By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
Do churches mimic their pastors?
That is the conventional wisdom. Yet it appears that this truism may, at best, be overly simplistic. At worst, it may betray a hint of fantasy and clerical narcissism.
Perpetuating The Notion
Certainly there are positive reasons which may help perpetuate this notion.
First, it “fits” the expected ideal of pastoral leadership. The sheep hear their shepherd’s voice and follow because they feel he’s so much like them.
Second, it helps to promote the importance of the character of the clergy. If a church becomes like its pastors, then the conscientious pastor will want to be watchful of his life and teaching as Paul exhorted Timothy.
However, on the negative side, this notion of churches imitating their pastors is relatively unproven.
One wonders what measures or objective criteria could or should be used to assess the diverse range of behaviors, attitudes, emotions and general overall “likeness” to the pastor.
Secondly, the notion that churches imitate their pastors, in many cases, appears to defy reality. If churches did become like their pastors, why are pastors resigning, being removed or otherwise seeking escape from the duress of congregations? Is it because the church is becoming like its pastors? What a sad set of circumstances that would be if it were true! Hmmm….
Third, the notion may create and perpetuate unhealthy pastoral leadership expectations. While on the one hand believing that churches mimic their pastors may give the impression that the pastor has a great deal of talent and influence in a growing church, on the other hand it may be a source of discouragement for any equally talented pastor who may find himself in a difficult parish.
Indeed, there is a reason why some of the country’s most effective pastors failed in their first churches. Rev. Robert Schuler is only one example of a virtual parade of pastors who, having been unsuccessful and removed from their first church, went on to more successful ministry in other settings.
False-Positive Readings
For “successful pastors,” it may be an statement of pride that he has a church “just like him.” After all, which leader is so altruistic that they would refuse any and all credit for ministry growth and “success?”
But is it not possible for this claim to success to be a “false reading?” Are there not churches which thrive–or at least maintain a healthy vigor–in spite of their pastoral leadership? Could it be that they survived specifically because they did not mimic their pastor?
This does occur in some congregations, especially those with larger multiple paid staff. In such congregations, the senior pastor may be adept at side-stepping the issues, avoiding conflict, refusing decision-making, and engaging in otherwise escapist behavior on a day-to-day basis. Whenever difficult issues arise, such pastors are either hiding in the woodwork or behind a facade. Remaining passive in the background,  pastors by default let the lay leadership build the ministry. Only after the issues have been resolved does these pastors emerge to claim “their” success.
False-Negative Reading
Another type of false reading is the false-negative. In this scenario, an exemplary, creative and energetic pastor gives courageous charismatic leadership to an unresponsive, dysfunctional congregation. Though limited success may occur, the congregation eventually via passivity and or active conflict ignores, sidesteps, or destroys the success.
The unfortunate result is two-fold: the congregation remains entrenched in their accustomed ministry posture and the pastor gets a false negative reading of his abilities, giftedness, and calling. Sometimes, these pastors may find themselves dealing with a sense of incompetence and wallowing in discouragement and self-deprecation.
Do churches really imitate their pastors?
Certainly the relationships and interactions between pastors and their congregations are not without complexities. Given such complexities, one may have good reason to wonder whether the “Pygmalion” phenomena, so greatly popularized in the Rogers and Hammerstein hit musical, “My Fair Lady,”  really is operative in the church.
If Pygmalion is an operative organizational principle in congregations and other organizations, some of the more obvious and logical questions to pose might include:
  • “Which direction does the influencing go–from Pastor to parishioners…or from parishioners to pastors…or a mixture of both?”
  • “What percentage of the membership desires to mimic the pastor?”
  • “What critical ratio of mimickers to non-mimickers is essential for the organization to undergo the pygmalionic transition?
  • “What factors are associated with a congregation’s increased (or decreased) potential to mimic their pastors and/or vice versa?”
  • “Are there certain congregational events which help or hinder this phenomenon?”
Christian leaders, of course, will want to consider, of course,  the most critical and central organizational dynamic for the Christian church, namely, to what extent is the power of God’s Word and His will working through it really the major operant influence?
Some Problems
Like many truisms, the truism “congregations mimic their pastors” may raise more difficulties and unanswered questions than it portends to solve.
First, do the people in the church want to become like their pastor?

Some may respect their pastor. But others may not want to at all. Still others will despise everything about the pastor while others cannot but praise him. Are such typical congregations with a basically “normal” distribution of protagonists, antagonists, early innovators and laggards really able to ever perfectly imitate their pastor?
Second, what are those elements which are to be considered subject to “mimicking” and which are not?

Personality? Spiritual Values? Life Values? Gifts and abilities? Given the scriptural teaching of the diversity of gifts within the Body of Christ, it may not be a reasonable hope or expectation for congregations to have cloned pluralities of their pastor.
Third, there are some congregations which are so entrenched in their ways that no pastoral personality could even remotely change them.

Pastors can probably name in a moment those congregational organizations, groups, boards or guilds that just de facto resist any of the pastors’ suggestions. If the cliché for our consideration is true, wouldn’t these groups conform their will, desires, goals and visions with that of the leader’s?
Fourth, the biblical accounts of leaders such as Jesus, weeping over Jerusalem, Isaiah and other prophets, ministering to a people without “ears to hear,” and Moses, who had to oversee the extermination of an entire generation of people rebellious to him and God, all demonstrate that the real power, influence and persuasion really is not man’s but God’s.
Fifth, this cliché of pastoral influence overlooks the role of relational systems in congregations.
From A Systems Perspective
Congregations and pastors, together, comprise an organizational and relationship system.
Systems, in general,  tend to have at least two major characteristics:
One, they have a tendency to try to remain stable over time and,
Two, they are highly resistant to changes.
Given these system tendencies, perhaps it is reasonable to ask:
  • Can the pastor change these systems?
  • Will these complex interaction of personalities characteristic of systems mimic him?
  • Or is the extent of his ability somehow to appeal to those in the congregation who are already like-minded and who may help to carry forth his agenda.
Another major implication of a systems perspective is that systems tend to have–and perpetuate–at least six essential system roles: the Hero, Enabler, Spiritual Leader, Lost Child, Mascot, and Scapegoat. While virtually all systems contain these roles, the relative dominance of each one may vary among systems.
However, as systems tend to maintain equilibrium, the various roles–and their respective strength within that system–will tend to remain constant over the long haul. Short-term variations may occur. But, over the long-term these roles are extremely persistent.
Congregations in which the expected pastoral system role is the Hero may experience a greater degree of imitating their hero than those whose expected pastoral system role is the Scapegoat. Each system role carries varying degrees of influence. To the extent the pastor can shift the congregational system to achieve a more influential system role may also influence the degree to which the truism, “The congregation mimics its pastor” is, indeed, true.
The Pastor also comes to the congregation with his own system role expectations from his own personal relationship system. What things may occur in a congregation which, expecting a “Hero” for the position of pastoral leadership, instead receives an individual who was a Lost Child or Scapegoat in his home?
Some relationship systems in the church are, by nature, more outgoing, visionary, active and sympathetic to the pastor. Others, however, are not…and never will be.
Sixth, systems theory also describes how individuals fill various key roles in the small group to maintain equilibrium in the system. Thus, it may not be that a church mimics their pastor. Instead, what may really be happening is that pastors–as everyone else–will tend to be closer to those individuals who best compliment their personalities, work styles, system roles, etc.
Some Observations
1. Congregations may or may not mimic their pastors.
2. The mimicking process may be a subtle projection of personality upon the congregation over time, a direct planned educational process, or a combination of the two.
3. Mimicking may occur in one, several, or many select areas of ministry.
4. Pastors can also mimic congregations. This can occur for several different reasons. In more cases than not, when this occurs it is almost always signals a breakdown of self-differentiation, burn-out, and a general loss of the pastor’s sense of leadership and passion for ministry.

Pygmalion: Whom Shall We Mimic?

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” 
Ephesians 5:1 NIV

Amid all the distractions found in ministry, in life, and in our sinful characters, it is often difficult to keep the right focus on our holy “mimicry.” Paul’s words to the Ephesians stress that we ought always imitate God. Why?

Not because it is easy. But because we are loved–dearly loved–by God Himself.

As Christ went to the cross there were certainly many distractions. There were many opportunities for mimicking something less painful…than love. Even in His death and resurrection, He demonstrated a focused example of love for us to mimic, pattern and follow.

There are three occurrences of the word “imitator” (Gk: “mimetes”) in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:1; I Thessalonians 1:6; and  I Timothy 2:4). In all three occurrences the “mimicking” occurs in the context of suffering. It appears that when ministry gets excruciatingly tough one of the most important survival mechanisms is simply to “imitate God.”

Imitate God!

Imitate God? Certainly we can’t be holy as He is. But we can try. Perhaps the greatest benefit of considering mimicking God is that it forces us to examine Him, His loving nature, and His marvelous working through us…in every area of our lives and ministry.

Whatever the circumstances of your ministry–and especially if you are under extreme duress–consider this: Who–and what–are you mimicking? Is it God and His often hard, but loving, plan for you? Or is it the easy way of the world?

Imitate God, dearly loved one, and experience the fullness of God’s grace in, with and through you and others!

Thomas F. Fischer

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