Paternalism in the Pastorate
I offer these reflections hoping they might be helpful in further understanding one element that I believe is fueling the great resignation among pastors – paternalism in the pastorate. The insights in this piece have come to me at a price. However, simply because I write about the harm of paternalism from a firsthand perspective, I am not suggesting that I am merely the victim of a single toxic system. My own personal insecurities, people-pleasing tendencies, and lack of professional boundaries have played a role in my experience of working as a pastor. My therapist, spiritual director, family doctor, a psychologist-led pastoral support group, coach, and mentors have helped me manage these more personal issues. Also, in addition to paternalism, many other powers have been present in my church work. The euro-masculinist compulsion for mastery, white supremacy’s striving for self-sufficient perfection, empire’s imperial impulse to control, and capitalism’s insatiable desire for growth at all costs were all at play in the settings I have pastored.
My first Lead Pastor position was at a church with a sizeable sanctuary. Five years before I arrived, the congregation completed a renovation that enlarged the sanctuary, expanding its seating capacity to approximately 375. The sanctuary featured a large stage that was elevated by five stairs above the floor. The renovation also included the addition of a sizeable balcony with a view of the elevated stage, but no view of the floor where most of the congregation gathered. In order to be seen by anyone in the balcony, service leaders needed to preach, sing, pray, and play instruments from the stage.
The chasm between preacher and preached to always bothered me.
During my almost ten years at the church, I never got comfortable speaking from the stage. When I preached, I literally looked down upon, and spoke down to, most of the congregation while they looked up to me. The chasm between preacher and preached to always bothered me. During my weekly ascension to the stage, my body registered tension with each step. Somehow I could sense that the elevation of the preacher was neither good for the me or the congregation. I now name this gnawing discomfort as one of the effects of paternalism in the pastorate.
Paternalism can be defined as a system under which an authority seeks to meet the needs and regulate the behaviour of those under its control, in a way that limits their agency for their own good. The word paternalism evokes the image of a knowledgeable father figure (“pater” in Latin) who makes decisions for his children, rather than letting them decide on their own. (1) The authoritative father figure was embodied by the Roman head-of-the-household known as the paterfamilias. Dr. Willie James Jennings defines this paternal figure writing, “Paterfamilias is an ancient term born of slavery in the Greco-Roman world that refers to a social system of rule formed around the body of the father-master as the fount from which flowed the life and logic of a social order.” (2) Paternalism is rooted in the notion that “father-knows-best.” Therefore, the father figure – whether the Greco-Roman paterfamilias, the contemporary Lead Pastor, or the top doctor – is to be obeyed.
Paternalism vs. the Way of the Midwife
Paternalism is rife within the Western medical system. Physicians frequently operate with the assumption that they know better what is wrong with their patients and what treatment is right for them, than they do themselves. Many people, especially women and people of colour have felt unheard and/or dismissed by doctors, often with tragic consequences. An extreme example of paternalism in the medical system is the Mental Health Act which gives physicians the power to commit (certify) patients, confining them in hospital even against their will, for their own good. (3)
…we were confronted with how normalized paternalism was in our understanding of professionalized medical care.
When my wife became pregnant with our first child, we choose midwifery care for prenatal, labour, birth, and postpartum support. After the first few visits with the midwives (appointments were rarely less than forty-five minutes long) we were confronted with how normalized paternalism was in our understanding of professionalized medical care.
When presented with choices regarding our pregnancy, such as prenatal testing, we asked our midwives what we should do – after all, they were the birthing experts and we had never had a child before. However, time and time again, the midwives helped us become informed about various options and made us aware of ethical considerations. As much as we initially wanted the professionals in the room to make choices for us, thus reducing our decision-making roles, we eventually came to understand and appreciate how the empowering approach of midwifery seeks to help people take greater responsibility for their pregnancies. Whereas we expected all-knowing professionals to simply tell us what to do, our midwives came alongside us as wise guides pointing us toward collective wisdom within the birthing community.
Paternalism in the Pastorate
Paternalism thrives in churches. It shapes ecclesial structures, influences relationships, and permeates church worship, policy, roles, expectations, and language.
Familial biblical language is often used by churches to foster a sense of identity as a spiritual household. The congregation is spoken of as a family (Gal 1:2), the church is referred to as the house of God (Heb. 10:21), and congregants are thought of as spiritual siblings (brothers and sisters, Rom. 1:13).
…in Christ’s bodily absence, a church leader often takes on the role of the paterfamilias or spiritual head of the household.
If the church is the house of God, paternalism wants to identify and authorize a head of the household. The Bible refers to Christ as the head of the church (Eph. 5:23). However, in Christ’s bodily absence, a church leader often takes on the role of the paterfamilias or spiritual head of the household. In the Catholic Church, a local parish priest is referred to as father, and in many protestant and even Anabaptist churches, the lead pastor is thought of as the spiritual head of the local church.
If not explicitly taught, many churches implicitly view the church as a system wherein authority, wisdom, and power trickles down from God to pastor, from pastor to congregant, from pulpit to pew.
If not explicitly taught, many churches implicitly view the church as a system wherein authority, wisdom, and power trickles down from God to pastor, from pastor to congregant, from pulpit to pew. Paternalism shapes the very structures of churches ensuring that power flows from the top down. Lead Pastors often sit atop a pyramidal organizational model, and even if they work with associates it is common for Leads to oversee all ministry operations within the church. In the image below, pastors function as a surrogate embodied God/father figure for the spiritual family. The hierarchical structure and unilateral flow of power is clear.
This illustration was used to teach the concepts of the “umbrella of authority” and the “chain of command.”
As mentioned above, sanctuary architecture can promote paternalism by elevating the pastor above the congregation. Standing above worshippers, and often behind a large podium, the pastor delivers truth to the congregation in the form of a monologue often with no opportunity for the congregation to respond with questions, affirmations, or additional insight. Congregants come to the preaching event hungry to be fed the Word of God by the pastor through the sermon. Preachers are often expected to deliver lengthy and meaty messages that give the congregation something to chew on. The expectation that the theological expert will serve up a dense yet digestible homiletical meal each week, calls to mind the image of a nest of baby birds craning their necks upward, mouths agape, waiting for nourishing food to be regurgitated and dropped directly into their bellies. Congregants simply show up and open up.
What Paternalism Provides
Paternalism is upheld in churches by an unspoken contract that rewards pastors with finances (salary, benefits), influence, and esteem (at least within the church), in exchange for the pastor’s obedience to paternalism’s rules and submission to its expectations. Pastors are given power and authority to hold, wield, and guard for the good of the congregation.
“Everyone is looking for someone to outsource their intuition to.”
– Sophie Strand
The contract benefits the congregation by relieving them of the responsibility of taking ownership of their own spiritual formation. Many congregants are happy to play along because as author Sophie Strand wisely notes, “everyone is looking for someone to outsource their intuition to.” (3) In churches shaped by paternalism, congregants also offload their responsibility for discernment onto the pastor, relieving them of the hard work of study, conversation, and deliberation. Having a father figure to tell people what is right, wrong, and what to do, gives people a sense of certainty, security, and freedom from having to face complex dilemmas and ethical questions for themselves.
Paternalism says, “You can’t be trusted. Father knows best.”
The contract paternalism strikes between pastor and congregation is strengthened by theology that overemphasizes people’s sinfulness. If “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9a) then discernment, biblical interpretation, and ethical deliberation cannot be left up to congregants. Paternalism says, “You can’t be trusted. Father knows best.” Thus within paternalism’s contract, congregants grant their pastors the authority to discern ethical matters and interpret Scripture on their behalf in exchange for remuneration, honour, and control. The pastor’s role is to teach, direct, and declare while the congregation’s role is to receive, trust, and obey.
The Costs of Paternalism
While paternalism may offer a sense of security for congregants and influence for pastors, it takes a heavy toll on all.
When the church structure places a sole pastor at the top, and paternalism forms congregational expectations, then all of the congregations’ complaints, dreams, and woes funnel towards the pastorfamilias. If a ministry that someone is passionate about is not flourishing, the failure can be traced back to the pastor who is probably not supporting it enough “from the pulpit,” the symbolic pinnacle of power in the church.
When a congregation has been disempowered by paternalism, and members’ expectations have been shaped by consumerism, people often bring ministry ideas to the pastor for them to run with, organize, and serve up to the people. However, without the support of other staff or volunteers, these ministry dreams rarely come to fruition, and again the responsibility for the failure can be pinned upon the pastor who oversees all.
Paternalism also malforms pastors by encouraging congregants to project the omni attributes of God, their Heavenly Father, onto their church father figure – the pastor. Pastors are often implicitly viewed as omnipotent – all powerful. They are expected to be able to revive a dying church, launch meaningful ministries for every age and stage, change hearts with a single sermon, equip the church to transform the surrounding neighbourhood, and impact the world!
Job descriptions for Lead Pastors are notorious for being laughably wide in scope…
Along with omnipotence comes being omnicompetent – skilled at everything. Job descriptions for Lead Pastors are notorious for being laughably wide in scope of roles and responsibilities. They are asked to be effective public communicators, pastoral care providers, small group facilitators, ceremonialists, community organizers, volunteer mobilizers, conflict mediators, program coordinators, fundraisers, and skilled in marketing.
Given that pastors are tasked with biblical interpretation and the communication of sacred truth, congregants often view them as omniscient – all knowing. Pastors are looked to for divine wisdom regarding people’s personal struggles and social issues, so they try to become experts on every subject – an exhausting and impossible endeavour.
Additionally, projected pastoral omniscience fosters an expectation that the pastor should be aware of every congregant’s need, and sometimes even the needs of their extended family. When a pastor does not reach out to a congregant when they are going through a hard time, congregants can feel slighted. If their pastor is omniscient, the only explanation of the pastor’s inaction is that the pastor knew but was either too busy or didn’t think the concern was worth their time. When the pastor finds out (often second hand) that a congregant is upset with them for not reaching out, the pastor may experience resentment and exasperation over yet another failure at living up to impossible expectations.
If God does not sleep, and pastors, like Christ, sacrifice themselves for the church, then they too should always be on call.
Pastors are also expected to be omnipresent (existing everywhere), if not omniavailable – always approachable. The story of the pastor whose children felt neglected because their pastor parent gave all their time to the church is too familiar. Pastors often feel pressure to attend as many church meetings and ministry events as possible. If God doesn’t sleep (Psalm 121:3-4) and pastors, like Christ, sacrifice themselves for the church, then they too should always be on call. No matter is too insignificant, no time too inconvenient. The door to their office and home is always open and everyone’s concern is worthy of instant pastoral attention.
Paternalism turns pastors into mini-gods. This malformation harms the pastor by placing roles, expectations, and responsibilities upon them that they simply cannot bear. The compulsion to live up to impossible standards causes pastors to oscillate between arrogance, thinking they can actually live up to paternalism’s expectations, and incompetence, when they inevitably fail. Additionally, the expectations of omnipotence, omnicompetence, omniscience, omnipresence and omniavailibility can drive a pastor toward compassion fatigue and burnout.
…paternalism disconnects congregants from their own intuition…
Paternalism costs congregants as well. It breeds disempowered congregations that do not know how to exercise their own agency when it comes to meeting their spiritual needs. If the pastorfamilias knows all and knows best, then congregants do not learn to ask for what they need. They expect the pastor to already know. Additionally, paternalism disconnects congregants from their own intuition and devalues people’s individual and collective wisdom. Sadly, the congregation is impoverished as the perspectives, truths, and insights held among the members do not find expression in the community.
When a congregation outsources discernment to their pastor and expects the pastor to be the source of truth on all matters, leaders can easily use their influence to create cultures of mind-control where spiritual abuse runs rampant and destroys lives. (4) I cannot overstate how dangerous paternalism in a religious context can be.
The Two-way Leash
In a conversation on the topic of paternalism within white supremacy, Brandi Miller, host of the podcast Reclaiming My Theology, talks with Carlos A. Rodriquez about the presence of paternalism within pastoral and charity work. (5) As Rodriquez shares about paternalism from the perspective of a former pastor, someone who grew up and lives in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, and as the founder of The Happy NPO, Rodriquez uses the image of a two-way leash to describe paternalism in the pastorate.
Paternalism’s chains bind both ways.
Rodriquez describes how in a paternalistic church, the pastor is given a leash to hold onto for each member of the congregation. The pastor then leads the church by gently pulling, yanking, or shortening the leashes of their congregants. All authority is held in the pastor’s hand. However, the leashes also tether the pastor to the congregation in a way that ties them to unattainable expectations, such as being responsible for the well being, spiritual formation, and doctrinal soundness of each member of the church. Eventually, the outrageous responsibility paternalism places upon the pastor makes it almost impossible for them to remain grounded in their own humanity or to honour their own limitations. Like a dog walker trying to exercise too many dogs at once, at some point the tension pulling in multiple directions becomes unmanageable. Paternalism’s chains bind both ways.
While personnel committees, caring elder boards, and HR policies that offer sabbaticals, ample vacation time, and benefits can help buoy a beleaguered pastor, it takes more than pastoral resilience to counter paternalism’s effects on clergy. And while having protocols in place for reporting and addressing clergy misconduct is essential, policy alone will not eradicate the impacts of paternalism. We must allow non-paternalistic images to inspire how we imagine the pastoral role.
I no longer ascend onto a stage every Sunday, but I am still a pastor. In March 2022, I, along with my two associates, resigned from our pastoral positions. I had served as a Lead Pastor for almost ten years – a role that included almost weekly preaching and nearly always being on call to provide pastoral care. The following summer, one of my former colleagues and I began to dream about what it would be like to pastor again in ways that were healthier for us and a congregation.
In the fall of 2023, we started Estuary Church and have been experimenting with less paternalistic ways of being a faith community. In an effort to move away from the expectations that come from a Lead Pastor father-figure, we have adopted a co-pastor model. Operating as a pastoral team, there is no one person at the top. Nor is there a sole individual who can be held responsible for the entire church. We share the work of the church as equally as possible while we each leaning into roles that align with our gifts.
We have also intentionally adopted a multi-vocational model, and currently each work half-time for the church. Not having our financial well being completely tied to our pastoral role relieves some of the pressure that consumerism exerts within the church.
As long as the pastor keeps delivering thoughtful and inspiring religious goods week after week, what could be wrong?
When a pastor’s financial well being is reliant upon their job, the expectations of consumerism can drive a pastor to exhaust themselves trying to deliver an endless supply of pleasing religious services in the form of sermons, teaching, and care that is pleasing or at least palatable to every political persuasion, ethical position, and worship style, in the congregation. Within a consumerist framework, people give money in exchange for goods that they perceive meet their needs in positive ways without regard for the social, psychological, or environmental consequences of the transaction. As long as the pastor keeps delivering thoughtful and inspiring religious goods week after week, what could be wrong?
In addition to the risk of burnout, the pressure to provide agreeable goods for the congregation can lead to an intense sense of incongruence within a pastor when their own personal theology begins to differ from or even unsettle that of a majority of the congregation. The inner conflict can reach the state of moral injury if the pastor feels trapped or stuck in a position of having no choice but to continue to deliver spiritual goods that please the people but make the pastor personally sick.
In the first year of our new church experiment, my co-pastor and I invited the formation of a committee to look into organization models that would be less hierarchical and that would empower the congregation. This group’s research led us to sociocracy – a organizational and governance system that decentralizes power, empowers sub-groups within an organization to make their own decisions, utilizes consensus decision-making, values shared roles over omnicompetent people, and builds feedback loops into the organization.
Hierarchical organizational model.
Sociocratic organizational model.
Expanding the Pastoral Imagination
On the second floor of Regent College hangs a striking sculpture by David Robinson entitled “Speak.” The piece depicts a skeletal preacher imprisoned in a cruciform pulpit. During the four years I attended Regent while earning my Mdiv, I would hurry past this haunting piece whenever I walked by. I was disturbed by the image of crucified preaching pastor.
Speak by David Robinson
Most of the images of a pastor that have been held up for me to emulate within the evangelically influenced institutions I have trained or worked in are no longer attractive to me. Living into them has produced joy and fruit, but also tremendous pain and suffering.
For over a decade I tried to live up to the image of the evangelical preacher who researches, studies, and never stops reading, trying to discern what God is saying through a particular passage of scripture and communicate that message with authority, scholarly acumen, relatability, professional delivery, whimsy, and pastoral sensitivity to a particular group of people ages 5-95. The preaching grind took its toll. The burden was heavy, and did little to empower people. Not all suffering is redemptive. If only I paid more attention to Robinson’s warning.
Currently, when I’m not pastoring, offering spiritual direction, or facilitating ceremonies as a celebrant, I work with my wife at her gardening business. As I learn more about the ecology of the places where I live and work, I am inspired by the cooperative and symbiotic relationships of flora. Suzanna Simard’s work in the area of forest ecology tells us that trees communicate with each other through underground mycorrhizal fungal networks. Using this “wood wide web,” trees warn each other about danger and distribute carbon, nutrients and water to trees that need them. Simard’s research shows that certain older trees serve as hubs within forests linking many trees to each other. These “mother trees” connect with trees of all ages and play a unique role in the connectivity and resource distribution within forests.
Might pastors mimic the Mother Tree, utilizing their role as a relational hub connecting to people of all ages, helping communication to flow, and resources (encouragement, wisdom, money, food, etc.) to be redistributed where the are most needed?
I wonder how this maternal and botanical image might expand my pastoral imagination. Might pastors mimic the Mother Tree, utilizing their role as a relational hub connecting to people of all ages, helping communication to flow, and resources (encouragement, wisdom, money, food, etc.) to be redistributed where they are most needed?
If you have read this far, you must have a vested interest in the role of a pastor and the church itself. If you are part of a church, I invite you to consider how paternalism might be shaping its relationships, structures, roles, expectations, policies, and approach to spiritual formation. If you are a pastor, consider what images have shaped your imagination of what a good pastor is and does. What other images might expand your imagination? Realistically, is there an opportunity to shift the culture of your current pastoral context, or might you need to move on in order to pursue work that more aligns with your own values and convictions about how power is used, church is structured, and what it means to pastor well?
- Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez, “For Your Own Good”, Issues in Ethics – V. 5, N. 2 Fall 1991. https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/for-your-own-good/
- Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 79.
- Sophie Strand, “The Biology of Safety, Rejecting Quick Fixes and Tending to Cultural Wounds with Sophie Strand,” 2023, Sex Birth Trauma by Kimberly Ann Johnson. https://kimberlyannjohnson.com/podcast/ep-188-sophie-strand/
- Rachael Clinton and Dan Allender, “Mind Control and Dogmatism in Spiritual Abuse” The Allender Center, May 3, 2019. https://theallendercenter.org/2019/05/mind-control-spiritual-abuse/