is reluctant to commit himself too firmly to the local church or make any long-range plans for the work because when everything seems to be shaping up, the church may decide to move him on. Consequently, there is a constant feeling of insecurity on the part of both preacher and church. This is an unhealthy condition which retards the progress of the Lord's work. It is high time we stop it and take a more mature approach.
(3) Keeps the preacher's family upset emotionally: What preacher has not had to comfort a weeping wife and grieving children because of a move? Where is the preacher whose children have not suffered emotionally because of severed ties with old friends and the facing of a mass of strangers in a new community? Show me the preacher's child whose education has not suffered because they were moved half way across the continent in the middle of the school year.
Families need security like they need food. They need some place to call home. Did you ever ask a preacher's child where he or she is from? Many of them do not know! They come from nowhere, or everywhere! A woman likes to fix a house the way she wants it, but a preacher's wife dare not! She often says, "I would like to have this or that, but I had better let it go. I never know when we will be moving, and it very likely will not fit our next house."
Hence, the moving game keeps most preachers families in an emotional turmoil. Both preachers and churches would do well to take this into consideration when tempted to play the moving game.
(4) It thins the ranks of preachers: Everyone today is crying about the preacher shortage, and justifiably so. It is a drastic emergency. There are many reasons for it, and we will discuss them in a later article. The moving game is a contributing factor. Many have quit full-time preaching to escape the insecurity discussed above. One very able preacher and a personal friend who took a secular job said to me, "I feel much better now that I do not have the brethren looking down my throat every two years." His wife said, "My husband is a different man since he does not have to worry about finding a new job every two or three years." I have personally talked to many pulpit drop-outs and found this to be their most frequent complaint. The churches which are concerned with the preacher shortage will do well to take a look at their concept of the local preacher's tenure.
(5) It squanders many dollars: Preacher moving expense is one of the largest items in many church budgets. There is really no way to determine how many millions of dollars have been spent over the years to move preachers. Some of it has been justified; but I firmly believe much of it has been useless waste for which both preachers and churches will be held responsible. I have personally known of churches which spent from a $1,000 to $1,500 to move a preacher to stay a year and a half to two years. This means that the preacher's moving bill alone cost the church $50 to $75 for each month he lived with them. This has happened times without number all over the nation. If we added up all this money, it would make an astronomical figure. It would almost rival the national debt, and would go a long way toward evangelizing the world. In many cases it has been squandered to pamper the whims of some small cantankerous element in churches, or to fulfill a preacher's selfish desire.
This very serious matter demands some prayerful consideration. It is time for us to take a new look at the whole matter of local church work, and our general concept of preacher tenure. It would be such a wonderful improvement if everyone would cease thinking of the local preacher as temporary. If the church and the preacher are what they ought to be, the longer they work together the better they can work together. There needs to be a great deal more GIVE and TAKE in the church-preacher relationship. Many of the petty complaints they commonly make against each other should be covered with a mantle of charity and smothered beneath the overwhelming importance of what is best for the kingdom of God (Mt. 6:33). Each needs to be as tolerant of the other's short-comings as he wants the other to be of his. I would not venture to say how long a preacher should stay with a church; that would vary with good judgment and circumstances. I think however, that I am safe in saying that the typical two years is one of the great absurdities of our time, and is one of the greatest blockades to congregational development. I pray it will soon be gone! I trust that this article will at least retard the pace of the moving game.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 7, pp. 7-12