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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 protected] 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 Resources 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.


 Thanks, Jim, for this article.  I'm embarrassed I haven't been part of this network conversation up until now.  I'm going to try to stay in touch with it more.  

To those four "c"s you mention--character, conviction, competencies, confluence, I've actually added a fifth.  If you recall, those four "c"s seek to name factors that are present in situations where there is good leadership.  I've come to the conclusion that a fifth factor that is virtually always present in situations of good leadership is Communication.  Leaders who communicate well usually lead well, and vice versa.  And by communicate, I'm thinking of both the quality of communication and the amount of communication.  

It's interesting to me that a guy like Rich DeVos, who is a great leader, virtually equates leadership and communication. Quentin Schultze, Calvin College communications prof, would also keep these two things very closely wed.  

I'll even go out on the limb and say that communication is one of our greatest challenges as leaders today.  Note that I teach leadership at the seminary, was on the taskforce of the document you have been commenting on, have been involved in the creation of the network, and have missed this whole conversation on the Network!  I just joined the Network this morning.   Is that because I'm so irresponsible?  Or because the network is so terrible at getting the word out?  No to both.  We're so overstimulated that very little sticks.  Including our sermons, our vision statements, etc.   But we carry on!!

Thanks for your work on the network!

Duane Kelderman


James Dekker on September 8, 2010

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

You're welcome, Duane. And thanks back to you for your attentiveness. I was not aware of the addition of the fifth leadership characteristic of communication. If I'm not mistaken, Max DePree writes somewhere about that--or perhaps it filters into several things I've read by him. I'm not surprised that he and Mr. DeVos would agree, nor, for that matter, that Quentin Schultze would emphasize that as well.

Isn't the Good News ('euaggelion) actually the BEST communication ever--spiritually, morally, emotionally, intellectually? And isn't the Gospel dependent on good, communication--from God to humanity and back and forth in many forms for many years and beyond through eternity? Good thing the Word/logos originates with God. It is wondrous and fearsome that God entrusts this precious Story to people.

Let me toss out an offer or request to you: Would you like to add to my seven-part series on communication that I've updated here over the last months by writing an article on communication? If there's anything that helps hold the previous seven articles together is their dependence on both positive and negative stories. All were true and factual, though, as I mentioned, some were conflated and disguised to keep original sources anonymous. I'd love to see it. In fact, I'll pay you the same thing for your contribution that Network is paying for all of mine! (Regardless of the pay, the request is serious and I hope you can take it up.)

On to a related item in your response. I did not know that you were involved from the start with Network. Nor am I surprised that it took you so long to get in on the conversation. You hit on a very sensitive and important point about Network, the internet, blogosphere, etc.: all contribute to what seems to be an ever-growing endless flow of opinion, conversation and information. I eagerly take part in this and am honoured to be part of it, but I have the problem of information overload, sorting through what to read and what not to read, not knowing what I forget, trying withal to honour my calling, my congregation to do the best God wants for me to do. Sometimes I do want to crawl in a cave for a while--until I get another idea for a blog or a comment or an article or a sermon or a conversation with a parishionier.

Anybody else out there share any of this?

Hi Jim;Thanks for your writing about leadership. I only had a chance to read your last posting.Thoughts that come to me when thinking about effective leadership are: trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, responsibility, creative, non-conformist, E.Q., problem-solver, respectful, transformational, competent, reliable, committed, sets standard of excellence, empowers, takes ownership of their work, interacts with others, good communication, influential, inspirational, handles, conflict well, and so many more.Concerns I have regarding pastors and their leadership styles are those who are: people pleasers, need acceptance and approval from others, are rigid and controlling, narcissistic, have their own agendas, argumentative, and others.How can we help pastors become better at leadership? I don’t know – but I think more work needs to be done in this area to reduce conflict between pastors and their congregations. Effective leaders can enhance a church to grow while weak and poor leaders can cause doors to close.We need to keep on encouraging our pastors to read books and take classes on effective leadership and leadership communication. Even promote such trainings via council and classis meetings is a start.Judy De Wit

Couldn't agree more on the leadership challenges we face in training pastors as excellent leaders.  And on some of the negative traits in some pastors.  Pray for Norm Thomasma and Cecil Van Niejenhuis who have to deal with pastor church conflict day and day out. One of the problems is the cycles that develop.  "Hurt people hurt people."  Congregations that have been hurt by a pastor (with the traits you describe above) hurt their next pastor(s).  On the cycle goes.  Duane Kelderman

Hi Duane: 

I will - pray for Thomasma and Van Niejenhuis. 

In relation to how a congregation treats the next pastor - in the area of abuse ministries, he's called the afterpastor.  The afterpastor's job - I think - is one of the hardest jobs to have.  It's difficult because the after pastor has to reset appropriate boundaries, behavior, expectation, role, of what a pastor should be - which is very hard for congregants to do because of the dysfunction of the previous pastor (they're desensitized)  -----  and deal with all of their anger that congregations target towards the afterpastor because of what the previous pastor did. 

As I see it, the problems can fall on either sides or both.  Dysfunctional pastors are very frustrating - but so are rigid/controlling/lack of education church leaders.  I can't count the number of times I shook my head thinking, "This is not leadership.  This is a hit and miss approach - elders at times are clueless about how poor of a job they are doing."

In recovery, people see the next pastor as the representative of the church institution and that is why they vent and rage to the next one.  In their emotional minds, they're still dealing with the first pastor.

In a book I recently wrote - in publishing/printing stage - I address what churches need to do after the pastor has abused.  It also can be expanded to work for churches that face congregation/pastor problems.  Recovery is not simple, but crucial.  Having the church members process their anger in recovery is paramount before the next pastor comes in.  You know that, I'm sure.

I'm now in a graduate program at N'western College in TWins Cities - that trains in leadership.  I have found the classes a perfect fit for what I am looking for - esp as it relates to when leadership abuses their role in the church - and how to lead effectively within the church.


Judy De Wit



 Thanks Judy.  I appreciate your fuller explanation of who you are and what you're doing in this area.  I would like to have contact information for you for future reference.  You can send it to me at [email protected] .  (I hope I'm not breaking a rule by putting my email address on line.) 

You mention abuse.  I think we need to unpack a little more the concept of spiritual abuse.  For another time . . . Thanks again, Judy.


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