pastoral leadership

Valuing staff who step up

In churches that have more than one clergyperson on staff, it is good and right for the congregation to look to the associate pastor(s) for leadership when the senior pastor is away. That associate pastor has the training and the big picture understanding to keep ministry moving forward during the senior pastor's absence.

Things get tricky, though, when we're talking about the long-term leave (such as sabbatical) or the resignation of a senior pastor. In these instances the capabilities of associate pastors do not change, but their capacities do. A senior pastor's two-week vacation typically means temporarily-added stress for an associate pastor, who might take on more worship leadership, preaching, pastoral care, and administrative (e.g. meetings) duties than usual. That is doable for a short span. Carrying those extra responsibilities for months, however, could easily lead to resentment and/or burnout on the part of an associate pastor. After all, she is doing more than the job to which the church called her. And all too often congregations don't recognize, bring in help for, or compensate this essential yet supplemental work. 

How, then, can these common gaps in senior pastor leadership be navigated well? Here are a few thoughts:

Senior pastors can

  • Make the effort to communicate to church leadership how much time they spend on the various aspects of their ministry so that those leaders can make good decisions about coverage.

  • Invite their associate pastors to ask questions, share concerns, and state needs around the responsibilities that might fall to them during long-term senior pastor absences.

  • Secure temporary assistance for their associate pastors during sabbatical periods and advocate for additional compensation during and time off after the leave for their associate pastors.

  • Help the church be pro-active about budgeting for temporary assistance and additional compensation so that the funds will be there when needed.

Associate pastors can

  • Talk with their senior pastors, pastoral relations committees, and/or personnel committees about their hopes and fears around their senior pastors' absences.

  • Keep track of all of their responsibilities and the time needed to do each well. Be prepared to share this information with church leaders and to help them do the math. ("If you want me to pick up X responsibility, what would you like for me to drop?")

  • Ask for what they need. What kind of help would be most useful? Who might provide it? How much recovery time will be required after the church is fully-staffed again? How much additional pay would be fair for taking on senior pastor duties?

  • Go on vacation beforehand. Have something to look forward to afterward.

  • Ensure they have breaks built into the time when they'll be running point.

Congregations can

  • Recognize their associate pastors as pastors, all the time.

  • Take care to appreciate their associate pastors' extra effort and to note the toll it takes when the senior pastor is gone.

  • Acknowledge that associate pastors pick up extra emotional labor when senior pastors are absent due to added anxiety in the system.

  • Mobilize to pick up some of the duties that would otherwise fall by the wayside when the senior pastor is away.

  • Listen to associate pastors when they say that expectations are unreasonable. Even better, invite them to share concerns in advance of the leave and work to resolve them.

  • Give associate pastors some choice in what they pick up and what they hand off to others during senior pastor absences. Some associates might be eager to preach more. Others might want to stay closer to the areas of ministry to which the church called them.

  • Budget for additional pastoral help during stretches without a senior pastor in place. In other words, be ready to call at least a part-time interim minister following a senior pastor's resignation, and be prepared to pay for temporary help during a senior pastor's sabbatical.

A senior pastor's absence can be a time of growth for the associate pastor and the congregation. In order to harness this opportunity, though, it is important to be thoughtful and pro-active. Otherwise, expect the associate pastor to begin imagining herself elsewhere. 

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash.

Appreciate your pastors

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, but let's be honest. Clergy - interim and settled - deserve to be noticed year-round for the ways they have committed their lives not just to the tasks but also to the intense spiritual, emotional, and mental labor of ministry. Thank them when…

...they get up at 4:30 am for a pre-surgery visit after crawling into bed late the night before due to a meeting that ran long.

...they struggle over whether to take that much-needed vacation, knowing that a beloved church member is on hospice care.

...social media tells people in the pews to "walk out of worship if your pastor doesn't preach on [insert current event here]," yet your pastor understands that that doesn't need to be the focus today.

...the lectionary is serving up softballs for addressing the world's ills, and they go there, knowing some parishioners will be angry.

...they are pulled between wanting to be a whole person (including showing up for their loved ones and themselves) and wanting to be the best pastor possible.

...they work so hard to encourage your church's progress, only to have conflict burn it all down.

...their calendars look like boxes of markers exploded on them, with color-coded appointments leaving precious little blank space.

...they have to wear the mantle of spiritual leadership even as they wrestle with their own faith.

...they have no idea what to do next after a metaphorical bomb goes off in your congregation, so they keep putting one foot directly in front of the other.

...the Church or your church makes them representative of all of a particular demographic, such that they bear the weight of excellence on behalf of all their peers.

...constructive feedback is hard to come by, no matter how much they seek it out.

...others discount their voices because they are too something, yet still they keep raising them because the message is faithful.

...they toil in obscurity because they are making big impacts that will ripple out far beyond what they will ever see.

...they make (or lead your church to make) decisions that are hard but good.

...they offer care to people who disappoint or even hurt them.

...they want more for the Church, because it is Christ's body here on earth.

Thank your ministers often for all the seen and unseen work they do to bring more peace, connection, and understanding into this world. 

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

Thriving in clergy, congregations, and communities

It is important for your minister to thrive. Matt Bloom, a professor at Notre Dame, is well-known for his research on what contributes to thriving in various vocations. Here are some of the factors he names as crucial for clergy:

  • physical health

  • everyday happiness

  • the opportunity to be authentic

  • good boundaries

  • a sense of meaning (and purpose within that bigger picture of meaning)

  • relationships with others

  • the ability to self-reflect

You can read more about Bloom’s work here.

But why is it so important that clergy thrive? Well, as it turns out, there is a link between flourishing ministers and flourishing congregations. One party’s health contributes to the other’s. (The same is true of languishing.) Wouldn’t you prefer to be part of a church that has some of the characteristics of thriving mentioned above rather than one that pretends to be something it is not, is constantly conflict-ridden, has no self-awareness, and doesn’t connect to a larger sense of purpose? I know I would.

Ok. But why, then, is it important that congregations thrive? This is often where the reflection stops. We don’t need clergy and churches that flourish simply for flourishing’s sake. We need to be able to contribute to one another’s thriving so that together we can then answer God’s call to contribute to a more loving, just, and generous world. Our congregations are situated within local and global contexts that are hungry for love, justice, and generosity. And these contexts are part of God’s good creation and our spheres of influence, just like our little patches of physical plant are, so our partnering with and participation in them is a condition of faithful stewardship.

But back to the minister. What can congregations do to help that clergyperson thrive, so that the minister then offers quality pastoral leadership and a good model to the congregation, so that in turn the church’s flourishing takes it into the world to do great things alongside God? This is an important question for congregations to consider as they search and negotiate with pastoral candidates. Ministers want to thrive, but they often jump into new calls with both feet without first thinking through what they need to flourish. They are so quickly consumed that it is then difficult to back up and set good practices. Search teams can help incoming pastors not only by giving them permission to set up the conditions for thriving but also by covenanting with their clergy at the start around maintaining those practices.

Here are some questions search teams can ask their ministerial candidates to form the basis for this covenant:

  • What do you imagine thriving might look like for you in this context?

  • What practices would you like to put in place to make this flourishing possible?

  • What time do you need to carve out to implement these practices?

  • What spaces will it be important for you to inhabit?

  • What support do you need from the congregation to follow through on your plan?

  • How might you share with the church about the impact of your practices?

Putting the conditions for clergy thriving into place at the outset will reaffirm for that minister that your church is a great fit and is invested in mutual care. You’ll have laid the groundwork for a long, fruitful ministry together.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash.

Is your congregation ready for a woman in the pastorate?

I first sensed a call to ministry when I was a youth. I tried to talk with my youth minister about the vocational stirring I felt, but he wouldn’t engage. I met with my pastor, who encouraged me privately. (He didn’t think our church was ready to throw support behind a woman in ministry. He was right, but he also wasn’t pushing the culture.) For a long time, then, my mentors were either strong women who weren’t clergy or clergywomen I “knew” through books and periodicals.

In seminary I found a congregation that had no qualms about bringing me on as an intern and later ordaining me. That business about women being barred from ministry because they were “first in the Edenic fall” (see: 1984 Southern Baptist Convention) seemed far removed from my burgeoning career in more progressive contexts.

And yet, it wasn’t. Microaggressions abounded among staff and congregants, sometimes making churches unpleasant places of ministry. Clergywomen peers found themselves toeing the glass cliff, looking over their shoulders at church people who were willing to “take a chance” on women’s leadership only as a last-ditch effort to slow decline - and then crowding them on that precipice when the long skid was not reversed quickly enough. Other highly-qualified women ministers noted their male counterparts professionally leapfrogging them as they heard “no” again and again from search teams. All of this was – is – happening in mainline denominations that have supposedly conquered sexism.

The Church needs women in the pastorate. It is shrinking, in part, due to the lack of tenacity, wisdom, innovation, and compassion that women in ministry have to offer. Time and again, though, women pastors hear that churches are not ready for them, or these clergy realize after accepting ministry positions that congregations had misjudged their own preparedness. The ramifications for this miscalculation are huge. If a clergywoman is not successful because of the church’s failure to lay groundwork, that congregation often thinks, “Well, we tried having a woman as a pastor, and it just didn’t work out” instead of examining its assumptions. The church hesitates before calling another woman, thus missing out on deeply-needed gifts and perspectives. Additionally, that pastor might begin to question her effectiveness and call rather than her fit with the context, possibly leaving the ministry for good and ensuring that no congregation benefits from all she has to offer.

Here, then, is my attempt to give churches an assessment they can use to judge their true openness to a pastor who also happens to be a woman. (I want to thank alumnae of Young Clergy Women International for their input on the points below.) You can download a PDF of the assessment here, which I encourage you to share.

Pre-pastor search work:

  • The church has had a woman in its pulpit as a guest preacher, and it referred to her sermon as such rather than as a “talk” or a “devotional.”

  • Church leadership has discussed any members’ protest (such as staying home from worship or walking out before the sermon) of inviting a woman to guest preach and publicly re-affirmed support of the preacher.

  • The church has had women in significant lay leadership roles (elder, deacon, warden, clerk of session, moderator, etc.) and has worked through any conflict that arose as a result of their election/selection.

  • The church has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors on its website and in its social media.

  • The church regularly uses curricula or other materials written by women (e.g., seminary professors, pastors) with theological authority.

Pre-interview pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is representative of the demographics and commitments of the congregation as whole, thus making it better able to reflect accurately the fullness of the church’s story to ministerial candidates.

  • The pastor search team has structured its work so that it is rooted in listening deeply to God’s guidance.

  • The pastor search team has discussed its assumptions and the congregation’s about a great-fit pastor, probing the reasons behind them.

  • Having surfaced these assumptions, the search team has named specific competencies (rather than personality traits) as the criteria for a great-fit pastor.

  • In communications with the congregation, the pastor search team has helped the church broaden its imagination about a great-fit pastor.

  • The pastor search team has eliminated exclusively male pronouns/descriptors for the hoped-for pastor in all search team documents (e.g., position description, position advertisements, church profile).

  • The church as a whole has earnestly prayed that God will lead it to the best-fit ministerial candidate, no matter how that candidate might differ from church members’ expectations.

  • The pastor search team members have covenanted to run all questions to and about candidates through the filter of “Would we ask this of a male candidate?” (Examples of questions to be sifted out: “Who will watch your children while you’re working?” and “How will your spouse’s employment affect your ability to move here/stay here for a long time?”)

Interview/call phase pastor search work:

  • The pastor search team is aware of and open with all candidates about potential challenges that await.

  • With all candidates the pastor search team inquires about the needs of the candidate’s family to ensure hospitable on-site visits, and later, to help integrate the incoming minister’s family into the life of the congregation (to the extent the family desires).

  • The church leadership has discussed the possibility of conflict arising from calling a woman (noting that this conflict might come disguised as an issue about something else) and is prepared to stand behind the candidate of choice/incoming pastor.

Ways you can use this assessment:

  • Churches in pastor searches. This assessment provides a readiness test for calling a clergywoman.

  • Churches with settled pastors. This assessment offers action steps to lay leaders and current pastors. (The “getting ready,” after all, doesn’t just happen. It takes intentional work. And if your church is not willing to do this work, spend some time mulling the reasons why and praying about them.) Even congregations that think they are ready to receive a clergywoman – including those who have or had women ministers – could benefit from working through the points above. Often moderate to progressive churches think they are more welcoming than they actually are.

  • Clergywomen. Use this assessment in your call processes to help gauge whether a congregation might be a good fit.

  • Judicatory bodies. Use this assessment to help congregations and search teams work through the steps needed to set up the possibility for long and fruitful ministries between churches and clergywomen.

Note that some aspects of this assessment can be adapted for considering a congregation’s preparedness to be led by a pastor who would be another kind of “first,” though there would be additional work specific to the variety of first. Often a candidate will be more than one kind of first – identities are intersectional, after all – making it essential for a church to take readiness steps in multiple areas.

This welcoming work is worthy of intentionality and intense listening to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and not just because of the clergyperson in question. This attentiveness and the resulting actions can lead to spiritual transformation, deeper discipleship, and increased connectedness among people and between people and God. These benefits are available to all involved.

Download a PDF of the assessment here.

The value of boundaries

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

With your pastor(s), encourage intentionality around boundaries, and support her/him/them in the approaches that promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.