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Reclaiming Ministry: A Preliminary Report from Pulpit & Pew Focus Groups

by Becky R. McMillan

While rich church life is still being cultivated around the United States, many persons who claim to be Christian are not sustained by regular participation in a congregation. At the beginning of the 21st century, large parts of the Catholic and Protestant church in the United States are experiencing a particularly dry season in participation. In part, this drought is due to recent cultural shifts toward a more consumerist, secular mindset. Yet, at least some of the drought can be attributed to a lack of nourishing leadership from the pulpit. And further, some of the lack of leadership from the pulpit must be from a lack of good preparation, formation, and support. If some of the current problems in the church are because of poor pastoral preparation and leadership in the past, what might be done to strengthen good pastoral leadership for the future?

In the fall of 2002, a team from Pulpit & Pew gathered clergy, laity, and denominational leaders for several focus group conversations across the nation to develop a robust description of good ministry, and in particular, the types of pastoral leadership that bring forth and sustain it. Our team of moderators set out to capture a diversity of voices in the conversations, while also providing enough homogeneity within the groups to allow for coherent conversation. Some important contexts and perspectives were not as represented in the conversations as we would have wished, but the large number of focus groups and wide variety of locations where they were held made it possible to include many voices from the varying corners of the church.

The 21 focus groups each met for two hours and covered a wide variety of topics, including the core work of ministry, leadership styles, ministry contexts, qualities and practices of pastoral leaders, stories and examples of good (and bad) ministry, and questions raised from our national pastoral leaders survey. There is no easy way to distill these conversations into a brief report. Instead, this report attempts to capture some of the reflections on the most important issues pastors and congregations are wrestling with today. Future pieces will continue to draw upon these conversations and present their rich insights on the current state of pastoral leadership and suggestions for the future.

WHAT DOES GOOD MINISTRY LOOK LIKE?

One of the clearest agreements across all focus groups was that good ministry neither could nor should be evaluated by worldly standards. In particular, "success" in ministry is measured by faithfulness to living out the gospel and growing in love of God and neighbor, which are not at all times and everywhere accompanied by growth in numbers and dollars.

At one extreme, a Southern California pastor put it this way:

It makes sense that healthy things grow, but does that mean that if a church is not growing that it is not healthy?...I think it is the other way around. My experience is if you're really trying to do good ministry, and if you're really trying to do this the way Jesus mandated us to do it, you're going to have 'few and far between' people. We've had more people that come and leave, than we have had that come and stay, because of the sincerity and the accountability that we're requiring of each other.

Even when growth does occur, as it often does in healthy ministries, it might not be the type of growth the world would acclaim. A pastor from the Durham, N.C., area provided interesting evaluation criteria for growth:

Good ministry is attractive. Doing life transforming, good ministry, you are going to attract the good and the bad, the saved, the unsaved, the sane, the insane.

Good ministry, however, is not a one-size-fits-all concept. One Indianapolis area denominational leader described good ministry in three very different contexts:

One is an urban pastor who has struggled valiantly for about seven years now to help the congregation effectively reach the neighborhood. The pastor has been successful in bringing the neighborhood into worship but has not been highly successful in meeting the needs of the neighborhood in which the church is seated. We're very likely going to have to close this ministry. In it, we've come to the grips with the fact that maybe even though this congregation and this pastor have done everything they know how to be user friendly to the neighborhood, that may not be the expression of church and faith that's going to be able to effectively reach them for life in the congregation. But that's still been a 'good' ministry and I value their creativity, their willingness to risk, their willingness to change. The fact that it hasn't born fruit in the way that we would define as successful doesn't mean to me that it hasn't been a good ministry. …

The second example is that of a large congregation. One of our congregations is about four thousand where everything is done beautifully and elegantly and effectively and thoughtfully. And a lot that's happening out of that congregation is really I think 'good' ministry, appropriately designed for the target audience this church is trying to reach….

And the third example is a church where they are in a change period, a transition period of trying to move into what they believe God's calling them toward in the future while still trying to nurture the existing community that's there. And it's a hard time for the church and for the pastor. But the pastor is doing a super job of being anxious with me but not anxious with them. And I think that's equally a 'good' ministry. They're very different and what deems them examples of good and faithful ministry are very different criteria.

HOW IS GOOD MINISTRY DEFINED?

So, what are some of the "marks" that can be used as criteria for evaluating good ministry and the strength of its underlying pastoral leadership?

One mark of good ministry is that the saints are equipped for ministry. That is, ministry has become the work of the whole congregation. All are responsible for using their particular gifts to provide pastoral care to each other, to minister to the community, and to live out and teach the gospel.

  • Good ministry is something that you give away …you know, seeing the gifts and the passions and the callings of the people whom you are called to lead, and just turning them loose.
  • Ministry too often becomes where I promote myself as a leader rather than equipping people to be in ministry when I am gone. Good ministry is working oneself out of a job.
  • Good ministry is happening when there's a sense of freedom in the ability to be creative in response to the gospel.

A second mark of good ministry is that change is occurring - in individuals, in the life of the congregation, and in the surrounding community.

  • Good ministry is whenever there is life transformation, whether it's big or small.
  • You can see something is different because that ministry is there. And if the ministry is there and nothing is happening, then it's not good ministry.
  • Good ministry is happening when there's a balance between nurture that happens in the community and also a real sense of connection with the world beyond.

A third mark of good ministry is that hope is alive. An encounter with the Word of God brings forth life from death. Good ministry names and claims that life.

  • Good ministry has to offer hope in some capacity. We fall prey to the studies that say the church is dying and we have to resist that, because if our churches are not hopeful places where the gospel is not about whether the church has lost members or gained members, then we're just about perpetuating a business or something. The church has to not just offer hope, it has to offer hope for people personally and it has to offer hope for the communities that it serves and it has to be a place where people find resources for dealing with the world.
  • Good ministry is an energy source for the kingdom that's present in the world wherever God has placed it.

WHAT ARE GOOD PASTORAL LEADERS DOING THAT OTHERS AREN'T?

What are some of the qualities and practices of good pastoral leaders? According to our focus group participants, pastors who honor their need for regular bodily rest and intellectual and spiritual replenishment fare better over the long haul of ministry and provide healthier role models for their parishioners. Through Bible study, prayer, practice of spiritual disciplines, regular time apart with colleagues, and by taking regular periods of time off, pastors remain equipped and able to serve their congregation.

One conservative Durham area pastor described what he thought 'practicing spiritual disciplines' meant to him and how important they were to his ability to minister:

What is regularly practicing spiritual disciplines? I don't know that that's how I would quite put it, but that's getting at it - a daily, a moment by moment existential relationship to Christ, in Christian ministry. It would be that sense of one's savior that keeps you doing it as unto Him, rather than doing it for other people. …Motivation, I guess, is a really critical point. I find my motivation waivers if I don't renew my perspective through just reading the Bible and praying.

Of the practices lifted up in the conversations, two were acknowledged as essential but difficult practices for pastors to make part of weekly or monthly routine: (1) regular and supportive get-togethers with colleagues and peers and (2) time away for rest and renewal. The typical routine of a pastor's week involves hours of sermon preparation, teaching, visitation and administration. It takes extraordinary efforts for pastors to carve out time for themselves for relaxation, family time, and renewal, but the differences between those who do and those who do not is striking.

There has to be some sort of personal life outside of ministry and I think that everyone in ministry sort of struggles with that because it can be so all consuming.

Burn-out and inappropriate behavior often go hand in hand with a routine that does not include down time to renew the body, mind and spirit or time with peers to be supported and held accountable.

Many focus groups offered stories about the sustaining nature of regular gatherings of colleagues. One important note is that many pastors found it safer to meet with pastors across denominational lines (or even faith traditions). While familiarity with one's own denomination can help facilitate mutual understanding, feelings of competition can also exist between pastors within the same denomination and geographic locale. Crossing denominational lines can facilitate trust. And both trust and understanding are crucial but difficult to come by in peer groups.

Lectionary study groups often serve a dual purpose - scripture study, which pastors might more easily justify taking time away for, and collegial support, which sneaks in around the edges because it is much needed. An pastor from the Austin, Texas, area offered this description of his study group:

It's a group of folks that I get together with once a week for lectionary study, which we occasionally actually do. There's a Jewish rabbi, a Roman Catholic priest, another Baptist minister, a Methodist minister. We talk church and there's usually somebody hurting that week that we are supporting and it's a wonderful waste of time. I don't have time to do it, but I wouldn't miss it because it's so sustaining.

A Birmingham, AL, area pastor illustrated the dual importance of such groups as well:

I was invited to a lectionary study group. I didn't plan to teach from it, but within six weeks I started preaching from it because I was learning so much and so excited about it. But we'd also get together and talk about what was going on. I learned much about preaching and ministry from that group. You can get steered away from some stuff by others who have some experience. That has been invaluable to me.

Many pastors and laity admitted that it is often difficult for pastors to ask for time off from their congregation, even though to do so is critical to the health of the ministry of the entire congregation. One Indianapolis pastor illustrated how he takes this seriously:

My predecessor was a guy who, whenever he went on vacation if somebody died, I don't care what the family plans were, he'd always return for the funeral. I always have somebody who's going to fill in for me and I make sure they don't know how to get in touch with me because I'm not coming back. I need the time. You draw the boundaries. But I would say, in our case, people cannot draw appropriate boundaries. They're on call 24/7. And, you know, they've got to make rotten spouses.

One of the most acceptable opportunities for pastors to take time away is through continuing education. One Birmingham layperson expressed a genuine understanding of the need for continuing education, comparing it to familiar business practices:

In the business I was in, we required all our managers to take 40 hours of training every year, and that included the highest executives all the way down, and it involved communication skills, it involved people management skills. And we think our pastor can get his M.Div. or whatever and then always be effective. That is not true.

WHAT IS BLOCKING GOOD MINISTRY FROM HAPPENING?

The conversations with judicatory and regional denominational leaders often uncovered deep concern over the disparity of resources among churches and pastors. Judicatory leaders were often the most discouraged participants in any of our conversations. One Presbyterian judicatory leader mentioned this story of a pastor struggling to support his family:

He told me not too long ago that they were at a drawing on Halloween with their kids and his wife drew the slip for the shoe store to donate five pairs of shoes to whoever who drew the card. He said, 'I didn't know (before that) how we were going to pay for our kids' sneakers as winter came on.' That was painful for me in a Presbyterian church where we have a fairly high standard of expectations on clergy's salaries.

This same judicatory leader noted that inadequate housing is also an issue for many pastors:

Some of the second class housing in which pastors are living in these days is very, very painful to me. We are now trying to get after that a little bit and we are forcing, literally forcing our lay people to get inside of those homes they've been at such an arm's distance from and see what it really is like.

Some of the laity expressed concerned about pastors' salaries because they know that "in kind" compensation is no longer offered or readily received:

In the old days a pastor could be paid practically nothing because the congregation provided so much in terms of housing, transportation, all that sort of stuff, and things for the children. I can remember times when if a pastor's child needed some kind of lesson, piano lessons or something, there was someone in the congregation that might pay for it. But I don't think people want to be charity cases nowadays, people don't want to have to rely on donations from a congregation, and yet the salary scales are not that great.

Good ministry is also hampered by feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced by the pastor. One rural pastor described ministry this way:

Lonely and isolated: it is a lonely thing. I have a friend who is a pastor and we talk every other day and that keeps us going. Usually there is no real structured way to keep us together.

Loneliness is not restricted, however, to the countryside. One AME pastor of a large bustling urban church described the loneliness of ministry in slightly different terms:

It is a lonely kind of existence, doing what we do. I have to be careful with whom I talk, because some people can 'smell blood in the water.' I don't talk with my presiding elder or bishop, we keep the relationship at a distance, because I don't want to say something to them that might come back. It can be really lonely. Other pastors will come to me and I'm willing to listen. They bring their own problems, but they don't want to hear about me. I have no problem with that. But I have learned that I need to take time away alone for reflection and renewal.

WHAT CHANGES COULD FORM BETTER PASTORAL LEADERS?

We asked each of the focus groups for suggestions they would have for denominations, seminaries, or congregations to improve the process of forming pastoral leaders. Many excellent ideas were put forth, but two were emphasized consistently enough to merit highlighting in this report.

MENTORING: Mentoring and apprenticeships came up as one of the most important topics of the focus groups. There was near-unanimous agreement around the need for more and better mentors for young pastors. In particular, "first call" support structures need to be put in place or strengthened. Good formation of pastoral leaders takes place in congregations that are strong and especially gifted to nurture new pastors, coupled with opportunities to reflect upon early ministry experiences and practices.

Two pastors, one Presbyterian and one A.M.E., discussed the frustration over the experiences of new pastors:

The whole issue of call and placement…feels to me like time and time again our churches that are struggling the most, who are in the most conflict, get the person who is the least qualified to help in that situation. And our pastors who have all kinds of skills are in churches who would function fine without them. I know a piece of it is economic; if you're good at what you do, then you go on to the next level church, and blah, blah, blah. But, there's some inequity there. And I know; I've seen our young folks come out of seminary and get burned real quick, and then that's it for them. I think, why would we continue to place people with no experience and no skills for conflict management in our most conflicted places, and then scratch our heads and wonder why the churches are not making it.

And we don't send anybody to assist them. They have nobody to call. I think that's the worst part. A friend of mine left a church in southern Illinois, and they put a young lady there who had some seminary training, but wasn't fully trained, hadn't really led a church, hadn't really done a lot of stuff, but she came down making a whole lot of demands, of what they had to do, they had to do this, they had to do that, and the church literally sat down. But nobody would go there and say, 'You know, let's revisit this, you need to change.' Nobody did that. Everybody stood on the sides, criticizing, but nobody would go there to help. And I think we repeat that more than anything.

CONTEXTUAL ACADEMIC PREPARATION. Seminaries, of course, were topics of much critical conversation. It is no surprise that when we gathered a group of pastors together in one room complaints arose about what was missing in seminary preparation for leadership. A possible over-emphasis on scholarly pursuit can leave pastors unprepared to lead when they are out in the actual, day-to-day practice of real ministry. Yet, mainline pastors in particular often expressed knowing appreciation for the theological grounding they received and hungered for deeper connection between seminary and the particular contexts of the churches.

We asked what one thing they would change in seminaries to improve pastoral formation. Some interesting and creative responses came back. Two of the strongest themes were instilling in new pastors the importance of understanding the culture of their congregation and understanding their own gifts and limitations. One Southern California pastor suggested:

If I were to re-write the M.Div. I'd say take your first year and make it grounding in scripture (theology, exegesis), but do it in one year not in three. The second year, teach on missiology - teach how to contextualize the gospel in the world you live in and how to really think through those issues. And in the third year I'd do leadership, and how to lead by tying into your own awareness of who you are as a leader and what your strengths and weaknesses as a person are. How you lead even with your own junk, and really have a self-awareness of how you interrelate with people and with God and with yourself.

This emphasis on missiology, or understanding the culture into which one brings the gospel, was echoed by an Indianapolis pastor and several others:

In today's post-modern world and pluralistic environment in which we're living, I think we need to be thinking more in terms of preparing people to be missionaries as much as traditional theological scholars.

You have to learn the culture. And one of the things that these people come out with is phenomenal academic preparation but no understanding of the culture necessarily

RECLAIMING THE GOSPEL

Many stories were elicited that described the problems of the church. One pastor described the phenomenon succinctly:

A lot of congregations are watering down the gospel and making it less outrageous than it is. So therefore we are an even less-ritualized Kiwanis club. (Another pastor interjects - "We're too nice!") Why would anyone want to join the Christian faith? What's compelling about that? 'Amazing Grace' is about as compelling as you can get, but we're not always communicating it well.

Yet, despite the complaints, concerns and calls for improvement, much of the conversation time was spent in enthusiastic dialogue about how much of the church is reclaiming the awe and mystery of the gospel and re-invigorating the ministry. The following story, given to illustrate good ministry, is one of many that give hope for the future of the church:

The picture I have in my mind is arriving late at the hospital where here is this man who is now unconscious, dies two weeks later, just mangled in a car accident, but his entire TLC group has been there half an hour before I even arrive. The entire group is allowed into this intensive care room and they are there recycling 24-hours. And in the middle of them are a couple that my wife and I led to the Lord. And now in their journey they're so filled with the love of God and immersed in the body of Christ that they end up being the ultimate shepherding couple. Hugging that dear wife through those two weeks before her husband dies, always there. And to me, I look at how removed I was from that whole thing, that it's the body happening. The body of Christ released and empowered to do work in the Kingdom.July 2003