By Phil Hakanson
Years ago, I had a pastor friend who told me that one of his rules in preaching was never, ever to use the word “commitment.” He went on to explain that his small rural congregation—a congregation he had come to know intimately over years of faithful pastoral ministry—was filled with people who were already ‘committed’ to all kinds of things.
These were people who worked hard, looked after their families and who were involved in little league, the volunteer fire department, and in any number of other community organizations.
“The last thing these folks need,” he told me, “is to have their pastor tell them on Sunday mornings that they need to be more ‘committed’ to the church, or even, for that matter, that they need to be more ‘committed’ to Jesus. It’s just not fair to them, and I won’t do it.”
The result of this conversation was that for the final 20 years of my ministry I tried—with varying degrees of success—to erase the word ‘commitment’ from my own pastoral vocabulary.
It hasn’t been easy, because a 21st-century American pastor is, almost by definition, expected to be a promoter. Whether or not we admit it, we see a big part of our job as getting our congregation to “do things”—attend worship, teach a class, serve in the nursery, join a board, participate in some kind of community service, be part of a small group, tithe, etc. And if our people don’t do these things, we are disappointed in them for their obvious lack of ‘commitment’ to the church and in ourselves for our inability to get them to do what we, in our great pastoral wisdom, have decided will be good for them and for the Kingdom.
Ultimately the latest disappointment becomes just the excuse the pastor needs to move on to a new congregation that will be more “committed” than the last.
Most of our congregations are gracious enough to send us to a conference or two every year. We often come home from these conferences with new ideas that will help our congregations thrive and grow. But who’s going to make all this happen?
These new plans and ideas often demand that the church form new committees, schedule extra meetings, and expend funds that weren’t included in this year’s budget. It will take lots of … well … commitment. The pastor is raring to go. The congregation isn’t so sure.
I’m not saying that some of this isn’t really good stuff. But I’m increasingly convinced that a lot of it just wears our people out. They love their church and desire to grow in their faith.
They want to be cooperative and responsive to the pastor’s leadership. But they’ve also got families and jobs and are involved in a variety of community activities. The last thing they want is one more thing to do.
And so, sure enough, the latest program—the plan that was supposed to revitalize the church—turns out to be just the latest in a long list of disappointments. As this plan slowly fizzles and dies, the pastor is now free to lament the congregation’s lack of commitment and their resistance to change.
The relational distance between clergy and laity increases. Ultimately the latest disappointment becomes just the excuse the pastor needs to move on to a new congregation that will be more “committed” than the last.
I don’t have any simple solutions, but I wonder what would happen if pastors listened more and programmed less. What would happen if we stopped trying to get people to be more committed? In short, what if we were to give the Holy Spirit a bit more room to work in the lives of our people?
Over the course of 40 years of ministry, I’ve had all kinds of great ideas about evangelism, Christian education, missions, community service, worship, music, and church growth. It was never my style to unilaterally impose these ideas on my churches.
Most of these programs and ideas were thoroughly discussed and vetted by lay leadership, and many of them were adopted and put into place. But I can think of very few programs over the years that really fulfilled their promise.
After 40 years of standing at the door of the church—both literally and figuratively—waiting for people to show up for things that I was sure were good for them and the Kingdom, I wish today that I had asked my congregations to do less. And that I had paid closer attention to the rhythm of their lives.
Editor’s note: Recently retired Covenant pastor Phil Hakanson served churches in New York, Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania since he graduated from North Park Seminary in 1978. He now keeps busy as a spiritual director and preaches in Chicago-area churches.