The “Effective” Pastor: A Response to the Call to Action Study

Pastor As our denomination gears up for its General Conference in 2012, one of the key pieces for consideration is the report of the "Call to Action" steering committee, which has been looking at ways of stemming our denomination's continued decline in membership. Call to Action recommends the following, according to a UMNS news story:

  • Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church's "true first priority" for at least a decade.
  • Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.
  • Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement. “We should passionately care about results,” the group said.
  • Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.
  • Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.

These are interesting places to start a conversation about vitality but, as I posted after Call to Action's webinar in April, these recommendations ignore the key issue underlying effectiveness in churches and church leaders: a passionate and biblically grounded faith in Jesus Christ. In order to make disciples, we first have to be disciples! 

In this post, however, I want to focus on one of the important issues that will be discussed at General Conference, which has to do with measuring the effectiveness of pastors. Accountability to certain metrics is fine as far as it goes, but metrics don't tell the whole story of effectiveness.  According to the study, effective pastors are those that develop, coach and mentor laity in leadership roles; influence the actions and behaviors of others to accomplish change; work with congregations to achieve significant goals and provide inspirational, topical preaching.

All of these are important, though I would replace topical preaching with biblical preaching. I've chatted with enough people both inside and outside the church who are tired of hearing platitudes and heart-rending stories dressed up as preaching. As Senior Writer of Homiletics Journal, I can tell you that our subscribers ask over and over again for more engagement and exegesis with the biblical text, which we are happy to oblige. Congregations are hungry for the transforming Word given in the power of the Holy Spirit and tire quickly of gimmicky preaching like that touted by Call to Action in some videos during the webinar. But I digress…

The Call to Action markers of clergy effectiveness, while not unimportant, fail to realize some of the deeper factors that lead to real transformation in the life of the leader and the congregation. Given the Call to Action definition of effectiveness, for example, a pastor would be able to accomplish any of these markers without any engagement with God whatsoever. Coaching, influencing change, achieving goals, and entertaining speaking are all possible without the Holy Spirit's influence and could as easily apply to a business leader as a clergy person. Again, that's not to say these things are unimportant, just inadequate in and of themselves. 

Over nearly 20 years of pastoral ministry, I've come to realize that there are certain other factors that must first be grounded in the life of a clergy leader in order for them to be considered "effective"–things which are difficult to put on a stat sheet or evaluation form, but are nonetheless vital to a pastor's engagement with a congregation and ability to maintain himself or herself for the long haul. Failure in any one of these areas can domino into tragic personal and professional failure. 

1. A vital, ongoing, personal relationship with Christ. Spiritual disciplines are not optional for effective spiritual leaders, though most of us (myself included) struggle in this area. Daily engagement with Scripture, prayer, and other disciplines become holy habits that drive our approach to ministry. Too often, however, we have pushed these disciplines aside in order to "get more things done." Maybe we're afraid that our congregations will think we're slackers if we decide to pray instead of being in the office to answer the phone first thing Monday morning. Maybe we're too busy for God, even though it's God's work we're supposed to be about. I would like for our denominational leaders to unapologetically push for clergy to develop their own spiritual lives, sometimes over and against more church activity. One of the key effectiveness markers should involve asking clergy, "How is it with your own soul?"

2. The ability to deal with anxiety and conflict. This is probably the number one killer of effectiveness in clergy and congregations. Unresolved conflict, the inability to differentiate oneself, taking on the anxiety of the church's family system, allowing the most anxious people to drive the church–these are major barriers to effectiveness. Training and support for clergy in the area of family systems and conflict management should be a mandatory part of a clergy's education. Too many of our clergy and congregations are chronically anxious and emotionally enmeshed, and the ability to navigate and manage anxiety is a key marker of effectiveness. CTA mentions "principled" leadership, which is a start in this direction.

3. Integrity. Our denomination, like many others, is suffering from an integrity crisis in its clergy. The number of clergy who are being forced out because of moral failure seems to be increasing, and I would venture a theory that it's because the pressure and expectation to be successful and please people becomes overwhelming. When pastors don't know what to do with their anxiety, they will medicate their pain with substances, inappropriate relationships, and a host of other pathologies. I recently said to another colleague that I have redefiined my vision of "success" in ministry to include making it to the end without having done something monumentally destructive to myself, my family or my churches. Finishing well is a process that must begin early in a pastor's career and be guarded constantly. The integrity to be truthful about one's struggles, to confess our sins to one another and to God, and to recognize our weaknesses, is simply not optional if one's ministry is ever considered to be "effective." 

4. The work of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is the factor that undergirds all the others. The Call to Action report disappoints me because it doesn't take into account that the success of the church depends on listening to the Spirit. I preached on this during Pentecost this year. God help us if our ministries depend solely on our efforts!

Again, these are things that are difficult to measure on the stat sheet, but they should be considered as part of our effectiveness process. In the Rocky Mountain Conference, for example, our current evaluation system for clergy looks more like a military Officer Efficiency Report than a true evaluation of these "soft" metrics of effectiveness. A "covenant" system, such as outlined in Gwendolyn Purushotham's wonderful book Watching Over One Another In Love: A Wesleyan Model for Ministry Assessment, would seem to provide a more comprehensive view of a pastor's effectiveness. Additionally, the SPRC is currently the one group that evaluates a pastor, but their exposure is always limited. A 360-degree review process, involving multiple people from the congregation, would seem to provide a more accurate picture. 

I've known many pastors who I consider to be effective who have never grown a "large" church, but who were nonetheless effective at making disciples for the transformation of the world and did so without compromising their own faith and integrity. Our "bigger is better" focus, as outlined by Call to Action, lacks a true understanding of disciple-making. We're still trying to copy the Willow Creek model of building megachurches, when even Willow Creek itself has admitted through its Reveal study that drawing large numbers of people does not necessarily equate to making them disciples. 

We're Methodists, and historically we've been good at making disciples. I truly believe that our future is grounded in our Wesleyan past, where disciple-making, more than worship attendance, becomes our primary goal. Preservation of the institution is less important than the radical move of the Spirit in the lives of individuals and churches, both large and small. 




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