Through the years, I have been forced to think through my positions as a pastor. I was not called from a long line of pastors in my family. Although my grandfather was a pastor, he died before I was born. I was never able to have a good cup of coffee with him and ask him his opinions on specific things in pastoral ministry. My father was a fireman for 36 years, and I can get advice from him on many things in life, but not pastoral advice. Therefore, much of the practical things related to pastoral ministry must be learned and developed on the job rather than in the classroom. In a few weeks, I will complete my 10th year as a lead pastor. During these 10 years, I have made mistakes, adjusted practical positions, adjusted theological positions, and hopefully gained wisdom along the journey. Being a pastor is not as simple as it may seem, and learning to make the right decisions is not always easy.
Several years ago, I recall having breakfast with a group of older pastors. They were talking about ministry and practical aspects of the office of a pastor. I recall the topic of “sheep swapping” among churches came up in our conversation over coffee. The question was posed, “What is your policy for visitors who attend your church from another congregation?” I recall hearing about the “unwritten code” over the meal. Similarly, a couple of weeks ago, I attended a monthly pastors’ lunch where that exact same topic was announced for discussion. Once again, I enjoyed hearing the pastors describe their positions. It was both helpful and insightful.
The “unwritten pastoral code” as I have termed it, is a simple position followed by many pastors through the years. This unpublished rule of pastoral ethics suggests that if a visiting family attends your church from another church family and you have their information on a visitor’s form, you should contact their pastor to let him know of their visit and inform him that you have no desire to steal away his sheep. While this is not a mandate among autonomous congregations, I do follow it for the reasons stated below.
1. Thou Shalt Not Steal Sheep
Not long ago, I was made aware that a specific church not far from our campus took in 40 families (approximately 100 members) from another church across town where this pastor had previously served. Among most pastoral circles, methods like this will cause you to be labeled as a sheep thief. When visiting families attend our church services, I make an initial contact with them through a generic letter. If they continue to visit, I will usually call their pastor to let him know of their perpetual visits so that he will know what is going on (and where his sheep are). If unresolved problems are lingering between the family and their home church, the pastor can seek restoration before they officially sever ties with the church. This is healthy for the pastor, the church, and the visiting family. It also prevents me and our congregation from becoming sheep thieves. In fact, it may result in restoration and the visiting family returning to their church. I know – that method completely violates the church growth manuals of our day.
2. Avoiding Evangelical Competition
Within the evangelical church today, there is a very unhealthy spirit of competition. Pastors are often afraid to pray for one another or work together because they feel threatened. Often pastors seem to be competing for the same sheep rather than looking at the multitudes of lost people who often live within the shadow of their steeple (supposing they have a steeple). This spirit of competition is prevalent in so many forms, even Christian radio. It’s not an uncommon thing to hear a commercial of a pastor from one church on the Christian radio station inviting other Christians to his church. An honest assessment will tell us that the target audience of a Christian radio station is primarily believers who are currently members within a local church. Therefore, it goes without saying, we have a massive competition problem in the evangelical church today. Encouraging visiting families to go back to their church and resolve problems with their pastor and their church is a lost art and an unwritten code of pastoral ethics, but it will lay to rest a spirit of competition among churches.
It may seem like a crazy thought, but if a family is seeking membership in the church where I serve for no apparent reason other than they just like our playground or the style of music, I will likely ask them to return to their church. As pastors, we must create a culture of robust church membership and teach the true reasons for leaving a church. A better playground, praise band, or bigger church is not a good reason to “swap churches.”
3. Embracing a High View of Pastoral Ministry
When people join a church, they likewise submit themselves under the leadership of pastoral authority. To suggest that today’s evangelical church is weak in this area is an understatement to say the least. We are living in times of greater autonomy and privacy. However, the very nature of the church stands against the world of private Christian decisions and lifestyle. If a visiting family attends more than one service with our congregation, it is my duty to talk to their pastor. He is the one responsible for their spiritual wellbeing. He is the shepherd who has lost his sheep and may not know where they are currently attending! A high view of pastoral authority and leadership will attempt to keep church members rightly connected with their pastors. Unless the church is heretical or outside of the evangelical boundaries, the visiting family should be seeking guidance and prayer from their pastoral leaders before leaving their church.
4. Protecting the Flock of God from Wolves
The present day church is drunk on church growth. Almost any tactic you can imagine today is being employed in order to attract new sheep from other churches. If a church takes in members without counseling with their former pastoral leaders, it could be a dangerous thing for the entire church family. Why? Because wolves often dress in sheep’s clothing. More than one congregation has been hurt and confused by wolves who came into the flock looking like and speaking like sheep. The job of the shepherd is to protect the flock. Pastors are not CEO business men who are somehow separated from the people in the church until Sunday morning at 11am. The shepherd is called to feed and care for the flock, and this involves protecting them from the wolves (Titus 1). A simple conversation with the pastoral staff of the visiting family could save the entire church a great deal of pain. There are false sheep and false shepherds, and churches should be cautious of these problems.
5. Toward a High View of Church Membership
As we examine the Bible, we see a clear calling for the pastors who oversee and the church members who submit. While the pastors are to act as spiritual shepherds, the members are to act as spiritual sheep. Sheep are not to just wander off into another pasture for grazing. Shepherds shouldn’t allow sheep to just disappear. There should be a mutual desire for oversight and submission within the life of the church. As pastors feed the sheep of God’s flock, the members are to receive the food and submit to their spiritual authority.
As we consider the need for regenerate church membership, we must also pursue a truly submissive church membership. The word “submit” is often abused and rejected based on faulty definitions. However, a pastor should not just come in on a Tuesday morning and find a letter on his desk indicating that a family from the church has visited and pursued membership in another church down the road. Members should seek pastoral advice, counsel, and prayer before making such moves. Unless the members are leaving because of gross heresy or other abusive sinful actions that require more immediate action, the members should be under the guidance of their pastors prior to making such big decisions.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As a pastor, I have seen and experienced the good, bad, and the ugly in church membership moves. I have seen families leave without the first request for prayer as they seek God’s will about a possible move. I have had pastors take in members from the church that I serve without the first phone call. I have also experienced good situations where families have approached me or a member of our pastoral staff for prayer regarding a possible business relocation, issues related to distance in travel, and other understandable concerns. Most recently, a man approached me about membership in our church. We had come to know one another and had met for coffee a few different times, but I had not expected that he and his family would come and join our church. However, before they made up their mind to leave their church family (which was in another town from where we are located), he sought counsel from the elders of his church. Through prayer and a season of counsel, the elders of his congregation gave his family their blessing in their desired move. This was perhaps the most biblical and prayerful move that I have witnessed in my 10 years as a lead pastor. I was greatly encouraged.
In conclusion, I believe that this “unwritten pastoral code” serves as a means to a more biblical church membership, the protection of God’s flock, and provides pastors a way to fulfill their calling to provide guidance and oversight to the members of the congregation.
We are more than talking heads in the pulpit. Members are more than nickels and noses on Sunday mornings. We must function as a genuine church for God’s glory!
Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Josh Buice