Monday, October 5, 2009

Churches Want Pastors Who Have Great Skills, Part 1

Please forgive the Napoleon Dynamite reference there. Hopefully, unlike Napoleon’s sorrowful appraisal of his desirability to girls, churches don’t want pastors with nunchuck skills and computer hacking skills.

I’ve been looking over some of my research about church leadership, with the aim of updating it this fall. Several years ago I was grateful and privileged to receive a Religious Leaders grant from the Louisville Seminary; I wanted to address several questions about good approaches to parish work, and especially to disseminate my discoveries in a way that could help other pastors. [1]

Church leadership can be very difficult--duh. On one hand, it is a human effort in which skill, experience, resourcefulness, persuasion, and an avoidance of major missteps are crucial. A pastor can be an excellent preacher, leader, care-giver, and pray-er, but if s/he steps on the wrong toes, or makes an unintentional leadership mistake, s/he may have some big problems to address.

And yet… none of us would want to be Pelagian and place human efforts on at a strong level along with God’s grace; God’s grace is the most important thing of all, that which makes our service possible! As the joke goes, the Apostle Paul’s resume would be declined by most search committees: Paul wasn’t an impressive speaker, he had a repellant illness, he could alienate people, and he had done time! Many churches would not tolerate such serious liabilities in their pastors, but obviously Paul’s limitations didn’t matter because God used him mightily. Upholding God’s providence for the pastoral role while acknowledge the importance of human skills and efforts can be a tricky balance.

One potential solution that I found was the insight that pastoral leadership is based on one’s theology. I was pleased when I discovered, for instance, Kennon Callahan’s distinguishing of models of pastoral leadership: the top-down-thinking boss, the manager, the (passive) enabler, and the apocalyptic inspirer. Many of us have known (or been) pastors who are one of these types. But actually, says Callahan, these types are all based on a weak theology! You could be, or seem to be, a strong leader if you fit some of these types. But in the long run, pastor leadership which is "tough," "demanding," and “hierarchical” is actually ineffective! Instead, a sound theology of ministry is inclusive, dynamic, and missional, and good leadership results from this theologically-strong basis. [2]

Pastors lead best when they can help people (whether staff or laity) grow to their potential. For a time in the 1990s, the “equipper” style of pastoral leadership was popular in some of the professional leadership. Perhaps it still is. The problem with this style is that it may be mistaken for weak leadership. Nevertheless, I found good books by Stevens and Collins [3], and Shawchuck and Heuser, which describe a “systems approach” to equipping a congregation, wherein the pastor shifts attention from specific program tasks to the strengths, peculiarities, traditions, power structures, and potentials of the congregation. [4]

Let me continue in the next entry, so this one doesn’t become too long…

[1] Some of this and the next entry is based on my review essay, “Leadership, Change, and the Parish,” in the now-defunct Quarterly Review, Summer 1996, pp. 203-219, which contains a long set of endnotes citing numerous books on this subject. I also wrote on parish leadership issues in chapter 5, “Church Places” in my book You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006). These writings were based on my Louisville Institute grant work.

[2] Kennon L. Callahan, Effective Church Leadership: Building on the Twelve Keys. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

[3] R. Paul Stevens and Phil Collins, The Equipping Pastor: A Systems Approach to Congregational Leadership. New York: The Alban Institute, 1993.

[4] Norman Shawchuck and Roger Heuser, Leading the Congregation: Caring for Yourself While Serving the People. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

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