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:

  • Demands on the pastor's time are greater than ever as churches have multiple and often conflicting or unclear expectations of the pastor;
  • Technology (cell phone, email, internet, answering machines) makes it increasingly difficult for pastors to distance themselves from a constant stream of interruptions;
  • As pastors' understanding of their vocation shifts from a pastoral and spiritual focus to a more managerial focus, cultivating a deep spiritual life can get lost in a flurry of managerial activity;
  • Congregations often do not adequately value or respect the pastor's need to nurture his or her own spiritual life. Even those congregations that value it often fail to see the connection between its importance and the congregation's ideas and attitudes about what a pastor's "real work" is;
  • Many pastors face growing isolation as congregations become less denominationally and regionally focused and more congregationally oriented. As a result, their relationships with other pastors are weaker, and they lose one natural system of spiritual support and nurture—their fellow pastors.

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:

  • Better training of mentors.
  • A better system of linking mentors and mentees.
  • More and better training of regional pastors (the link between local mentors and mentees, and the CRCNA's denominational Pastor-Church Relations director).
  • Development of classes--our regional judicatories--to take more responsibility for mentoring programs.

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.

Lifelong Learning

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:

  • The rapid rate of change in our culture requires ongoing education and adaptation to new realities.
  • The great variety of ministry contexts also calls for lifelong learning. In pastoral ministry, no longer does "one call fit all." Pastors need continuing education that takes the principles learned in seminary and applies them to particular situations.
  • Seminaries cannot "do it all." Seminaries never could; but in the past, the church often has assumed that the pastor's education was finished upon seminary graduation. What seminaries must do is instill in students a passion for lifelong learning, an openness to learning from different sources, and the important priority of study and thoughtful reflection. Pastors must realize that there is much that seminaries simply cannot teach. "They never taught me that in seminary" is frequently used as an indictment of the seminary. More often, it's an indication of how much a seminary cannot teach and how much must be learned in one's ongoing ministry.
  • Local congregations often do not understand the need for continuing education and consequently do not support such possibilities for lifelong learning. Especially in congregations with few college-educated or professional members, pastors often have difficulty getting the support they need for continuing education, in terms of time, money, as well as encouragement.

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.

Pastors and their families

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: 

  • What is the role of the pastor's spouse relative to supporting the pastor? The roles for pastors' spouses have changed greatly in the last few decades, in some ways giving them much more freedom. But there is also a fearful vacuum in wondering what exactly they should be and do as a pastoral spouse and church member. For example, the pastor's spouse obviously should be supportive. But the pastor's spouse probably should not become the pastor's accountability partner, since she or he is simply too close both to the pastor and to the congregation to be objective. In fact, often the pastors' spouse bears more pain than the pastor in difficult situations. What is the exact nature of a pastor's spouse's support of the pastor?
  • How do pastors deal with confidentiality? What is appropriate and inappropriate "pillow talk?" How do pastors leave work at work, and yet live the holistic life that is the pastoral vocation?
  • Where is the line between legitimate and illegitimate congregational expectations of a pastor's family? Sometimes pastors absolutize the church's expectations to the detriment of the family. At other times, pastors idolize family concerns to the detriment of effective pastoral ministry. How can pastors avoid pitfalls in either direction?
  • The growing number of women pastors and pastor's spouses who are husbands creates a different dynamic with its own set of problems and challenges, both within the marriage and in the local church. How do we talk about and work our way through these problems?
  • What are the unique challenges and pitfalls that pastors who are single face in the local congregation?


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:

  1. A deep, authentic relationship with God marked by prayer, godliness, and fruits of the Spirit.
  2. A strong vision of the mission of the church in which the church exists not merely to sustain itself but to serve the world and minister beyond itself.
  3. A thorough grasp of the biblical, pastoral and theological contours of the Christian faith and church, with an ability to communicate these contours in meaningful, relevant, and integrative ways through sound preaching and teaching, and imaginative pastoral leadership.
  4. A pastoral identity that includes healthy self-understanding, strong relational skills, relationships with significant others that provide mentoring and accountability, and a balanced life with respect to work and non-work.
  5. An intelligent appreciation for the congregation as a social system that requires creative and patient leadership in the face of anxieties and conflict.
  6. A commitment to lifelong learning, including personal, spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth and development.

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.