Monday, October 5, 2009

Churches Want Pastors Who Have Great Skills, Part 2

I was just discussing the “equipper” style of church leadership which addresses more aspects of a congregation than just its programmatic ministry. This style aims at effecting positive change to a church.

“Change agency” is also a major theme in the professional literature. Shawchuck and Heuser, whose book I cited in the last entry, write that “The only congregations that will thrive in the coming decades will be those whose leaders have learned to respond to change, not resist or ignore it” (p. 167, authors’ emphasis).

But there are pitfalls to change. Those authors note that change cannot happen without a satisfactory leadership team in the pastoral staff, governing board, or groups of lay leaders, and the pastor has a responsibility to work with staff and boards to create reciprocal accountability and excellent communication. Once I chatted with a pastor (someone I knew casually) who was frustrated that he had no associate pastor at the moment. “I’m a control freak, Paul,” he said cheerfully, “I like to know what’s going on.” I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s why you don’t have an associate pastor!” Pastors don’t always take the time to develop an excellent staff, and instead rely upon them in a very top-down way. But change happens best when the overall leadership functions well as a group.

More broadly: change agency is difficult! I could imagine a pastor, faithful in her or his desire to serve a congregation, who treads into parish "landmines" just because---well, landmines aren’t visible till it’s too late. James O’Toole offers no fewer than 33 hypotheses to account for resistance to change. Many of them can be summed up by the group’s collective assumptions and their ability to suppress or deny information that leads to change. [1] An older leadership model, Total Quality Management, is one which is helpful for dealing with resistance to change. [2]

I become discouraged when pastors overuse a scolding style in their preaching and communication. There is definitely a large place in parish life for challenging people; a sizable portion of Paul’s letters, after all, are gentle or forceful reminders to live the Gospel. But to me, if a pastor overuses confrontation, he or she falls into the trap of trying to force change through criticism of people’s failings--whatever those failings may be, such as not contributing sufficiently or not volunteering.

I like O’Toole’s description of the “feminine” style of leadership which “is more effective in modern organizations in which everyone’s best efforts are needed--that is, in any organization that requires employee initiative, self-motivation, innovation, and willingness to take the extra step to serve customers or to meet competitive changes” Importantly, ‘feminine’ leadership does not mean weak leadership--nor does it mean that only women can and do practice it (p. 139). As examples, he cites leadership authorities like W. Edwards Deming, Tom Peters, James MacGregor Burns, as well as leaders such as Dr. King, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas as examples.

If a pastor too frequently challenges or scolds people, s/he risks ignoring people’s faith stories. But people’s stories are significant for both personal and congregational identity. Howard Gardner writes that “Leaders achieve their effectiveness through the stories they relate,” that is, people’s perspectives and visions related to one’s identity. Stories are important because “those leaders who presume to bring about major alterations across a significant population must in some way help their audience members think through who they are” (p. 62) [3].

Thus--to pick up on my earlier points--the leadership skill of the pastor is more than just issues of power, group dynamics, and charisma but also has to do with their interactions with others and their abilities to communicate her own story in a compelling way to shape the stories and identity of the congregation.

One of the enormous problems I see in effective pastoral leadership today is the need for congregations to be in good financial shape. A recent article, “Religious Life Won't Be the Same After Downturn” by Rachel Zoll of AP, discusses the major financial needs facing churches and denominations today. [4] Unfortunately, congregational change takes time and patience, with no guarantee of success, and the pace of change that a particular congregation requires may be slower than the congregation’s revenue needs.

All the more reason to affirm that any congregational leader, clergy or lay, must finally depend not upon skills but upon God's grace and help!

At the moment, I’m updating some of my research concerning parish leadership after I’ve focused on other topics for the past few years. Is the systems approach still as apropos and potential-filled as it has seemed to me? How are contemporary pastors finding the dilemmas of parish leadership now that, for instance, churches and denominations are still struggling, perhaps even more than the 1990s, with dwindling numbers and revenue? Among the books I'm currently reading is an excellent study by Dan R. Dick, Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2007).

[1] James O’Toole, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom. San Francisco: Josses-Bass, Inc., 1995.

[2] Although the idea of “quality” wasn’t really new by the time of Ezra Earl Jones’ Quest for Quality in the Church: A New Paradigm (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1993), Jones expands its implications to show how the goal of quality can bring about positive change in churches.

[3] Howard Gardner, with the collaboration of Emma Laskin, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books, 1995.


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