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Pastoral leadership: The one thing that matters

Pastors can feel incompetent when they are asked to take charge of everything from facilities to strategic planning. But Paul Feela offers three leadership practices that help him stay focused on the most indispensible part of his job: keeping the gospel’s call to communion before himself and the parish.

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April 12, 2011

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:41-42 NRSV)

If you ask pastors where they feel most inadequately prepared by the seminary -- and often, by disposition -- they will likely confess: administration.

We have been trained in Bible and theology. We know our roles in ritual and pastoral care. Yet we are asked to oversee multimillion-dollar facilities and operations, to be versed in human resources and strategic planning, to read P & L statements and to be knowledgeable about insurance best practices. We must know procedures for conflict resolution and be au courant on the laws that regulate religious nonprofits.

I became a pastor after many years of seminary teaching, and was charged with bringing together spiritually three small parish communities that had merged two years earlier. The physical merger had been a great success, producing a well-designed new facility. My predecessor had effected a number of positive compromises -- everything from blending parish procedures to keeping the worship horarium as intact as possible. He had maintained activities from each community and enshrined a number of significant artifacts from each site. Staff members from all three parishes had been relocated at the new facility, and the new structure had even retained trustees from the former sites.

 

Questions to consider:

  • What challenges do you face that provoke a nagging sense of incompetence? Administration? Personnel management? Buildings?
  • When have you overcome fears of incompetence to achieve an important goal?
  • Paul Feela focuses on the gospel’s call to communion. What theological convictions ground your ministry and provide order to the variety of needs expressed by church members?
  • Where could you find mentors or conversation partners to work with you to improve your skills? Could you mentor others?
  • What’s your learning style? Would you be more successful in improving your skills if you learned by doing or would you benefit more by a structured learning environment?
  • In what ways have you succeeded in keeping “the main thing” in front of you as your lead your organization? In what ways have you failed at that? What made the difference?

I followed the “golden rule” of pastoral leadership: Do not change anything for the first year in order to understand the local culture, to see how parish leadership works, to discover the influential people and to develop trust. There were many moments of crisis and personal learning, structural change and political compromise.

Yet in spite of the varied needs and concerns of parishioners, the ever-changing expectations of diocese and government, and the growing list of skills I felt I lacked, I discovered that keeping the gospel’s call to communion before me and before the parish is the most indispensable thing I do.

I believe that this one function focuses all the other skills. Seminary training is meant to acquaint leaders with the kind and quality of communal life that marks a disciple of Jesus Christ. The role of the pastoral leader, however, is not just to be a disciple; it is to call parishioners to gospel discipleship. A communion of disciples is the core of parish life, but the notion of communion envisioned by the gospel is radically different from other types of associations. Discipleship to Christ comes as a consequence of being gathered by God.

By reason of baptism, our common identity in Christ is prior to anything we do. Consequently, believers are not called to build community, because they will inevitably do so in their own image. They are called to discover the community they already are. The role of pastoral leadership is to help the community discover its actual communion in Christ.

Parishes today suffer from what might be called mission drift -- forgetting their reason for being. They can be distracted from cultivating the kind of disciplined life that the gospel invites us to live. Pastors can lose sight of this critical mission when they forget their own call to discipleship. Professional staff can fail when they refuse to collaborate in the common mission but choose instead to focus only on their “jobs.” Parishioners can contribute to mission drift when they exchange their core beliefs for more quick-fix, marketable ideas that might prolong parish viability but fail to attend to what God is calling each of them to do.

Here are three leadership practices I have learned to help keep parish life focused on the one thing that matters:

Center on worship and preaching. Pastors expend a good deal of energy responding to individual needs rather than nurturing the kind of community envisioned by the gospel. Sunday worship offers the surest opportunity for the congregation to be informed and formed by the pattern of Christ. Worship and preaching are fundamental to a parishioner’s awareness of discipleship over time.

The connections pastors make between God’s word and parish worship patterns should focus on what Richard Rohr has called nondualistic thinking and resist the tendency to reduce choices to either-or and us-versus-them. Instead, we need to proclaim the gospel challenge to seek unity across our differences, to seek the common good and to embrace a way of being in relationship that can be described as no less than extraordinary.

Reshape parish structures. In parish life and activities, many unexamined assumptions about community dynamics may, in fact, be antithetical to the gospel’s unique vision of communion.

Are we attentive to the patterns of community that lie below the surface in our parish structures? For instance, are special interests or insurance concerns or business models driving parish initiatives? Are facilities used to reinforce exclusive, parochial patterns or to bring people together in new ways? Is the prayer with which we begin our meetings mere decoration or the lens through which we focus all our parish efforts? Are the monies and energies of the parish devoted largely to insulating the community from the wider world or to opening the parish up to its mission?

One of my most critical pastoral responsibilities is helping reshape parish structures so they support the kind of gospel-based communion we profess.

Redefine transparency. In terms of pastoral leadership, gospel transparency is always a two-edged sword. Pastors are called to be transparent in the use of parish resources. They are to inform the membership how their gifts of time, talent and treasure have been maximized for the spread of the gospel.

Pastors are called to personal transparency as well, in the exercise of their leadership. But pastors also need to call forth transparency from the parish, to shed light on practices and expose patterns of common life that lead a parish to drift from its essential mission. Greater parishwide transparency helps keep more parochial influences in check. With patience, truth and love, pastors must keep the community focused on “the one thing that matters.”

Gospel living can die the death of a thousand qualifications. While our communities are often viable, they are not always informed by God’s Spirit. Pastors may not always feel competent in the ministry they do, but that does not mean they are not up to the task. Pastoral leadership is about keeping the main thing before our eyes: a visible, believable communion of life and love that would be impossible if God did not exist.