By objective measures Russ Ramsey excelled as a pastor. As the preaching pastor of a Nashville church, he had seen the congregation grow from one to three services in five years. Attendance jumped from 180 to about 700. And Ramsey loved the challenge. The church was situated in one of Nashville’s trendiest neighborhoods. Students from nearby Vanderbilt University mingled with urban creatives for weekly worship in a 1908 white brick steepled church. You couldn’t assume voting patterns. You couldn’t assume spiritual maturity. You couldn’t even assume the most basic beliefs. Opportunities for evangelism and discipleship abounded.

So it came as a shock to much of the congregation when late last year Ramsey announced his resignation. But the reason was the bigger surprise. He wasn’t leaving because he already had another ministry job lined up. He wasn’t leaving because he was burned out. He wasn’t leaving because of conflict within the congregation. He was leaving because he wanted to be a pastor. So he could preach and teach and write and counsel. His calling hadn’t changed. But the needs of his church had.

A growing congregation is the kind of problem every pastor wants. Not many pastors overall see much if any numeric increase in membership during their tenures, let alone the kind Ramsey saw in Nashville. But growth brings its own challenges. And many pastors who thrive in a church’s dynamic growth stage struggle to manage increasingly complex structures and leadership burdens when their congregations demand them.

Three Kinds of Ministers 

Talking with pastors, I’ve noticed at least three different kinds of ministers who encounter problems when their church grows. The first is the evangelist. This is the kind of pastor most likely to plant a church. He’s comfortable around unbelievers and spends a lot of time striking up conversations with neighbors and fellow patrons of coffee shops. By God’s grace the church grows with conversions. Then the pastor runs into problems. He needs to disciple these new believers. They have a lot of problems, and they depend on him for counsel. Older believers who could help shoulder this load by sharing their wisdom and experience don’t join the church because it lacks programs for them and especially their children. The more time the pastor spends counseling and organizing new programs, the less time he spends evangelizing.

He feels like he needs to leave the church to return to his original calling.

The second pastor is the scholar. He’s more likely to have accepted a call to lead an established church than to plant a new one. These older congregations love it when the sign out front lists Dr. So-and-So as the senior pastor. The new minister brings excitement and transfer growth as believers from other churches search for more biblical and theological depth in preaching. In this established church the members expect regular visits and special attention to their preferred programs and committees. But that’s not the ministry this pastor envisioned when he spent upwards of seven years of full-time academic study after undergrad in order to earn a PhD. Where is the time to read, to study, to keep up with the academic journals and edit the dissertation for publication?

He feels like he needs to leave the church to return to his original calling.

The third pastor is the creative. He might have planted the church himself or joined early on. Like Ramsey, maybe he’s been recruited as a campus pastor in a particularly young and artistic neighborhood. He teaches with illustrations that fuel the imagination and lodge in the memory. The church grows as enthusiastic members invite their friends who didn’t know church could engage their emotions and value their gifting as artists. The pastor’s gift for communication brings him some notoriety. He writes online articles that go viral. He publishes a few well-read books. But the numerical growth requires the church to institutionalize. Policies and procedures are needed to protect the church from legal challenges. The staff grows, and managing artists is not easy. During long Thursday evening meetings with deacons and lay elders, the pastor daydreams about a simpler life.

He feels like he needs to leave the church to return to his original calling.

Mistaken Expectations

To make matters worse, pastors don’t get to choose between evangelism, study, and creativity. All are essential parts of faithful, biblical, well-rounded pastoral ministry. Likewise, administration is necessary for any thriving church. Pastors cannot afford to ignore it just because they don’t like it or don’t feel especially gifted at it. Pastoral ministry is an act of service, not a platform for acting out a truncated notion of personal gifting or calling.

Pastoral ministry is an act of service, not a platform for acting out a truncated notion of personal gifting or calling.

Many pastors enter ministry with mistaken expectations, according to Dave Harvey, executive director of Sojourn Network and pastor of preaching at Four Oaks Church in Tallahasee, Florida. The author of the book Am I Called? says many young ministers discern their calling by seeing the public ministry of their favorite preachers. They see the half-hour sermon each week but miss the ten hours of planning, staff meetings, and answering emails afterward. When they enroll in seminary, they see only the scholarly fruit of their professors’ work. They imagine long stretches of uninterrupted study and even occasional sabbaticals. They don’t see their professors labor in the technical minutia of academic publishing or grading.

For church planters the problem is especially glaring, owing to their youth and limited experience in churches. “Planters starting from well-resourced, large churches are very often unprepared for the crushing burden of administration at the outset of any new church,” Harvey observes.

While deciding between competing demands on their time and while coping with crushed expectations, pastors must also deal with a more fundamental problem. Not every evangelist or scholar or creative is gifted as a leader. So it’s not always clear that just giving management and administration a little more attention will make the situation better.

Executive Solution?

What’s the solution, then? We dare not change the job description or character requirements of a minister as laid out in such passages as 1 Timothy 3:1–7, 2 Timothy 4:1–5, and Titus 1:5–9. Elders instruct in sound doctrine, preach the Word, rebuke, exhort, and evangelize, all above reproach with integrity before outsiders.

In order to guard these priorities, then, what can pastors do so they don’t feel the need to leave pastoral ministry in order to fulfill their calling? Administration will not go away. But neither is it a new challenge. The early church faced unanticipated demands as it grew. We read in Acts 6 that the apostles struggled to balance their primary responsibility for prayer and preaching with the increasing demand for equitable food distribution. They did not regard this work as beneath their calling. But they did recognize the threat to the church’s integrity and primary mission if they failed to act. So they appointed seven to take up this administrative task.

“We see from Acts 6 that the example is not to leave but to find people to do the work so the pastors can focus on their calling,” Harvey says.

Because many young pastors don’t have experienced mentors, Harvey observes, they don’t know how to navigate the challenges of complexity that accompany growth. So they suffer from an “absence of imagination” in how to protect their gifts and calling. Many look to hire executive pastors in order to extricate themselves from the dilemma. They’re more than willing to pass off these areas of frequent friction and struggle.

But that move can create its own problems if the executive assumes the authority of an elder without meeting the biblical criteria for the office. In these scenarios the executive sets the vision of the church according to standards more appropriate for businesses than the Bible. When pastors stop leading the executives, the church can easily lose its bearings. Church work will never be efficient by worldly standards so long as real, live people are involved. Discipleship progress can’t be easily quantified by a set of job performance metrics.

Discipleship progress can’t be easily quantified by a set of job performance metrics.

Both Kinds of Leadership

The church needs both kinds of leadership—pastoral and executive—in that order. The pastor cannot do his job according to Scripture if he’s tied up in administration. But the church can’t fulfill its mission unless servants step forward to carry this burden. Pastors don’t need to leave the church in order to pastor. They do, however, need realistic expectations.

And they need the church to exercise its full complement of giftings and roles (1 Cor. 12). The gospel shows us a beautiful way. We serve a Servant who emptied himself for our sake (Phil 2:7). We honor those who preach this good news of salvation. But according to the apostle Paul we give greater honor to those with the less heralded gifts (1 Cor. 12:24). That way there is no division between Christians who serve in public and private, or priority in the perception of the congregation.

Growth is good. With growth, complexity is inevitable and wise administration is vital. Such work is not beneath a pastor. But too much of it for him means the body is not healthy and whole.