Over the past five years, my colleagues and I have noticed a disturbing trend in plateaued and declining churches. Many of them are staffed by:

  • pastors who have given up.
  • pastors without hope.
  • pastors convinced revitalization efforts are futile.
  • pastors who ignore offers of help.

I don’t have hard numbers because to date we haven’t tracked this “indifference quotient.” It seems roughly half of those who could be helped fail to respond to offers of help.

Time and money can’t be the issue. For less than they spend at Starbucks every year, pastors have easy access to free webinars, excellent online learning (any time, any place), affordable coaching and supportive peer groups.

Off the record, denominational leaders express frustration over pastors who ignore offers of help. Peers are mystified when struggling colleagues brush off training that produces remarkable results. They are indifferent to data showing that training, discipline, and hard work leads to turnaround churches.

At least 100,000 American pastors should be clamoring for help. But they aren’t. They seem to have dropped out. Is this one reason why 80 percent of churches remain on plateau or in decline?

Why have so many pastors just given up? I have seen two likely causes: the chaplain model of pastoral ministry and learned helplessness.

#1 – The chaplain model of pastoral ministry

Pastors enter ministry with aspirations to serve Christ’s mission to “make disciples of all nations.” Many eventually become chaplains, pastoral counselors and therapists. Many factors funnel them into the chaplaincy model.

The church’s compromise with the pursuit of “happiness” must be a factor. The fourth-century development of errant pastoral theology lingers with us. The way clergy are trained fails to prepare them to be church leaders. The church “farm team” system and group sociology attenuate leadership potential.

Sociology of the small church

Most ministers start a vocational ministry in a “farm team” church. This is a small church, 75 or fewer in attendance. Novice pastors spend several years learning the ropes. They move to larger churches when they’re ready for bigger things.

The flaw is the sociology of the small church. They see the pastor as the chaplain, a hired religious functionary who provides soul care, preaches and teaches and does anything else the board or the leading member of the “anchor family” deems necessary.

The pastor’s job is to adopt the church’s norms, espouse its values and avoid making waves. Woe unto the naive pastor who attempts to initiate change!

The pastor’s interest in social service

Chaplaincy appeals to those who have high Social Service interest scores on the Birkman MethodTM personality profile.

There is an important difference between pastors who seem to be naturally gifted as church revitalization leaders (~ 20 percent) and the majority of pastors. The latter group has a much higher interest in providing care. When their churches grow beyond their ability to provide everyone with hands-on pastoral care, these pastors suffer.

Could this be one reason so many pastors refuse help learning how to lead their churches to grow? Their personal needs as care providers are satisfied. They know growth will hamper their ability to provide the kind of care they find so personally rewarding.

 #2 – Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness, a theory firmly established by decades of research in positive psychology, may explain why many pastors won’t seek help.  This is a mindset which says, “Anything I try to fix is futile. I am powerless.”

Helplessness is “learned” when people are inescapably trapped in miserable situations. Every attempt to escape fails. Eventually, they give up. They suffer in impotent silence.

How do pastors learn helplessness?

• Life experience and a pessimistic outlook

Many enter vocational ministry with life’s nasty scrapes and bruises. Impoverished childhood, dysfunctional family life, chronic illness, catastrophic loss and other misfortunes toss us like helpless ping-pong balls on a tsunami.

When hard life is interpreted through a pessimistic outlook, we’re conditioned for learned helplessness.

• The “farm team” system

This aforementioned practice is fraught with peril if two conditions are met: (1) the new pastor is pessimistic and (2) takes a placement in a church that beats and bullies pastors.

• Seminars, conferences and case studies

A pastor attends the big conference to find help. Well-known speakers present one-off case studies (“here’s how I did it”). The pastor returns home with the afterglow of rah-rah, a notebook, and some swag. On Monday, he sits down at the desk and wonders, “Now what?”

The conference provided no transferable principles and no direction about how that pastor should apply this information to that church. The ebullience fades, doubt takes over and discouragement is but a few days away.

Rinse and repeat several times over a few years and the pastor will conclude it is futile. Nothing makes any difference in this church.

Don’t give up!

The tragedy in this is that there’s no reason to give up! Quite to the contrary, there’s ample reason for hope! Many denominations, ministries, and parachurch organizations are doing a fine job of equipping pastors to lead significant church revitalization.

The key is to avoid the “church in a can” recipe – the “one size fits all” model. This is what you’ll typically find in the large conferences where hundreds of pastors attend. It simply is not possible in that kind of a setting to learn transferrable principles that will work for you.

And that’s what you’re looking for! Be on the search for training opportunities that are tailored to suit your unique needs. Avoid the “here’s how I did it” one-off case studies.