By the time I was twenty I was teaching ballroom classes to people of all ages and backgrounds. Amongst the various types of people I taught there was one group that regularly posed difficulties regarding expectations and boundaries: the unhappy, middle-aged, married woman. In the early days I would begin a new class by introducing a few dance steps, and then build from there. I would naively trust that each student was attending the class for the same reason: to learn to dance. But I soon learnt that different people come with different expectations.
Some of these ladies simply enjoyed the comfort of being held in the arms of a young, single man, whilst being led around the dance floor. Others had expectations which involved going a step further. During a rumba their hand might slip from my back and land conveniently on my rear, or during a waltz their head might rest intimately on my shoulder accompanied by a few flirtatious whispers. There were others in the same category who my fellow teachers nicknamed ‘black widows’ – they came to catch, copulate and devour. I learnt a lot as a dance instructor, but the thing I learnt first was the need to clarify expectations and define boundaries.
In any relationship it is important that both parties clearly understand one another’s expectations. Paul was off traveling and Timothy was left in charge of a small group of churches in Ephesus. So Paul writes to Timothy:
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God... To Timothy my true son in the faith...” – 1 Timothy 1:1-2
Paul establishes, right at the beginning of his letter, the kind of relationship Paul and Timothy have: a father/son relationship based around spiritual matters. When Jesus first met the disciples he makes it clear as to the kind of relationship it is going to be: “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17). ‘If you decide to follow me,’ states Jesus, ‘I am going to be training you to do a specific job.’
In a recent article written by Esther Laurie, entitled ‘Top 5 Reasons Why 700 Pastors Quit Before Retirement’, one of the main reasons for a breakdown in relationship between pastors and congregations was ‘unrealistic expectations’ (49 percent of former pastors believed their church had unrealistic exceptions). The article goes on to say that almost half of the former pastors didn’t receive an accurate description of the church before their arrival. These kinds of discrepancies between the pastors expectations and the expectations of the congregation produced a downward spiral, particularly when disagreements arose over proposed changes (56 percent of the pastors presented in this study clashed over proposed changes, and 54 percent said they experienced significant personal attack as a result).
Many churches are built on what people do. Churches were meant to be built on what Jesus Christ has already accomplished, and not on how amazing its ministries or leaders are. When a church stands on the gospel, its confidence comes from God and doesn’t rise or fall with the successes or failures of its ministries. There is an unhealthy expectation that pastors can put upon themselves, or which congregations can put upon their pastors. It is all about trying to get God to say ‘Yes, your church is amazing!‘ Such churches place unhealthy expectations on themselves and their leaders. They can often be heard crying out, ‘Look at what we do, God. Look at how many ministries we have, look at how many children are in our youth. Surely God, you must be pleased with our offering and so now you can bless us.‘
What expectations do you have of your pastor? What expectations does your pastor have of you? Are these expectations built on what Jesus Christ has already accomplished? Or is there a sense that you must always be accomplishing more?
It is healthy for churches to define their roles, mission and expectations. Churches should not be afraid to bridge preventable gaps by clearly communicating their expectations of one another. By doing this it will go some way towards easing disappointment and equipping both pastors and congregations to run the race together. But we must avoid situations where we rest more on our own accomplishments, than on the accomplishments of Jesus Christ.