Christian Peele: My work as an operations leader is pastoral

Varied skills, gained in a parish and the White House, work together to inform the shape of my call’s expression, writes an executive minister at The Riverside Church. A widening of the traditional understanding of the pastor’s role feels necessary as the church takes on new and unusual shapes.

Right after I graduated from divinity school, I spent six years in ministry in Washington, D.C. I like to think of my time inside the beltway as my theological coming-of-age, because my experiences there were so deeply formational. To this day, nearly everything about how I live into being a pastor bears the mark of what I learned and lived in that post-seminary season in the district.

The never-ending buzz of life in a 20-something group house taught me that putting the love in beloved community takes sacrifice (and is worth it). Dancing nights away in Columbia Heights dives taught me that joy is a virtue. And regular strolls along the banks of the Tidal Basin taught me that saying yes to peace takes a lot of practice.

The two most intensive places of learning for me during that time were the ministry contexts where I spent most of my waking hours. The first was the Church of the Saviour, one of the most progressive faith communities in the country. The second was the Obama White House, one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different. The plots of “Touched by an Angel” and “The West Wing” have a lot in common -- said no one ever. And while a church makes sense as a pastor’s training ground, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building feels like more of a stretch. Yet my experience of pastoral identity suggests that the things I learned in those two spaces are more connected than not.

As an associate in ministry at the Church of the Saviour, I had responsibilities for pastoral care, worship leadership and teaching in various ministries ranging from a hospice home that serves the poor to a coffee shop church called Potter’s House.

My day-to-day work tutored me well in a host of ministry how-to’s, including a particular principle that the community holds dear and that still informs my work: journey inward, journey outward. That is to say, the journey of faith for myself and those I’m called to serve is cultivated, sustained and expressed within and outside ourselves; faith is the process of inward cultivation that leads to outward transformation, and one without the other is incomplete.

My path then took me south on 16th Street, from the Potter’s House to the White House, where I transitioned from leading worship to leading operational strategy in the areas of staff, budget and technology.

One of my most significant takeaways from there was that the quality (say, excellent or mediocre) and nature (say, intentional or ill-considered) of an organization’s operations always accurately reflects the organization’s values. The way budgets are built and talked about, the policies that shape staff culture, who sits where and in what kind of office, and how technology preserves or tears down silos all reveal organizational and even theological assumptions about power, access, hierarchy, inclusion and life together.

In my current role at The Riverside Church in the City of New York, I serve as senior clergy and also oversee four operations-related departments, including finance and human resources.

Living fully into the role requires that I do more than use my various skill sets as though they were mutually exclusive, sometimes using what I know about parish ministry and at other times using what I know about business. That kind of code switching would assume that some skills are for pastoring and some skills are for management, when in fact all the parts of my training fold into one another to create a richer pastoral palette of approaches and ideas.

Taking seriously the fullness of my leadership training in those very different contexts means understanding that my work as a leader in operations is deeply pastoral. One of the outward expressions of a dynamic spiritual life, for me, is managing with excellence the operational systems of my very large church context so that they exemplify the values of our faith.

I’ve noticed that many of my pastor peers often call me dual-vocational, as a way of pointing to the uniqueness of my professional path. But my vocation is singular: I am called to pastor. My skills are many, but they work together to inform the shape of my call’s expression. That kind of perspective honors the broadness of all that ministry can mean. Indeed, a widening of the traditional understanding of the pastor’s role and areas of focus feels necessary as the church takes on new and unusual shapes. It also makes room for reclaiming as holy any faithful approach to work that those in church circles may reflexively deride as profane, corporate or business.

There is no better classroom than the world around us, and a pastor’s ability to think creatively and critically across the lines of context only enriches the nature of call and fruit of the church.