Two leadership challenges for Christian leaders

This week I was part of a panel fielding some questions from a leadership class at Belfast Bible College. One of the questions had to do how we saw the biggest challenges currently facing Christian leadership. Here are two that I mentioned (you can feel free to comment or to add your own thoughts):

  1. The challenge to be culturally relevant and biblically faithful. Each of those emphases will have its champions. For the progressives, there is little point in being biblically faithful if we are culturally irrelevant. Indeed if the church is becoming culturally irrelevant, perhaps it’s time to rethink some of our beliefs and ditch some of the baggage that makes us unattractive. And it ought to be obvious that some of the intra-mural debates and discussions that cause so much angst within churches (check out this post from the summer for a few suggestions) have little or no importance in the eyes of a wider public. On there other hand some of the conservatives/traditionalists will probably want to argue that there will be times when culturally irrelevance is the price you have to pay to be biblically faithful. I think we need to bear in mind that both Daniel in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New had to determine where their ultimate allegiance lay, even when there was a price to pay; up until fairly recently in (now fading) Western Christendom, we’ve not often had to pay too much of a price. I remember one thing Mark Driscoll (I am not getting into a discussion of that saga) talked about a few years ago and which is helpful in this respect. He talked about things which are held in a closed hand and things which are held in an open hand. You don’t negotiate or compromise on the virgin birth (to throw in a Christmas example) or on the deity of Jesus Christ. But it’s hard to justify an uncompromising stand on whether you should have an evening service! Those are easy examples, but leaders need to sort out their closed hand/open hand issues.
  2. The challenge to honour the past without sacrificing the future. I think this has some relevance to something I wrote earlier this year about new churches. But it also comes into play in local congregations or denominational structures. Again, as with #1, we can veer to either side in this. In their quest for a church that is relevant to this generation, some people may be tempted to shunt everything (and everyone) from the past to one side: ‘those old people have had their day, let them stand aside while we get on with it,’ is the battle cry. But it’s arrogant for any generation to speak and act as if they were the first to do anything for the sake of the Kingdom! Your generation stands on the shoulders of those that went ahead of you. That said, it is no solution for an older generation to determine to hold tightly to the reins while the style of their church services remains firmly anchored several decades in the past. On the other hand, I heard recently about some older people whose church had revamped one of its weekly services to make it more contemporary and relevant. It was definitely not their cup of tea. So they didn’t go. Instead they met in a house to pray for the service.

One of the other people on the panel (Bishop Harold Miller) mentioned Phyllis Tickle’s idea that a major tectonic shift takes place in church history every 500 years. If that’s where we are today (the previous big shift, the Reformation, started 498 years ago), we will need courageous and discerning leaders who can help us navigate these waters.


Resilient Ministry: Leadership and Management

I’ve already posted about this fifth theme to be highlighted in Resilient Ministry. Referring to the work of James March, the book uses the metaphors of plumbing and poetry. For March, ‘plumbing’ is what people generally refer to as management while ‘poetry’ is what most people call leadership. ‘In almost any position in life,’ he claims, ‘you need the mix.’

Put another way, ‘leadership requires both creative art and methodical tasks.’ One of the surprises for people going into the ministry is that they don’t expect that the tasks of leadership and management will feature to the extent that they do. After all, is ministry not about preaching, teaching discipling, caring, and being involved in outreach? What if their training has prepared them for the latter but not the former?

There are four critical areas related to the poetry of leadership and five related to the plumbing of management.

The poetry of leadership

  1. Reflection. Not the first time this theme has appeared in the book. This time, the authors refer to the work of Donald Schön who distinguished between ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action.’ Pastors need to do both, which means learning to reflect both during and after a presenting situation;
  2. Hardship. Again, a recurring theme in the book. Russ Moxley has suggested that the most effective means of leadership training is the experience of hardships. Not all by themselves, though; the best learning comes when the hardship is experienced in a supportive context when there is an opportunity to review the experience. The researchers comment, ‘In order for hardships to be a learning experience, ministry leaders need a supportive environment that allows for mistakes and difficulties and that provides a place where these experiences can be processed.’
  3. Systems thinking, which refers to the ability to understand relational connections and their impact. This involves thinking about issues of maturity (intellectual and emotional) and anxiety. To see the importance of this, consider the process of change. Given that change produces anxiety, ‘leading a congregation through change requires accounting for the congregation’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual maturity.’
  4. Perceiving the politics of ministry. Since ministry involves people and people are stakeholders who are affected by leadership decisions, some degree of politics is involved in ministry leadership. There is a negative kind of politics, one which involves manipulation and seeking to get what we want; but there is a more positive form where we build trust, learn to negotiate and choose between conflicting wants. The lines between the two forms can be very fine. How do you know the difference between manipulation and negotiation? In all of this, pastors need to learn about power and authority and how to intentionally grow ‘relationship capital.’

The plumbing of management

The daily nuts and bolts of leadership.

  1. Modelling, which means primarily modelling spiritual maturity. Pastors need to demonstrate what it means to walk in the grace of God.
  2. Shepherding which calls for the pastor to know, feed, lead and protect the sheep. There are four principal shepherding concerns:
    1. Listening (a lot of people are poor listeners); how many leaders (perhaps especially men) talk at one another rather than actually listen to one another?
    2. Encouraging. Pastors need encouragers in their own lives and are then tasked with creating an environment of encouragement.
    3. Speaking the truth (in love);
    4. Counselling (which the book, of course, spells with one ‘l’).
  3. Managing expectations. Both pastors’ expectations of themselves and pastors’ expectations of others need to be managed. With regard to the first, a healthy dose of Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:3-4 is called for. Pastors need to embrace their limits and accept that God is in control of their calling. The second (expectations of others) include expectations that relate to time, friendship, availability and great sermons. The authors note this comment from Heifetz and Linsky that ‘exercising leadership might be understood as disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.’
  4. Supervising conflict. Conflict is one of the primary reasons why ministers leave local church ministry. Poor responses to conflict might include avoiding it or the need to win disagreements. Taken more positive, ‘conflict is a crucible for discipleship.’
  5. Planning- which features these four aspects:
    1. Vision development (could this not be considered part of the poetry?)
    2. Leadership selection and development;
    3. Hiring and training staff;
    4. Reviewing governance structures (definitely part of the plumbing!)

So those are the five themes:

  • Spiritual formation – ongoing growth in Christian maturity. ‘Long-term fruitfulness in ministry comes from the overflow of one’s walk with God.’
  • Self-care – with its invitation to burn on rather than burn out.
  • Emotional and cultural intelligence – and the need to realise that our perception of reality may not be the only way to look at things.
  • Marriage and family – what if pastors’ spouses actually thought it was spiritually beneficial for them to be married to the pastor?!
  • Leadership and management. ‘Leadership is the poetry of gathering others together to seek adaptive and constructive change, while management is the plumbing that provides order and consistency to organizations.’

The authors of this work do not claim that they have discovered the ‘holy grail’ of pastoral survival. But they do believe that understanding these themes and seeking to evaluate life and ministry through them will have a significant positive impact on the health and resilience of pastors and other ministry leaders.



Resilient Ministry: Marriage and Family

People think that if you marry a pastor, you’ll get pastored all the time.

The words of the wife of one of the pastors involved in the research behind Resilient Ministry.

I can imagine the wry smiles from any pastor’s wife reading that statement. Worse, the possibility that the wry smiles might hide the pain that comes from a sense of being neglected.

The fourth theme of Resilient Ministry is marriage and family. The researchers identified five marriage and family related challenges for pastors.

  1. The ‘normal’ pressures of marriage and family life. Not unique to pastors and their families.
  2. Ministry as a lifestyle more than a job. There are several important questions for pastors to consider:
    1. How often do you feel like you are truly off the clock?
    2. Does your spouse serve as a ‘nuclear dumping ground’?
    3. What healthy boundaries protect your spouse and children from the emotional stressors of ministry?
    4. Do you assure your children that ministry challenges are not their fault?
  3. The conflicting loyalties of church and home. One of the research participants recalled being at a meeting where potential elders were being examined. One of the candidates was asked whether they were willing to make sacrifices with their family for the sake of the church; the pastor admitted to being unsure what the right answer was. Suggestions for dealing with the challenge of conflicting loyalties were,
    1. Recognising the strategic role of ministry spouses;
    2. Forming a ministry partnership with one’s spouse (‘there are no formulas for determining the role of a spouse in ministry’);
    3. Identify and manage the congregation’s expectations;
    4. Disappoint others;
    5. Managing dual expectations;
    6. Supporting spouses in spiritual development (remember that quote at the start of this post?)
  4. Abandonment from always being on the job: ‘A result of their being “on the job” all of the time is that the spouse and children of pastors often feel abandoned.’ This calls for such steps as investing intentional time, getting a marriage check-up or practicing active listening.
  5. The unmet needs of ministry spouses for confidants. The spouses of pastors need to be able to find safe people, but recognise that it is not possible to protect themselves 100%.

(For more on the book, take a look at the Resilient Ministry website)

Resilient Ministry: Cultural Intelligence

As I have already mentioned, cultural intelligence is grouped together in Resilient Ministry with emotional intelligence, although there is enough material on each of them to merit treating them separately. If you like annotations and enjoyed EQ (as opposed to IQ), how about some CQ?

Since the book is written in a North American context, based on research done with North American pastors, it’s no surprise that there is a discussion to the changing cultural face of North America, where it is reckoned that by 2040 Anglos will no longer be the majority population. Mind you, Ireland gets a couple of mentions by way of illustration.

Cultural intelligence refers to the ability to function across several cultural contexts. There are several cultural domains for pastors to be aware of.

  • The personal, whether from family of origin, wider childhood contexts, home church experience.
  • Generation – ‘different cultural perspectives and commitments are reflected by each generation.’
  • Church, with its organisational culture – ‘the way we do things around here.’
  • Denomination, including the cultural subgroups that exist within denominations.
  • Geography and demographics
  • Socioeconomic class
  • Socioethnicity – with this sobering comment: ‘White evangelicalism likely does more to perpetuate racialized society than to reduce it’ (Is there a Northern Irish equivalent?)

As ever, with one chapter to highlight the issues, the second chapter devoted to the theme seeks to work towards improvement. ‘Ministry in the twenty-first century will involve working with people who have radically different perspectives on life and the world.

It calls for cultural discernment and biblical wisdom. Leaders need to learn to withhold judgment on cultural differences: negative attribution theory (why a 5 year old might instinctively decide that he doesn’t like a new dish) means that people tend to assume things in a new culture are not just different: they are wrong!

Leaders also need to learn to evaluate culture with humility: ‘CQ serves humble pie to everyone and provides learning for all.’

There are several cultural values that build trust.

  • Communication context. In some communication situations, the importance of context is high. Such a context relies strongly on non-verbal aspects of communication.
  • Power distance. This refers to the distance that is felt between leaders and followers. If you are the kind of person who values low distance, you will find it difficult to relate to a leader who values high distance. The opposite is also true.
  • Clock time v event time. This is where Ireland gets a mention – ‘a country that runs much more on event time than America does’. In cultures that value event time more than clock time, it’s more important to deal with the current conversations than to hurry to a scheduled meeting!
  • Precision v ambiguity. A question of how open-ended or controlled people like to be.
  • Results v relationships. There are examples of both kinds of culture, but the authors note the following from Kouzes and Posner:

In the thousands of [leadership] cases we’ve studied, we’ve yet to encounter a single example of extraordinary achievement that’s occurred without the active involvement and support of many people.

If leaders are to develop their CQ, it will require the following:

  1. Spiritual formation: ‘ministry leaders need to be examples of ongoing spiritual transformation.’
  2. Reflection (heard about that before?). Without proper reflection, a cross cultural experience can send us the wrong way and make us more fearful and judgmental of other cultures.
  3. Experimentation.
  4. Asking curious questions.
  5. Hardships (another one of those recurring themes in the book).
  6. Community.

Resilient Ministry: Emotional Intelligence

In terms of the five overall themes of Resilient Ministry, emotional and cultural intelligence are grouped together. However the book devotes two chapters to each of them and I will treat them as two subjects, meriting a separate post each.

It’s probably Daniel Goleman who has done most to bring the concept of emotional intelligence (EQ) to the fore in the past couple of decades¹. EQ is basically the capacity for self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Goleman highlighted research that suggested EQ being about 4 times as important as IQ in determining professional success for a group of scientists.

Among Christian writers, Pete Scazzero has sought to draw attention to the importance of emotions for Christians, claiming that ’emotional health and spiritual maturity are inseparable.’

There are two aspects to EQ: the ability to manage one’s own emotions (EQ-self) and the ability to respond appropriately to the emotions of others (EQ-others).

The research behind Resilient Ministry has highlighted these four problems and two challenges as key areas for leaders to work on:

  • The problem of people-pleasing (‘the willingness to deny one’s own feelings, priorities, values or convictions in order to try to make others happy’).
  • The problem of emotion-faking. ‘When pastors lie to themselves about the way things really are, personal energy is drained away.’
  • The problem of lack of reflection (reflection is becoming an important recurring theme).
  • The problem of conflict avoidance.

And the challenges:

  • The challenges of listening and expressing empathy. This statement, by Donald Phillips, is quite striking: ‘Listening itself is so critical in leadership that any leader who is not a good listener will be a failure.’ Strong stuff indeed!

So how should pastors go about developing their EQ? The pastors in the research identified three helpful areas.

  1. Prayer and personal worship for perspective
  2. Physical exercise for emotional recovery
  3. Reflective (there it is again) work

There are several reflective practices:

  • Slowing down to feel
  • Journaling (recommended to write for 20 minutes per day)
  • Accurately identifying emotions (‘the first step in managing emotions is to be aware of them and accept them’)
  • Exploring family genograms (one of the book’s appendices discusses how to do this)
  • Differentiating in order to connect with people. Differentiation means being able to remain connected to people relationally, yet without having one’s reactions and behaviour determined by them.
  • Receiving feedback from others.

The section closes with two short pieces on congregational EQ (‘Organizations will rarely ever rise in maturity level above that of their leaders….’), and on Jesus and emotions.

¹Interestingly, there has been something of a debate on LinkedIn as Goleman has responded to the critiques of EQ by Adam Grant who reckons it’s overrated.

Resilient Ministry: Self-care

The second significant theme in the book Resilient Ministry is the theme of self-care. It’s closely linked with the theme of spiritual formation. Self-care is the ongoing development of the whole person. While the authors acknowledge that it may sound selfish, self-care is actually a form of self-denial; it is a way of seeking to ensure as lengthy a ministry as possible. The aim is to burn on, not to burn out¹.

Prioritising self-care can be difficult for many pastors because of unrealistic expectations placed on them by their role. As with the theme of spiritual formation, the issue of identity and role plays a part:

The clergy role… is the only profession that wraps personal identity, professional identity, and religious all in the same package.

In addition, pastors may be unaware of the emotional impact their work has on them. Psychiatrists have noted the impact of their work on those in caring professions.

And pastors may deny their need of self-care by spiritualising away any need for it.

Five areas of self-care are highlighted: emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual and physical.

Interestingly, as part of self-care, the authors zoom in on the theme of calling. They were surprised by the extent to which pastors question their sense of calling to their particular ministry; not so much whether they were called to ministry in general, but whether they were called to the specific place where they found themselves. Discussions covered the way ‘God shapes his servants through the difficulties of questioning their call’, noting lessons of contentment.

There are three issues of emotional self-care:

1 – Issues of identity:

  • Personality – how am I wired?
  • Family of origin – how did relatives shape me?
  • Role/person distinctions (again!) – what’s left if I quite ministry?
  • Comparisons – how do I measure up?

2 – Issues of emotional management:

  • Feelings of frustration, dryness or depression;
  • How do I gain healthy emotional space (issue of ‘differentiation’)?

3 – Issues of ministry idolatry – an underlying motive for the previously highlighted theme of workaholism.

Social self-care deals with the question of isolation, including a discussion of friendships and the vexed question of whether pastors can have significant friendships within their ministry. Part of the answer to that lies in understanding the difference between allies and confidants.

In terms of intellectual self-care, pastors need to deal with the challenge to keep on learning. There are also implications for the way pastors establish boundaries on their use of time.

Physical self-care means avoiding the extreme of ‘the cult of health, beauty and fitness’, while taking seriously the challenges of both exercise and healthy nutrition.

Self-care is not selfish. It is a necessary part of staying involved in fruitful ministry for a lifetime.

¹A famous 19th century Welsh preacher apparently claimed that he would rather burn out than rust out in the service of the Lord. One of his contemporaries responded by saying that he wanted to do neither: he wanted to finish out his race. As someone else has said more recently, whether you burn out or rust out, either way you are out!

Resilient Ministry: Spiritual Formation

I’ve begun posting about the excellent book, Resilient Ministry. As I mentioned in the first post, the authors highlight five themes from their extensive research with pastors and their spouses:

  1. Spiritual formation
  2. Self-care
  3. Emotional and cultural intelligence
  4. Marriage and family
  5. Leadership and management

Each of the themes basically gets 2 chapters (though theme #3 is subdivided and gets four chapters). The first theme to be developed is spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation is defined as the ‘ongoing process of maturing as a Christian, both personally and interpersonally.’ The book notes pertinently that ‘pastors often slip into the trap of building their identities around their roles and performance rather than being beloved children of God and co-heirs with Christ.’ As one of the participants noted (the book is liberally sprinkled with direct quotations from participants), the spiritual tasks of pastoral life can replace personal spiritual growth: sermon preparation takes the place of mediating on Scripture for personal worship.

A significant obstacle to spiritual formation is highlighted: workaholism. This, report the authors, is largely fuelled when pastors believe that they don’t work hard enough (everyone works harder than they do) and when they assume that they are responsible for everything that happens in the church.

Work for God that is not nourished by a deep interior life with God will eventually be contaminated by other things such as ego, power, needing approval of and from others, and buying into the wrong ideas of success and the mistaken belief that we can’t fail

(Pete Scazzero)

In order to pursue spiritual formation, four key practices are highlighted.

  1. Building rituals: ‘Each of us must explore the rhythms that make our life fruitful for God.’
  2. Maintaining accountability: ‘study after study shows that most pastors are lonely.’
  3. Growing through hardships. Here the book draws from the work of Russ Moxley who  suggests that hardships can teach four categories of lesson: self-knowledge/ sensitivity towards others/ limits of personal control over circumstances/ flexibility. For learning to happen, however, there needs to be reflection and there need to be support systems.
  4. Spiritual disciplines: namely reflection (an important theme), prayer, sabbath, repentance and worship. Perhaps surprising that the discipline of Scripture was not mentioned.

Without critical self-reflection, pastors easily fall into a trap of only thinking about how they can use recent experiences and ideas in their teaching and preaching.