Review and Background
Since “The Network” began early in 2010 I’ve been re-working and posting articles on church leadership I wrote several years ago for Sustaining Pastoral Excellence that were published in The Christian Courier over about a year and a half. In dealing with these issues I have not worked theoretically, except insofar as using the modest but helpful paper Leadership: A Working Definition. (CRCNA’s Ministry Council endorsed this paper in July, 2004 as a helpful resource for developing CRC leaders. It is available from Sustaining Pastoral Excellence: email@example.com 877-279-9994, Ext. 0805)
That paper articulated four basic principles of leadership: Character, Conviction, Competency and Confluence. In those articles I illustrated both positive and negative examples of those principles using factual case studies of churches and leadership, some drawn from personal experience, some from friends, colleagues and churches that have shared their experiences with me and gave permission to use their experiences. I used fictitious names and sometimes conflated examples both to protect the people and congregations involved and to illustrate the points concisely.
Nevertheless, not a few folks have courteously responded to me in private noting that they recognized themselves in the articles. All but one were appreciative of the treatment—and no one has threaten to sue!
This is the last article I plan to post in this series on leadership. It takes a broad overview of how I have come to see leadership issues in the CRC. I claim the expertise gathered only from experience, wide reading and long relationships with pastors and lay leaders. Costly and exhaustive sociological research is beyond my professional training. Yet I hope that the honest and heartfelt stories I have reported in the previous articles count as a helpful popular, accessible contribution to our conversation and actions about leadership and leaders in the CRC. Perhaps other faith traditions share some of both our guts and glory. And may the Lord be glorified in all our work and living.
Recognizing the Need for Pastoral Leadership Development
Over the last two decades books and magazine articles on leadership in- and outside of churchland have accounted for the deaths of many trees. The continuing popularity of Leadership, the many articles in denominational periodicals and clergy journals testify to the boundless appetite for nourishment on the subject in church circles. At one point in my ministry eight of the eleven pastors in a monthly book-discussion group subscribed to Leadership. Today, 15 years later, recent graduates of Calvin Theological Seminary among current colleagues witness to course assignments and discussions fed by articles from Leadership and such places as Alban Institute.
Thus the long process of tilling and planting of leadership soil has been complex and stimulating. Still it is difficult to measure the harvest in either quality or quantity. In fact, if we pastors step outside our collegial groups, it is easy to find skeptics who are not convinced of the necessity, applicability or even appropriateness of this conversation within Christian Reformed Church (CRC) leadership.
Doubters range from the stodgily cynical to the theologically thoughtful. On one extreme, I hear, “There’s no need to study leadership. We need dedicated pastors who stick to their knitting of leading worship, preaching, teaching and visiting.” On the other end, more reflective but still dubious observers remark, “The world is complex and leading churches is more difficult than ever. We certainly need good leaders in our churches; pastors are part of that mix. Yet the leadership training and models we hear most about come from the corporate world, where profits, not people and certainly not God’s glory run the show.”
As a pastor-preacher-missionary working in churches and missions for 33 years, I see validity in both extreme comments. Yet leadership themes and actions are not exhausted within the narrow boundaries of those remarks. To that end in this concluding article in our series, I will describe related situations to make a case for developing a common perspective about leadership in Christian Reformed churches. The CRC is the field I know best, but perhaps these broad outlines apply to other bodies as well.
Symptoms of Needs in Christian Reformed Pastorates
All pastors and elders I know consider it a privilege and honour to attend synods of the CRC. At synods–and classis meetings–delegates, visitors and advisers mix, meet, learn, study, pray and praise. It seems odd to some, but I fully agree with the pastor who after six days of synod, still bounced up joyfully to proclaim, “Synods ought to be fun and this one really was. Most people worked seriously without taking themselves too seriously.” Synods provide a public microcosm to see leadership development in action. They are places where leaders are tested and informally evaluated for potential service in congregations and agency ministries. Most of the seven synods I have attended have shown humble servants at their God-pleasing best.
Yet the low-point for all synods occurs during the last hours when delegates receive reports from our denomination’s Synodical Deputies. Among other duties, those pastors attend classis meetings to adjudicate between pastors and congregations in crises. Every year the list of pastors leaving congregations under difficult circumstances grows. Some pastors leave a present ministry because of intolerable situations with council or congregation. Most eventually find other congregations to serve; some find pastoral duties elsewhere, even in other denominations. Others are deposed from office because of scandal or abuse.
Delegates do not learn details, but personal reports often testify to intense, insoluble tensions resulting in friction, open conflict, all contributing to casualties among pastors and in congregations. Too frequently, former colleagues have found inappropriate escape in moral failures or addictions. When deputies’ reports end, year after year the same sad hand-wringing speeches and prayers lament the personal and communal agony behind these lists and names, begging members and God for solutions.
My point is this: We see the acute need for pastoral leadership development and maintenance in the annual back-door exits to which those statistics testify. Sadly, our denomination is not alone. In a paper presented in 2001 at a forum to strengthen congregational leadership, Dr. Craig Dykstra of the Lilly Endowment, cited studies among North American denominations: “Thirty percent of the pastors . . . are engaged in their ministries in joyous, fruitful, happy ways.... A larger group, about 40%, are considerably more perplexed and at least somewhat unhappy.... Finally, about 30% are in despair about their work, their situations, their lives, their ministries. And the bottom third of these are actively on their way out” (“The Significance of Pastoral Ministry and the Idea of the Pastoral Imagination,” p. 8).
Churches Looking for Pastors
Year by year a closely related need grows within our denomination at the front door as well. Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) is teaching more students than ever for more varied and broader ministry capacities. Yet those graduating to enter pastoral ministry shrank for a number of years, thus increasing annually the number of churches without pastors.
At one point about six years ago around 130 of 1025 Christian Reformed congregations had no pastors. In Classis Niagara where I serve, at one point six of the thirteen congregations worked without a pastor. I am pleased to observe that over the last five years more candidates have been graduating from CTS and other seminaries in preparation for parish ministry, a fact that has made an impact on the once alarming number of churches that called and employed ministers regularly. Currently (August, 2010) the CRC’s Pastor-Church Relations office counts 103 churches without pastors of approximately the same total as several years ago. That percentage, however, is still lower than in my own Classis Niagara where four of the 13 congregations have no pastor, though one candidate has just recently accepted a call to a church that had no pastor for almost two years.
Whatever current or past figures, when churches that have served historically with pastors have none for varying amounts of time, congregational needs stretch. Those needs often add more stress to pastors serving as counsellors and occasional preachers to pastorless churches. Unless more persons answer God’s call to parish ministry, some estimate that by 2020, one-quarter of Christian Reformed churches could be without pastors. (For related reflections, Bruce Ballast, “Where Have All the Pastors Gone?”, The Banner, December 2004, pp. 44-47.)
Dangers of a "Buyers' Market"
We hope and pray that the recent rise in pastors serving churches and the shrinking percentage of churches without pastors is not a blip but continue steadily to go in opposite directions. Yet I contend that ten percent of churches without pastors is not a healthy situation.
To put things in all-too-common market parlance, when too many churches are looking for too few pastors, the calling process can become a buyer's market—with the pastor being the buyer and the congregations the sellers. We all know the often false shading, portrayal of homes that happens in real estate transactions when buyers try to get the best bang for their buck. For their part buyers also try to “lowball” in home purchases. I’m enough of a hard-bitten Calvinist to realize that churchland and pastorworld are related places that with “market” pressure less than holy things can happen to my vocation and Christ’s churches. In other words—let both buyers and sellers beware of our tendency toward false advertising.
But now on to looking hopefully at a difficult problem.
Looking for Commually Workable Remedies
Why are so many pastors leaving the parish, disillusioned with the ministry or abandoning what they believed was a life-calling? Why are fewer candidates entering pastoral ministry? Why are too many congregations losing their pastors, some serially, to other less casualty-prone ministries such as teaching or institutional chaplaincy?
One general answer, applicable to all three questions is that if pastors expect to lead, they often face congregations and councils that supposedly ask them to lead, but do not know how to support leadership or to model followership. Conflict and separation often follow. No matter how strong God’s call is personally to a given pastor, unless lay leadership in the congregation understands that leading requires a leader to encourage a ministry plan that the congregation is committed to implementing, wreckage will continue to mount in separated and deposed pastors and frustrated congregations with shrinking membership.
While not pleasant, those scenarios are realistic and necessary to consider to engage the problems. Happily, within the CRCNA several existing programs and processes give opportunities for pastoral and lay leadership development. To open the front door further, for more than a decade CTS has offered “Facing the Future” for high school students who are willing seriously to consider ministry. In order to help close the back door, “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence” (SPE) offers grants to pastors to organize “Peer Learning Groups.” Over the last seven years I have was pleased to be part of two such regional groups for more than three years. We read, studied and prayed to maintain and further develop communal and personal spiritual disciplines and intellectual habits.
These opportunities continue from SPE, along with a wide variety of “Continuing Education Events” for which pastors and churches can apply. If this sounds like I’m ending with a commercial for SPE, well, that’s because I am! I urge pastors and congregations to continue to take advantage of opportunities to develop and strengthen individual vocations and congregational health.