Together We Press On to Excellence

Bob Zomermaand

(Article first appeared in the June 27, 2011 issue of the Christian Courier.)

There is a word which has a negative ring to it, but which is actually a very good one in the context of the Christian faith.  That word is “accountability.” While the first known use of the word was in 1794 – a mere 217 years ago—the concept has been around for a long time.  It means that a person is willing to submit an area of one’s life or thought to the examination of others.

A pastor knows what it is to be held accountable. As a seminary student, one writes from a variety of viewpoints, with thoughts and ideas that may or may not be deemed kosher by the professor.  The professor, with the power of the grade, holds the student accountable. When pursued carefully, the professor carefully shapes the student’s thoughts, ideas, skills, and theology so that the newly minted pastor will be able to carefully articulate the sound Word of God. But, when one enters the pastorate, where does one find that encouraging type of skill and thought sharpening relationship?  Does one even want accountability?  What would be its purpose? Meanwhile, we all recognize that, in the Scriptures, the concept of “one another” is central to the Christian walk. No less so for the pastor who finds him/herself in the position which Dr. Samuel Proctor, the pastor for many years of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, NY, called the “loneliest job in the world.”

As a pastor grapples with how to deal with accountability, it becomes clear that one who dares to step out and find a place to practice the “one another” of the faith has a particular need. That need is for a safe, predictable place. The tasks of ministry are difficult enough without adding a critique by those who denigrate the role of the pastor. An encouraging “one another” place is where continued growth of one’s theological outlook, pastoral skills, and basic humanity can be fostered.

In response to an initiative by the Lilly Endowment Inc., called Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, many pastors discover just such a “one another” place. There they become more than they ever thought they could be.  These pastors develop groups where they can sustain the vision of pastoral excellence that originally stirred them into this sacred calling.

To date there have been 156 groups involved in just this sort of relationship as a part of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative in the Christian Reformed Church.

I was a part of just such a group. One year, we pondered the implications of the concept of leadership in our lives as pastors. Our process called for us to attend a leadership training event together.  This was followed by a gathering every 6 to 8 weeks to report on our progress with a particular aspect of leadership identified at the training event. At each gathering we set goals for each other and ourselves. For example, we planned to cast a vision in our churches for the involvement of the church in the community.  What did that mean for each of us? It was as different as our communities. In one community, a large prison presented an opportunity for ministry. But what sort of ministry? We would challenge one another to set a realistic goal. Then, at our next gathering, we each reported on the progress we had made in taking steps toward the goal. It proved to be a valuable time of praying and encouraging one another to be better leaders than we had been previously.

Other examples of the type of group that is a source of the “one another” accountability for pastors are the following:

In Grand Rapids, MI, there is a group of pastors who are working on the development of skills necessary to be transitional pastors for churches.  A group of pastors in Eastern Canada is getting together to hold one another accountable for doing the work of an evangelist.  This empowers them to keep their focus on the evangelism each can do, or to be honest about the fears and roadblocks that stymie them. A group of women called “Preach It Sister!” gather to engage one another with the challenges of being women in ministry.

The opportunity for such growth in pastoral thinking, skill, and excitement is to be encouraged by the local church. Call your pastor today and encourage her/him to sustain pastoral excellence in his/her own life by finding a “one another” group within which to grow

Pastor Bob Zomermaand is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church of North America. He was a part of a Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Group for three years.