Some days ago, a sack letter issued by Winners Chapel to some forty pastors surfaced online. The pastors were let go because their “growth index falls below expectations.”
One of the pastors concerned granted an interview where he claimed that what he “was told by the management was that the church doesn’t operate at a loss, they also told me the total income that is being generated from my station should be able to cater for my welfare and accommodation, so as a result of low income, I’m hereby dismissed.”
Some hours ago, the General Overseer of Winners Chapel, Bishop David Oyedepo, clarified that the pastors were dismissed they were “unfruitful,” calling them “blatant failures,” counteracting the claim that “they are not bringing income, that is why they asked them to go.”
There have been diverse reactions on this issue: some have interpreted the issue as a pure monetary concern (as Oyedepo noticed above), while others, who have seen “growth index” more expansively, agreed that the sack was in order. Others have cited the current economic conditions as an argument, among others, against sacking pastors at this time.
My purpose here is to identify one good that has come out from this debacle and offer some reflections on what it means to be a pastor.
The good in all of this
I believe it is a good thing that this sack letter has led to discussions around the accountability of pastors.
Many people are still of the opinion that pastoral work is what you pick up when you have failed at everything else or when you are unsure of your capacity to succeed at anything else.
Being a pastor is seen as the stress-free option in a work environment that is hard to get into or remain in. More worrisome is that many pastors actually carry out the work as if this were true. They treat ministry as that cocoon or safety net or comfort zone that saves you from the grind of ordinary life.
Therefore, it is a welcome development that many people are using words like “accountability” and “productivity” in the same sentence as “pastor.”
The pastoral ministry is a high calling. First, there are lots of conditions that qualify a man to occupy that position. Anyone who reads 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 will never nurture the idea that pastoral work is a piece of cake. Only men of noble character in their families and communities can occupy that position. This is not some easy-peasy job left for the “rejects” of society; it’s a noble calling left for noble Christians.
But more than the qualifications, the instructions that Paul gave to Timothy and Titus (two pastors) show that pastoral ministry comes with huge accountability.
Paul wanted Timothy to be an example in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12). He also implored him to devote himself to preaching and teaching (verse 13). Timothy must not neglect the gift that was given to him (verse 14). After loading him with all these responsibilities, he encouraged him to “be diligent in those matters, to give himself wholly to them (verse 15). But Paul is not done. Timothy must make progress in the ministry and that progress must be visible to everyone (verse 15). You read that right. It’s not a privatised progress; Paul expects a public progress, so to say. Then he ended by telling him to watch his life and doctrine closely in all perseverance (verse 16).
If you can read 1 Timothy 4 and still think that pastoral work is the “get-out-of-jail card” for the “rejects” of society, then you are not reading rightly. “Diligent,” “progress,” “example,” apply to pastors as they do anyone else.
Infact, in the next chapter, Paul said it is elders (pastors, bishops) who direct the affairs of the church well that are worthy of double honour (1 Timothy 5:17). It simply means you can do this work well or badly, like any other work. And when you do it well, there is honour. Will those who do it badly deserve the same? No!
In his second letter, Paul admonished Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6). He was not to be timid but to show power, love, and self-discipline as he faithfully suffers for the gospel.
All of these to make the point that pastors are accountable for their responsibilities. They must do their work well. They must show themselves approved (2 Timothy 2:15), make progress that everyone can see (1 Timothy 4:15), be diligent and devoted to their responsibilities (1 Timothy 4:14-16), and fan their gift into flame for greater effectiveness and productivity (2 Timothy 1:6).
Consequently, a pastor that is messing up at his job cannot expect to keep that job. If he is an employee of the local church he pastors, they can let him go. And if he is an employee of a larger denominational body, they can let him go.
In Economics, they taught us the concept of opportunity cost. One of the things that have been ignored in this conversation is the congregation. Allowing a bad pastor to keep his job means exposing the congregation to a bad pastor while another person who can do the job well is out there. The opportunity cost of keeping a bad pastor is all the good pastors that can take his place.
In other words, concern for the wellness, purity, godliness, and vitality of a local church means it can be right and godly to sack a pastor that is failing at his job to get a better one.
The economics argument that some make only works if we can also argue that a business owner should leave an accountant messing up the books or a receptionist messing up the brand’s image because there is unemployment outside. In fact, the unemployment outside should be the motivation for a worker to do his best job. When such a worker still fails (despite his understanding of the economic situation), then he cannot play the victim and blame the employer for not keeping him. No one should dance at such a pity party.
Of course, the employer can give second chances and be patient with the unproductive worker, but there is again the opportunity cost issue. For how long should an employer keep a failing worker and lose the benefits of a worker that would do the work well?
My point here is simple: as a general rule, it can be right to sack pastors because pastors have both qualifications and responsibilities; when they falter on any of those fronts, it’s the prerogative of the church to act.
But what are the responsibilities of a pastor? The only way to know if a particular sack is right or wrong is to understand what a pastor is responsible for and what he is not. What will constitute a failing or bad or unproductive or inefficient pastor?
What does it mean to be a pastor?
Preach and teach
The heart of pastoral ministry is the preaching and teaching of God’s word.
The pastor is to maintain a pattern of sound teaching (2 Timothy 1:13). Preaching and teaching are parts of the duties that distinguish the elders who are worthy of double honour (1 Timothy 5:17). Paul wanted Timothy to devote himself to “the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).
An elder must correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). He must be ready to preach the word in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:1).
Guide the truth, oppose errors
The pastor is also the guardian of the church’s theological heritage. Paul told Titus that one of the conditions for being an elder is to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught.” By doing this, he will be able to “encourage others by sound doctrine” as well as “refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).
He must keep the pattern of sound teaching and guard the apostolic deposit (2 Timothy 1:13-14). Pastors must watch out for false preachers and warn the church against them (2 Timothy 2:14-19).
Pastors must be shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-2), watching over the flock and protecting them from the savage wolves within and without (false teachers — Acts 20:28-31).
Lead the church’s worship
The pastor is the church’s “worship leader.” Paul told Timothy how the church’s worship should be like — those who should be prayed for, how women should dress in the church, and what women cannot do in worship(1 Timothy 2:1-10). The pastor is also responsible for the administration of the sacraments.
Paul insists that how the church’s worship service plays out is the pastor’s business. He’s responsible for outlining and enforcing biblical worship standards.
Be an example
The pastor should be a good example to the congregation. He must set an example to the believers in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12). The author of Hebrews admonished the Hebrew Christians to consider the way of life of their leaders and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7). A pastor must have a faith that is imitable; he must show an example by doing what is good (Titus 2:6).
Order the church’s affairs
The pastor must “direct the affairs of the church” (1 Timothy 5:17). The pastor has administrative duties that include making decisions and implementing them.
Ensure the care of the flock
As a shepherd, the pastor must care for the flock. This will include visiting the sick at home (James 5:14), ensuring provision for the widows and the less privileged in the congregation (1 Timothy 5:1-15), caring to the specific needs of old and young women and young and old men (Titus 2:1-8), encouraging congregants to be diligent at their work (Titus 2:9-10), etc.
As much as possible, pastors must care for each individual soul in the congregation.
Two quick points
None of these mean that the pastor is a lone ranger.
Firstly, every congregation should have a body of elders who share the administration of the church with the pastor. The pastor should be the preaching and teaching elder, who nevertheless directs the affairs of the church together with other ruling elders (1 Timothy 5:17).
Secondly, the church must also have deacons who cater primarily to “the serving of tables” (Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3:8-10). The elders should share some of the administrative stuff (at the execution level) with them.
Now we can proceed.
A pastor who preaches or teaches false doctrines or neglects the preaching and teaching function can be let go by the church. A pastor who incubates errors and opposes truth can be sacked. A pastor who ignores or corrupts the church’s worship can be dismissed. A pastor who cares less about the souls of the congregation and spends all his time “Netflixing” or arguing football at the Newspaper stand deserves the sack. Similarly, a pastor with unrepentant questionable character that drags the name of Christ in the mud can be fired. So can a pastor who embezzles money or makes poor administrative decisions every now and then that jeopardizes the church’s mission.
The problem with the particular case at hand (Winners Chapel) is the lack of specificity. There is no way to know if the pastors are guilty of any of the above. “Growth index,” “unfruitful,” and “blatant failure” are too vague. After the back and forth, I expected some specifics but the statement by the General Overseer has not helped.
People have interpreted “growth index” in many ways. The one that is more favourable to Winners Chapel is the “church membership” interpretation. The one least favourable is the “tithe and offering” interpretation.
Since the General Overseer says it is not about money, I want to focus a bit on the issue of evangelism and church membership.
(Note: I am not saying this is the reason why the pastors were sacked. The church has refused to be specific. But since church membership and church growth is a fair interpretation of “church growth index,” and many churches do use them to evaluate pastors, I believe there are some lessons we can learn about them in general)
Is the pastor an evangelist?
The simple answer is no. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he separated “evangelists” from “pastor-teachers” (Ephesians 4:9-11).
The pastor is the person who heads the church (and performs all the responsibilities above) after the evangelist has done the work of setting up the church.
After founding the church in Ephesus, Paul left the church and the elders took over its affairs (Acts 20:17-22). Paul instructed Titus to set up elders (pastors, bishops) over the existing churches in Crete (Titus 1:5).
Paul, though an apostle, was also an example of an evangelist. Paul preaches in a town, establishes a church, then leaves for another one. After a while, he goes back to visit and moves again. The pastor is not like that — he is settled in one church.
Paul’s life mission was to bring the gospel where Christ was not known (Romans 15:20). This was why he went from Jerusalem to Illyricum, proclaiming the gospel of Christ (verse 19). He, and others, so expanded the gospel that he could claim that it had been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (Colossians 1:23).
In contrast, the pastor is the one who preaches and teaches, guides the apostolic deposit from false teachers, leads the church’s worship, exemplifies the faith to the congregation, directs the church’s affairs, and takes care of the flock.
Therefore, evaluating the pastor the same way you will evaluate an evangelist is unfair.
Of course, this does not mean that the pastor should do no evangelism. However, it means that any evangelism the pastor does is limited to the place where his congregation is.
Evangelism in an unreached vs reached location
Because the pastor is not an evangelist, every evangelism he wants to do is limited to his immediate environment. He is not going to a community of unreached people.
In an already reached community (a place where there are Christians), there are churches already. The church-attending professing Christians there already have churches. Consequently, he can only increase his church’s membership by either taking members from the other churches or converting unbelievers.
The former option is fraught with difficulties. You have to depend on taking people from other denominations and bringing them to yours. That’s something difficult (most people stick to their churches) and in most cases unnecessary (since many of these churches already share the same doctrines).
Therefore, evaluating a pastor on how well he can take members from other churches is wrong. It’s not the pastor’s duty to make people change their church, unless, of course, he believes that a church teaches damnable heresies and people should be encouraged to leave. In that case, while the pastor can engage in fruitful dialogues with people from those churches, he cannot be evaluated on how many of them he can cause to leave. His duty to guide the truth and oppose errors is primarily towards the specific flock God has given to him.
The only other option to increase church membership is to bring in non-believers. And this is where we must be careful.
(Note: I am not considering the organic increase in membership — childbirth — since any reasonable person knows that the pastor is not responsible for the church’s birth rate or death rate)
Evangelism and God’s sovereignty
Offering the gospel is our responsibility but converting souls is God’s work.
Jesus compares the Spirit that causes regeneration (the new birth) to a wind that blows wherever it wants (John 3:5-8). The Spirit is sovereign in regeneration, he gives new birth to whomever he pleases.
Peter on the day of Pentecost affirmed that the promise of forgiveness of sins is for those whom the Lord our God will call (Acts 2:39). It was the Lord that added daily to the early church (verse 47).
When Lydia received Paul’s message and became converted, it was God that opened her heart (Acts 16:13). And when Paul preached at Pisidian Antioch, it was only those who were appointed to eternal life that believed (Acts 13:48).
Faith is a gift of God (Philippians 1:29, Acts 3:16) and so is repentance (2 Timothy 2:25, Acts 5:31).
Therefore, whether people convert when they hear the gospel is entirely God’s prerogative. The task of believers is to share the gospel and let the Spirit use the word to bring conversion as he sees fit.
Consequently, even if a church decides to use evangelism to unbelievers to evaluate pastors, the focus should be on their efforts rather than results. If the pastor is preaching the gospel to unbelievers (assuming that is part of the primary tasks the church assigns him), that’s good enough. If he is making the efforts and doing his best to share the gospel, then he cannot be sacked because those people have not repented and believed the gospel.
If the church thinks the pastor is not doing it right (and they believe that’s the reason why people are not converting), then it is their duty to teach the pastor how to do it better (since he is already doing it) not sack him. Man’s duty is to preach and if he’s doing that faithfully, you can’t make him responsible for what the Spirit decides to do or not.
This kind of emphasis on church growth devoid from the Spirit’s work is one of the reasons for many false conversions. Many churches lure members from other churches with money and other material goods or with a lax youth fellowship that gives free rein to youthful lusts. Even some missionaries force people to get baptised just for the data. A month later, they are gone.
Evangelism as a corporate responsibility
Again, the pastor is not an evangelist. His duty to evangelise is a universal duty he shares with every believer. Pastor or not, we must all seek to make disciples (Mathew 28:18-20). Every believer is to be wise in the way they relate with unbelievers, redeeming the time (Colossians 4:5).
The only difference between a pastor and a member is that the pastor can sometimes organise church members to do some evangelistic work around the community. But in my experience, none of those organised evenagelistic events, even done well, guarantees an increase in church membership. Again, ours is to plant and water, God is the one who causes things to grow (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Even if a church makes evangelism part of a pastor’s primary duty, the evaluation should be focused on the diligent and faithful efforts rather than the results.
Evangelism and the pastor’s responsibilities
In his position as a pastor, evangelism is not the pastor’s primary responsibility. In fact, a pastor may not even have the gift of evangelism.
His primary responsibilities are to preach and teach, lead worship, guide the truth, oppose errors, live an exemplary life, manage the church’s affairs, and ensure the care of the flock. Those duties are huge enough for a pastor who understands them. These should constitute the primary rubric of the pastor’s evaluation. These are the things the pastor should be laser-focused on.
In his preaching and teaching, he should also teach the congregants how to witness (which includes inviting people to hear the gospel in the church) and encourage them to make use of the opportunities they have.
We are the ones who are interacting with the unbelievers more often. The pastor is buried in his office preparing a sermon, designing bible studies, writing a book, doing administrative stuff, praying, sharpening his theological mind. He is the one who is out of his office visiting us and caring for our souls individually.
Instead of making the pastor solely responsible for church growth, they should be encouraged to better equip the congregants for personal evangelism and also explore opportunities for personal evangelism himself (as a believer). Pastors can also be encouraged to work with evangelists who can organise evangelistic events in the community every now and then.
The point is that making the pastor ultimately responsible for the increase in church membership is unfair. His primary duty is the sanctification of those who are already members of his church — a sanctification which will include equipping them to witness to their faith. Expecting the pastor to bring people from other churches into his or convert unbelievers as if it’s ultimately up to him is unfair.
Since the General Overseer has denied that this is all about the money, I have chosen to extend Christian grace and accept that it is not.
Whatever it may be, I believe this event has given us an opportunity to have fruitful dialogues on the high calling of the pastor and the accountability that comes with that office.
The church in Nigeria is in need of faithful shepherds who will feed the flock of God and protect them from savage wolves. May God send us more of such people. And if the wolves are already on the pulpit, may he deliver his church from them and replace them with the faithful ones.
Savior, like a shepherd lead us
Much we need Thy tender care
In Thy pleasant pastures feed us
For our use Thy folds prepare
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus
Thou hast bought us, Thine we are
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus
Thou hast bought us, Thine we are
We are Thine, who Thou befriend us
Be the guardian of our way
Keep Thy flock from sin defend us
Seek us when we go astray
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus
Hear Thy children when we pray
Blessed Jesus, oh blessed Jesus
Hear Thy children when we pray