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How to Win at Parish Poker

Pastoral credibility can be parlayed into great gains ... or squandered.
How to Win at Parish Poker

Like poker, pastoring is an exercise that combines skill and providence to sort out winners and losers, often with frighteningly high stakes.

Your Initial Stake

Just a desire to play and win never got anyone a seat at a poker table. A poker player needs chips to enter the game—a stake. When a new pastor is called to a church, a pile of chips is normally stacked up for use as the pastor chooses. They represent the good favor and support of the church people. They may be saved for a rainy day or risked in the first hand of play.

Many complex factors contribute to the number of invisible chips provided the new pastor. If the vote to call was 99 percent affirmative, it's usually good for ninety-nine chips. However, a squeaker vote of exactly 66 2/3 percent is seldom worth more than twenty-five chips. There is already a built-in doubt about the new pastor's ability to lead the congregation.

Even here lie some subtleties only the most experienced players recognize:

The reason is more important than the number. Suppose the call is only 75 percent affirmative because 25 percent felt the selection was hurried after the accidental death of the previous pastor. In other words, 100 percent of the members liked the candidate, but some voted no for procedural reasons. In this case, the new pastor will probably still receive a full pile of one hundred chips.

On the other hand, even a unanimous vote can mean trouble. After being turned down by three consecutive candidates, one church began to wonder if it would ever get another pastor. The fourth candidate made it clear he would come only if he received a 100 percent call. Members who disliked him and held major reservations about his qualifications felt intimidated into voting yes. He received only 35 chips to begin his ministry, even though he thought his pile counted a hundred.

Smart candidates give much closer attention to the interpretation of the vote than to the numbers.

The pastoral candidate is often not what's being voted on. The naive would surmise that when a congregation is voting on a new pastor, it is voting on a new pastor. Seldom so!

The church members know comparatively little about the candidate. They may have read a resume, heard a sermon, and met the family in a receiving line. That is hardly sufficient basis for most members to determine if this is the right person to lead the church for years to come.

So, instead of voting on the candidate, the congregation votes on the search committee. Everyone knows these individuals. Their likes and dislikes, spirituality and sins, wisdom and foolishness have all been well-observed. If the pulpit committee is well-known and highly respected, it will be assumed they are presenting a worthy candidate. The members vote yes, and the new pastor gets a big pile of unearned chips. On the other hand, a committee disliked by many members in a divided congregation will generate a lot of negative votes and a small initial supply of chips for the pastor.

This is not to say the church will never vote on its pastor. That comes later when an assistant-pastor candidate or a new budget is presented. People may not know much about the proposed assistant nor understand the proposed budget, but they have definitely reached a decision about the pastor pushing these recommendations. The pastor's sermons, visitation, clothes, spouse, and children may all be factors in voting yes or no on the proposals.

To the bewilderment of a nixed assistant candidate, the vote may have had absolutely nothing to do with anything he said or did. The church only appeared to be voting on what it was voting on; it was really voting on the senior pastor.

Aside from the vote at the time of call, other factors determine how many initial chips a new pastor receives.

Age and experience are often worth up to 100 extra chips. The pastor with some gray hair and at least one successful pastorate is assumed to bring wisdom and knowledge to the new job. However, the recent seminary graduate or the older pastor closing in on retirement may be docked initial chips for being too young or too old.

The previous pastor sometimes unintentionally makes the biggest difference of all. Long-term pastors are hard to follow; they often seem to take most of the chips with them. Long-term pastors who died in the church are particularly unfollowable. And, if the previous pastor died in the pulpit preaching a superb sermon after 50 years in that same church, all the chips will be gone!

In contrast are those marvelous predecessors who prepare the way. They teach the congregation to love and support the next pastor "no matter who." They even make a special point to endorse their successors and thereby confer hundreds (maybe thousands) of their own chips.

Church health can affect the chips either way. Particularly healthy churches may be anxious to grow, so they intuitively stake the new pastoral leadership with the chips necessary to lead. Particularly sick churches often do the same. Like ambulance cases in an emergency room who are hardly in a position to check the physician's medical-school grades, they, out of desperation, give all the chips they have to the new pastor.

But watch out for those arrogant churches too cocky to advance chips. They expect pastors to earn their own. And beware of those churches so ill they have no chips left. They may be too depleted to survive, much less follow a new leader.

Any good poker player determines his stake at the start of the game. So does the smart pastor.

Gaining Chips

Some churches are anxious to add to the pastor's pile of chips, even granting new chips just for being pastor, since they have such high regard for the position. But most chips are won slowly over years of meaningful ministry.

Every good sermon is worth at least one chip. Pastors who preach both Sunday morning and evening can double their rate of accumulation. Scintillating sermons on special occasions like Mother's Day and Christmas win double chips because they not only minister to the regular attender but win accolades from visiting relatives and friends. Church members like it when their guests are impressed with their pastor's preaching.

Individual ministry is a slow but sure chip builder. Every counseling session, home visit, phone call, birthday card, and hospital call is another opportunity for a pastor to add to the pile.

Sometimes new pastors become angry when they don't immediately receive the acceptance and honor afforded their predecessor. It becomes an irritant every time the previous pastor's sermons, visits, and sayings are mentioned. But such reverence was won over years of love, care, and individual attention, and there is seldom any way to hurry the transfer process. Criticizing the prior pastor doesn't help. If anything, such criticism subtracts from the newcomer's stack of chips.

Then there are the chip builders that come from individual style. One recent seminary graduate candidated at a church while his young wife was nearly nine months pregnant. When the lay leader invited her to join her husband on the platform, the candidate quickly went to help her up the steps. Everyone thought he was wonderful. They gave him more chips for helping his wife up the steps than most pastors get for a year of first-class sermons.

In The Small Church Is Different, Lyle Schaller compares the expectations of the smaller church and the larger church. While some professional competence and personal relationships are necessary in both, the smaller the church, the greater the expectation of relationship, and the larger the church, the greater the expectation of function. Churches of fifty are more interested in a pastor who relates well to every member, even if the sermons are marginal. Churches of five thousand expect super sermons whether everyone knows the pastor or not.

This is important to remember in winning chips. The pastor of a small church may be perplexed why so much study and so many profound sermons generate so few chips. Likewise, the pastor of a large church may work endlessly to build relationships and get few chips in return because the preaching doesn't measure up.

None of this is to say a pastor should consciously measure every action in terms of its chip-producing potential. That in itself would probably be counterproductive. Pastors must minister as they are able in accord with their call. But they must also be sensitive to the credibility they have in the church, credibility determined by the number of chips accumulated.

Losing Chips

In poker, as in pastoring, every hand is also a potential chip loser. Every Sunday morning can add a chip with a good sermon, but every Sunday morning can also deplete the pile with a yawner. Home calling will win a chip if all goes well but lose a chip if the family is offended.

The old advice "Don't change anything in your first year at a church" recognizes the danger of losing chips too fast and too soon. Something as seemingly simple as changing the order of worship may cost a new pastor half his starting chips the first Sunday and create a misimpression of arrogance, insensitivity, and pushiness. It may take a year of sermons and hospital visits just to get back even.

Some pastors seem amazingly fortunate. They move into new churches and risk all their chips in the first month … and win. Some even bluff, gambling ten times the number of chips they have on account, and they still win! One pastor led his church to change the constitution, replace staff, and undertake a multimillion dollar building program shortly after his arrival. There was no upheaval: the church responded with enthusiasm, grew with amazing speed, and did everything he asked. He raked in the chips.

It doesn't usually work that way. More often, the new pastor who risks more chips than he has loses big and folds. A pastor with a chip deficit cannot lead a church for long. Of course, no one will say, "You gambled and lost. You'll have to leave the table." In fact, a year or more may pass before the pastor senses "a call to another ministry" or the church says, "God wants you someplace else," but it all goes back to that day the pastor gambled away his chips.

One New Jersey pastor forgot a funeral. It wasn't that he was neglecting ministry; he was in a restaurant counseling a man from the congregation. He lost track of time and simply forgot he was supposed to be at the mortuary chapel. After trying to reach him by phone, the funeral director recruited another minister from a different denomination who was a complete stranger to the family.

When the pastor discovered his mistake, he immediately went to the home to explain and apologize. The family rejected his apology, refused to forgive his offense, and left the church. To their reckoning, no number of chips could pay for such an affront. Did he survive in the church? Yes. He survived because he had been there many years and had a huge backlog of chips from the rest of the congregation. But the error certainly cost him.

Jesus' counsel to "count the cost" (Luke 14:28-32) can be applied to pastoral risks. Before making a change, confronting a member, or launching a new program, the pastor needs to figure out if there are enough chips to lose and live. It hardly seems worth losing a potentially productive pastorate by a bet that could have been avoided or at least delayed until more chips were accumulated.

Assessing Your Play

Early in my ministry I wanted to move out of the church-owned parsonage and buy a house. During the inflationary years of that time, it seemed like a now-or-never proposition.

The trustees agreed to sell the parsonage and add a housing allowance to my salary. It was insufficient, but we pressed ahead. A builder in the church helped us find a lot and offered to build for his cost. When a plumber lent his services for cost, it looked like our dream was about to come true. We only needed a final church vote to sell the parsonage and provide the housing allowance.

Although the eventual vote tallied 85 percent in favor, a vocal minority remained highly critical: "The pastor is being selfish. He wants to get rich at church expense. We can't afford it."

Conflicting counsel confused my 26-year-old mind. I didn't understand about chips, but I sensed this decision might affect my whole future at that church. So, after seemingly endless prayers with God and conversations with my wife, I decided it wasn't worth the risk. We dumped the plans and stayed in the parsonage.

Even this cost a few chips, as I was accused of letting the minority rule. But, all told, the church perceived I was more concerned about others than myself, and they piled on more chips. Those were needed some years later when the church relocated, built a new building, and sold the parsonage for the equity. Everybody came out a winner.

How do you assess your standing?

Keep track of your chips. Pastors usually have a sense of their standing in the church. We know how many visits we've made and have a hunch how our sermons are being received. We remember the last episode when chips were lost and how severe the losses were.

A daily journal and an annual review provide two additional practical ways to keep track of chips. Writing a journal is a helpful way to record the ups and downs of everyday pastoral ministry. If an honest journal reveals more defeats than victories, suspect a chip decline and proceed cautiously. If reading the journal shows mostly victories, estimate a chip surplus and be open to greater risk.

A formal performance review by the governing board or a pastoral-relations committee not only communicates how ministry is going but helps tabulate the current number of chips in the pastor's account.

Count the cost. After a while we estimate everyday risks without thinking about them. If Mrs. Folkers isn't visited this week she won't like it, but we can sustain the minor chip loss in order to use the time to keep a more strategic evangelistic appointment. We accept the inevitable loss without much thought.

A major building program, staff addition, or other significant change demands a conscious effort to estimate the potential losses and gains. Usually there will be some of both.

For example, we may need a new building. However, such an undertaking would probably split the church, and a third of the people would leave. If that happened, we wouldn't need the new building. It seems obvious not to build. On the other hand, the catharsis of losing that third and the construction of the new building might result in greater effectiveness and substantial growth.

A firm calculation of potential losses and gains is impossible, since all of the data for any close decision can never be gathered. Neither life nor ministry are that precise. Nevertheless, we can adequately estimate many risks in advance, so that wise choices result. The time to count the cost is in advance.

Know your priorities. Very few issues necessitate splitting a church or losing a job. Such issues reside in the realm of major doctrinal, moral, and ethical stands.

Beyond those few black-and-white choices (which may be comparatively easy to make because they are so clear), most questions are matters of priorities. We learn to prioritize church growth, evangelism, pastoral care, harmony within the body, happiness of old-timers, receptivity to newcomers, and other concerns.

Some experts say that in order to grow, "a church must want to grow and be willing to pay the price." If that is the top priority, losing some faithful members because of changes may be a painful but necessary price to pay.

Whatever the priorities, they should be known and spelled out as a necessary step before undertaking a significant risk.

Trust the Lord. Fortunately, mortals are unable to get all the facts and make perfect choices. We must trust God. It's better that way.

I have often counted the chips, determined the risk, and then laid it all out (sometimes in writing) before the Lord. Since it's his church and I'm his servant, the ultimate decision is his and not mine-win or lose. Most often this leads to a preliminary decision and a prayer: "Lord, I'll proceed privately as if that's the way to go. If I'm right, keep me going. If I'm wrong, stop me before I lose all my chips!"

Decide. In a poker game there comes a time to play or fold. After the chips have been counted, the stakes calculated, and the hopes dreamed, a decision must be made. The player must toss his chips in the pot . . . or get out of the game.

So we decide. Not hastily, not carelessly, but carefully, prayerfully, wisely. We place our cards on the table-our ministries on the line.

When he wrote this article, Leith Anderson was pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He is now president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

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