It’s Time to Confront the Cult of the Owner-Pastor in the Body of Christ

By Dr. Scott Rodin    

The tragedy of leadership failure in the body of Christ continues to be splashed across news screens on a daily basis. Last week a report came out that over 700 cases of abuse by pastors and church and denominational leaders in the Southern Baptist Church were uncovered. This is not just a single, startling news story, it is the latest example of a spreading cancer that crawls beneath the skin of the body of Christ.

It is not just moral failures that should concern us. Review any of the credible research organizations and you will find alarming statistics about pastoral stress, burnout, broken relationships, loneliness and discouragement.

From colossal megachurch implosions to systemic sexual and emotional abuse to the quieter despair experienced by lonely pastors sitting in their studies in small to mid-sized churches across America, we are in a pastoral leadership crisis.

It’s time we confront the issue, name the problem and commit to a solution. I believe the number one reason for pastoral failure is the cult of the owner-pastor. What is an ‘owner-pastor’? Here are five defining marks.

  1. Owner-pastors take an ownership attitude toward their church and its ministries and people. They would never admit to such, but the stress and burnout they experience is a testament to the extent to which it has become their church, their people, their programs, their finances, their pulpit, their vision and their reputation. Their ministry has become their second kingdom and their work in building it drives them.
  2. Owner-pastors compromise time spent abiding in Christ and replace it with a growing reliance on their own strength and ability to achieve the goals they set. They may pray and say they trust in God, but their daily schedules, relationships and language betray a sense of self-reliance and a misplaced security in their own abilities.
  3. Owner-pastors tie their identity to their position and title. They find their self-worth in what people think of them and they protect reputation at all cost. They absorb praise and deflect criticism. Because their identity is wholly wrapped up in their job, the church must succeed for them to succeed as a person. As such they work with a sense of fear that drives them, and all those they lead, to be successful.
  4. Owner-pastors see the people around them as means to the accomplishment of their agenda. They spiritualize it to look like a kingdom goal, but owner-leaders who tie their identity to their position can’t help but see their staff and congregation as the mean by which they will be able to feel successful and be acknowledged as successful. When people become means to an end, a pastor can no longer be their shepherd.
  5. Owner-pastors view the world through a lens of scarcity. They lament that they never have enough of what they need to be a successful pastor. Whether it’s not enough time, money, volunteers, trust from parishioners, staff, facilities, etc., owner-leaders carry anxiety and stress over all they don’t have. They tend to horde resources, ‘protect’ their people from competitors for funds, eschew biblical stewardship teaching and harbor unspoken resentment at the lack of generosity of their people.  

It does not require that a pastor be exhibiting all these qualities to be an owner pastor, only that he or she is tending toward them, that they are believing the great lie of the enemy that the ownership approach to ministry is not only more effective, but it is at least as biblical as other alternatives.

The owner-pastor approach is attractive because it allows pastors to secure, maintain and build control. It protects reputation, limits risk, provides security and feeds self-image. It is the prefect cocktail served up by the enemy, and it’s intoxicating, and destroying pastors across our country.

How did we get here? We have bought into the lie of the cult of the owner pastor in three places; pastoral preparation, ecclesiastical structure and metrics of success. These three are so insidiously entwined that I can’t deal with them separately. Here is a sample of how they play out.

We prepare pastors by teaching traits and techniques of leadership without dealing with the heart and character issues of being men and women fully surrendered to Christ. By not confronting ownership issues in their personal lives, we equip them for failure by thinking that leadership is a ‘tools application’ process that requires no internal transformation to pull off successfully. How many more lists of ‘traits of successful leaders’ can we produce?!

We then send them out to minister…alone. Who does that? Jesus didn’t. He sent out His disciples two by two. Paul went on missionary journeys with at least two and often more companions. If we believe pastors are experiencing spiritual warfare in their work, we have set them up for defeat. In the military every Ranger has a Ranger Buddy, SEAL has a Swim Buddy, Aviator has a Wingman, Soldier has a Foxhole Buddy, Marine has a Fire Team. Yet we send our ill-prepared pastors to do battle with the enemy…alone. The result is not only loneliness, but lack of accountability. How many of the abuses of power we’ve seen from pastors would have been averted if they had been ministering as a team with a full accountability partner in an atmosphere of transparency?

Finally, these ill-prepared owner-pastors who work in isolation are pressured to produce results measured by metrics that have been forced into the church by an increasingly secularized laity. How do you know a pastor is ‘successful’? Think of what we measure; membership growth, financial strength, size of staff, building new facilities, pastoral reputation, lack of crisis or conflict, positive reputation in the community and so on. It’s no wonder our pastors become kingdom builders – everyone is measuring their worth according to the size of the kingdom they are being asked to build! As Pogo reminds us, ‘we have met the enemy and it is us.’ We have accommodated the unspoken, cult-like acceptance and reinforcement of one the greatest lies of the enemy.

What is the solution? Here is a simple formula: prepare fully-surrendered steward pastors, send them out 2×2 and hold them accountable for kingdom outcomes.

We desperately need steward pastors who have surrendered everything to Christ and see all of ministry as belonging to Him. Pastors who define success as faithfulness and are set free to lead others to the same. We need steward pastors who make intimacy with God their highest calling and do not let anything distract them from it. Pastors who only move when God speaks and act when God directs. We need steward pastors who maintain their sole identity in Jesus Christ, value faithfulness over popularity and desire only to hear the applause of nail-scarred hands. We need steward pastors who are set free from pursuing their own agenda and can love and minister to their people as ends in themselves. And we need steward pastors who see life from an abundance worldview, trust God to be their provider, faithfully steward whatever He has provided, and rejoice always, not only because God always supplies enough, but because He is enough.

Put another way, the hope of the future of the church is a new generation of fully surrendered steward pastors who live and minister with the support and accountability of a co-pastor and define success solely as faithfulness to all God calls them to do.

When will we stop reinforcing the owner-pastor cult in our churches and take these bold steps to redefine pastoral ministry and restructure the way we prepare, send and support them?

Dr. Scott Rodin    

Dr. Rodin is the Founder and Content Expert of the Center for Steward Leader Studies. He also serves as President of Kingdom Life Publishing and Rodin Consulting Inc.

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