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The Current State of Pastoral Ministry
We believe the following categories outline some of the major challenges facing pastoral ministry today. They identify both what encourages and what inhibits the practice of good ministry, as well as what types of programs need to be expanded or created.
Healthy Spiritual Life
Maintaining a healthy spiritual life that includes a deep, authentic relationship with God—one marked by prayer, humility, godliness, and the fruits of the Spirit—has always been a challenge for pastors. However, while there have always been factors that interfere and undermine the cultivation of a vibrant spiritual life, ministry in today's church presents even more obstacles:
The history of the Christian church as well as thoughtful reflection upon the contemporary church underscores at every turn the need for pastors to have this deep and healthy spiritual life. Cultivating and sustaining this spiritual life is crucial for sustaining pastoral excellence.
Emotional and Pastoral Intelligence
In today's culture with its ever-increasing expectations of pastors, including demands for well-developed interpersonal and pastoral skills, many pastors feel inadequate or poorly prepared. What used to be kindly regarded as idiosyncrasies in pastors' personalities are now often regarded as intolerable deficiencies.
Today more than ever, pastors need emotional and interpersonal intelligence. This includes managing their own emotions, motivating themselves, recognizing emotions in others and responding appropriately, handling relationships, controlling impulses, demonstrating empathy, listening actively, and dealing constructively with conflict. These elements are all part of what Lilly Endowment staff have described as "pastoral intelligence," a phrase that has stimulated our own thinking about this topic.
In addition to emotional intelligence and relational skills, pastoral intelligence includes a well-integrated pastoral identity manifested in humility, honesty, a servant attitude, boldness to proclaim the truth combined with graciousness in proclaiming that truth, and an ability to communicate sensitively while moving people to spiritual growth. This pastoral intelligence also manifests itself in pastors understanding how congregational systems work and in realizing how the pastor and others can give creative and effective leadership.
Models of Leadership
Pastors need a clear, theologically grounded, and organizationally sound understanding of leadership in order to lead effectively over the long term. Many factors in the North American church present obstacles to such an understanding and practice of leadership. Many pastors feel a tremendous pressure to "succeed," as that term is defined by North American culture. They are expected to provide effective leadership in a changing context that includes waning denominational loyalty and competition for members. This pressure makes them vulnerable to views and practices of leadership and success that are flawed and often destructive.
Too often pastors have been insufficiently prepared to be effective leaders. Neither the "passive pastor" nor the "imposing visionary" model is adequate, but most pastors function (at least implicitly) with one of those two modes and do not have the resources to think of alternative models. Pastors, churches, and seminaries have not intentionally developed a clear theology of leadership that is both organizationally and ecclesiologically grounded. Church members often bring leadership expectations from other sectors of life, particularly the workplace, that are not ecclesiologically formed. Inadequately trained pastors are vulnerable to these strong voices from within the congregation.
Churches today need pastors who can provide leadership that adapts to constantly changing realities and the values that are attached to those changes. Pastors must learn how to be adaptive leaders—how to deal with conditions in which competing values exist and how to create a holding environment in which the congregation can be led to do the work of reconciling its values with current reality. Pastors must be servant leaders. However, this does not mean servants who are weak or passive, or those who do the work of the congregation for it. Pastors must be strong enough to discern and implement needed changes by giving the congregation space to make the changes, and by shepherding and guiding them through the change process.
A related but distinct issue in leadership is the need for pastors, churches, and seminaries to integrate leadership approaches, theology, and church polity more deeply. Especially in the areas of leadership and culture, pastors and churches too often buy into ideas and programs indiscriminately, without careful thought about how these ideas fit with their church's theology and polity. Pastors often follow the most popular speakers and the latest fads in leadership without realizing that their own theology and polity offer rich resources for effective leadership. Pastors need help in evaluating new trends and cultural realities and integrating those ideas with time-honored traditions.
Current research and the long history of the church make it clear that sustained pastoral excellence requires ongoing structures of accountability. Pastoral accountability is necessary at three levels: within congregations, between pastors from different congregations, and in denominations as a whole.
In many ways the Christian Reformed Church in North America has the polity, church structure and strong interconnectedness at a regional and national level to make such accountability structures effective. These structures need to be energized by a vision of accountability that is viewed not as "policing" but as caring for one another. The original spirit of the CRCNA's Church Order and ecclesiastical regulations (including a system of assigned mentors known as "regional pastors") have the potential to offer stability and accountability. Now they must be enlivened and applied in a changing context. In addition, new models must be created to facilitate the formation of accountability groups and mentoring pairs.
Personal and professional development of pastors must take place over time and in the context of ministry. The pastoral vocation must be not only "taught" but "caught."
The Christian Reformed Church in North America has a fairly well-developed concept of mentoring. It also has a fairly elaborate structure within which this mentoring can be facilitated—a structure that formally matches every new pastor with a mentor for the first five years of ministry. We are both very positive about the conceptual soundness of our mentoring program, and also very convinced that the mentoring program needs revitalization. Assignments of mentoring pairs are incomplete in many regions. Regional pastors receive little training on supervising the mentoring pairs. The mentors themselves receive minimal training for an extremely important role in the life of a pastor. We hope to revitalize the following important components of effective mentoring:
Current research in pastoral development shows a clear pattern in how new pastors develop during their first three years of ministry. Most deal mainly with tasks in the first year, pastoral identity in the second year and theological issues in the third year (from ELCA document, "First Call to Ministry"). Whether this particular line of research is the best way of understanding early career pastoral development is an open question. What is clear, however, is that mentoring programs must be more deeply grounded in particular understandings of pastoral development and more intentional and focused in what they hope to achieve.
It has never been more important for pastors to be lifelong learners. Sustaining pastoral excellence involves continual learning—for intellectual, personal, spiritual, and professional growth. Several factors make such education especially crucial now:
Meaningful lifelong learning requires a strong, unified approach by Calvin Theological Seminary and other denominational agencies. It requires continuing education offerings that are geographically dispersed—both at the denominational seminary, and at convenient locations throughout the denomination in the United States and Canada. It also requires continuing education that is planned for long-term learning and is progressive, not merely conference-to-conference.
In sum, successful programs to enhance pastoral excellence in our context need to promote vital spirituality, highlight the importance of emotional and interpersonal intelligence, teach well-grounded models of leadership, insist on relationships of accountability, and promote lifelong continuing education.
In the case of pastors who are married, the way that the pastor and spouse deal with the unique challenges of being a local church pastor are crucial to sustained pastoral effectiveness and excellence. Many pastors who have the potential for sustained pastoral excellence have not flourished in ministry or not even survived in ministry because of destructive factors in their marriage and family. In view here are not marriage problems or family problems per se, but marriage and family dynamics in relationship to the unique challenges of being a local church pastor. Below are examples of issues that require ongoing education, clarification and negotiation:
THE MARKS OF GOOD MINISTRY
We believe that excellent pastors are marked by six key traits and that any programming related to pastoral excellence must aim to strategically advance these traits. Excellent pastors are those characterized by:
A well-lived pastoral life gives evidence of these marks of good ministry. They represent vital habits and practices for sustaining pastors in ministry. In contrast to more utilitarian models, it is this holistic vision of pastoral excellence that needs to be promoted, taught, modeled, and encouraged through sustained programs and relationships.