Dave Odom: The path to increased pastoral agency

iStock / Radachynskyi

Pastors operate in highly complex social systems, and even with formal authority may not feel empowered to lead change. The key to building their sense of agency is to build trust among stakeholders and cultivate habits of care.

Pastors serving in congregations have much more freedom in their daily work routines than teachers in classrooms or therapists in counseling centers. Pastors command more sustained attention, through their preaching and teaching, than most CEOs. Yet pastors frequently report in private conversations that they feel powerless to effect change in their congregations. Why?

A congregation looks like an organization, with a board, a budget and property, but it acts like a family, with intimate interactions, shared meals and intergenerational relationships. Many congregations are autonomous, with decision-making processes that resemble town hall meetings. And nearly all congregations have informal processes that have developed over years and are rarely explained to outsiders. It is not surprising that pastors would have trouble discerning how to make a difference in this complex social system.

Those who observe pastors’ work often use the term “pastoral agency” to describe the level of autonomy that pastors perceive they have in exercising power, setting direction and making key decisions. Formal power to hire and fire staff, recruit volunteers and manage the budget often contrasts with informal power to influence who is doing what, when and how.

Using formal and informal authority

As a new and inexperienced pastor, I once asked our part-time secretary about how to get a check to pay for repairs. She explained that she did not have any blank checks on hand but that the treasurer would be coming in to sign a batch in two days. I tried to hide my surprise that we would keep signed blank checks in the church office. A system that was designed to require two people to approve every expense was being circumvented as a daily practice.

As a pastor in a congregational church system, I did not believe that I had the power to change this process. The secretary reported to me, but the standards for accounting were set by the treasurer, a lifelong member of the congregation. He was also the community fire chief, and his spouse, brothers, sisters, children, nieces and nephews held numerous church leadership positions. I did mention the “blank check” problem to the treasurer, but he saw no need for concern. I decided that the best course of action was to wait until he stepped down to create a new process. This transition took a couple of years.

If it takes years for a pastor to confront this type of straightforward management problem, no wonder pastors often feel as if they have no agency.

The governance system of the church makes a difference. In some denominations, pastors can hire and fire staff. In other systems, they are accountable to bishops. But life on the ground is usually more complicated than a formal structure would suggest. Even if they have the formal authority to make changes, pastors may need to build support among groups of members to terminate a secretary or spend money on a needed ministry.

In congregational systems, the formal process is outlined in the bylaws, which a congregation is free to change as it chooses. To add further complications, everyone who joins a congregation brings in a set of expectations about how things should work. Few members attempt to understand the formal process. They assume, for example, that a Baptist church will operate just like the Methodist church of their youth. In such systems, pastors may have to build consensus among a variety of stakeholders inside and outside the formal structure of committees and boards.

With so many different influences at work in the midst of competing systems, pastors could spend every moment looking over their shoulders or around corners trying to figure out who is doing what and how to fix all the problems.

Building trust

In the face of such complexity, the most straightforward way for pastors to increase their agency is to build trust in their leadership. This requires, at a minimum, establishing a track record of doing what they say they will do. Pastors who are transparent, predictable and reliable will naturally engender trust, which is foundational to pastoral agency.

Cultivating genuine care

Also important is to cultivate habits of genuine care. Especially when combined with imaginative ideas for increasing the care that people in the congregation and the neighborhood experience, pastoral compassion often leads to pastoral agency.

For congregations still reeling from past experiences of leadership misconduct, the path to increased pastoral agency may take more than a few months -- perhaps even years. New leaders must demonstrate over and over again that they will follow rules and not take advantage of authority. But when pastoral leadership is marked by trust and care, pastoral agency will eventually grow.

The old saying goes that someone is a leader if someone else is following. Pastoral agency is not just about the pastor. It is about the web of relationships between the pastor and the congregation, the neighborhood, the community, the denomination and more. When the web is laden with suspicion and demand, everyone feels isolated. When the web is filled with trust and care, everyone feels more alive, and the congregation’s ministry can flourish.