When Churches Can’t Do Everything

I’ve never met a pastor who enjoys telling people no. I suppose such ministerial creatures exist, but all the pastors I know (myself included) find it much easier to say “Yes, that’s a great idea!” or “Yes, we can do that!” as opposed to “Sorry, that’s not going to work.”

I’m not talking about general requests for counseling or prayer or a dinner invitation. Those can be difficult requests to navigate as well, but in this post I’m thinking specifically about ministry asks. I’m thinking about well-meaning church members who are passionate about clean water, or foster-care ministry, or a new church-planting network in Turkey, or a thousand other good things.

It would be one thing if church members asked their pastors to get behind bad ideas. “Hey pastor, I really think the church should be involved with this awesome evangelistic pantomime ministry.” Um, no. That’s an easy call. What’s hard is when the requests are from good people for good things.

The simple—yet disappointing—fact is that no local church can do everything there is to be done. Or to put it more pointedly: Your thing may not be your church’s thing. This is usually tough for pastors to communicate and even tougher for church members to hear. And yet, the church and pastor that try to be all things to all people normally end up doing much less than they could be doing for God.

Saying No

Why can’t pastors and staff leaders say yes to every ministry request? Here are a few legitimate reasons.

Not right now. In a world of finite people and resources, sometimes the answer is, “That’s a great idea, but we can’t start another fundraiser at the moment. We’ll have to wait until this capital campaign is over.” Or, “Let’s wait until we finish the search committee.” Or, “We are in a hard season right now and our pastors are attending to a number of crises; we can’t make this a priority right now.”

Not the mission of the church. If the priority of the church is the Great Commission, then there are all sorts of good things the local church will not pursue, everything from reducing unemployment to planting trees in a local park to spearheading specific political efforts.

Not our strategy. In many instances, people in the church want the same things, but they are passionate about different strategies. Everyone may agree that fellowship is biblically essential, but for one member that means an investment in family camp, and for another it means Saturday brunch outings, and for another it means lots of adult mission trips. All of these things can be good, but that doesn’t mean a church has to do all of them. We need to distinguish between the biblical goals and the various means we want to employ to meet these goals. Saying no to the means is not saying no to the end.

Not enough time. Well-meaning parishioners may not realize that their staff and pastors are already feeling maxed out. So an invitation to attend one more event, or champion one more cause, or add one more prayer meeting can feel like a lot when it is added to an already overwhelmed schedule. “Surely you can make time for one lunch in the next month.” Or, “All I’m asking is for a few hours one Saturday in the next few months.” These may sound like small asks, but even if one lunch could be added or one Saturday morning could be given up, these “little” additions add up quickly, especially if they are coming from multiple people in the congregation.

Not interested. This may be the hardest no to give, but sometimes it’s the most honest. “Pastor, I’m really hoping you can get behind my walk-a-dog ministry. It’s a great way to serve our neighbors and open doors for the gospel.” The most candid response is likely, “God bless, you. I sincerely hope that goes really well, but it’s not something I’m interested in.”

Thinking It Through

Does all of this mean that ordinary church members are at the mercy of their pastors and leaders to call the shots for every ministry that takes place in and through the church? Is there nothing for church members to do but hope and pray that the pastor will take an interest in their particular passion? Is this post basically a long way of saying “deal with it”?

I hope not.

But here are a few things church members can keep in mind to temper their disappointment and to channel their energies in the most helpful ways.

  1. Lots of amazing ministry takes place that is never an official ministry of the church, or on the church budget, or announced in the church service. This is absolutely key. A “no” to someone’s ministry ask is not necessarily a no to that ministry happening. If you want to get together and watch Manifest and discuss spiritual themes and use it as an outreach for your neighbors, go for it (I think; I haven’t really seen the show). We mustn’t think that “real ministry” is ministry that shows up on the church website and makes its way on to the elders’ agenda.
  2. Be clear about your “ask.” Before approaching your pastor or staff member with a ministry idea, think: Am I asking for permission? My pastor’s blessing? Financial support? Oversight? An investment of time and people? A new ministry or department? I had a member in my last church who needed the pastor’s formal support each year before he went on a trip to Africa to dig wells. I was more than happy to provide permission and blessing for this good work. We even prayed for him from the pulpit while he was gone. But if he wanted the pastoral staff to start a new well-digging ministry, that would have been a different matter entirely.
  3. Don’t expect informal requests to get formal consideration. “Hey pastor, I’d really like to see us get a bookstore in the lobby. It would be such a great way to resource our people and get good books into the hands of visitors.” That’s a wonderful idea, but don’t expect it to get much traction as a quick email or as a friendly exhortation in the greeting line. That’s putting the onus on the pastor to take your idea, develop it, steer it through the approval process, implement it, and maintain it. If you really want a bookstore in the lobby, write up a proposal, explain who will run it, how it will be funded, how it will be maintained, and then ask the pastor whom you should talk to in order to see if this might be an idea the leadership wants to pursue.
  4. Manners matter. I can tell you after more than 15 years in pastoral ministry that squeaky wheels don’t get the grease. Patient, humble, kind wheels get the grease. When people come with demands and act as if their passion is the only thing that matters, it scares most people off. When you come with gentleness and an understanding that there is a lot going on already, most people are open to hearing what you have to say.
  5. Remember that you have to say hard no’s in your life and career too. Parents can’t do everything their kids ask of them. Employers can’t follow up on every request their employees make. Business owners can’t respond to every good suggestion their customers offer. It’s not personal. If you feel strongly about a program or initiative that is missing in your church, offer your suggestion humbly and in a way that shows you have already done a lot of work to develop your plan, and then communicate your willingness to do the hard work to get the plan off the ground and keep it going.

Pressing and Pressured

This is not about a specific pressing issue in the church today as much as it is about the pressure pastors and churches feel from day to day. There is a dynamic present in too many churches where pastors get grumpy and church members get their feelings hurt unnecessarily.

I hope that with a little common sense, some realistic expectations, and some grace-filled forbearance, we can develop the habits and dispositions that will make us less frustrated ourselves and less frustrating to others. The church may not be able to do your thing, but that doesn’t mean your thing can’t be a blessing to the church.