In most institutions, when an employee is having problems a plan is developed to focus the person’s responsibilities to clarify expectations, establish deadlines and define success.
Congregations have a very difficult time creating such plans for pastors, especially senior pastors. By the time the appropriate committee has developed a consensus that the minister is struggling, the situation has escalated to numerous disappointed people or failed projects. Lay leaders are hesitant to give feedback as if speaking for the whole congregation, much less God.
For the past few generations, many congregations have treated pastors as a kind of replaceable part.
My pastoral career began at the end of the industrial age and was mostly spent with wonderful people working in textile mills and furniture factories. In listening to stories about previous pastors, I discovered many of the leaders had an industrial view of the work of a pastor. If one broke, the leaders would go to the denominational “store,” get a new one and install it.
If the pastor was really good, the congregation expressed fear that the pastor would be taken out for service elsewhere. In the “old days” the unexamined view was that an endless supply of pastors was being churned out from the seminaries, and the best way to deal with ineffectiveness was to get a new pastor.
Today, many congregations doubt that a better pastor is available elsewhere. The mindset is shifting to helping a struggling pastor by offering opportunities for learning and growth.
For example, a growing number of congregations now have a policy of providing a months-long period of rest and renewal for pastors for every five to 10 years of service, in addition to annual vacation time with family and continuing education time for learning. Some congregations have decided that calling a pastor from within the congregation’s membership and nurturing that person’s gifts is better than shopping for an outsider. This is particularly the case for associate pastors.
The evidence for this “nurture your own” view is validated by studies of business executives.
Harvard Business School professor Joseph L. Bower indicates that most successful CEOs come from the company’s ranks and have had a wide range of experiences outside the company to give creative perspective.
“Outsiders typically are good at cutting costs and ‘turning around’ a company,” he writes. “But because they lack true understanding of the company’s strengths -- especially which individuals really have talent -- but often as well because they lack a well-developed understanding of the industry and its markets, they cannot build new business. They lack the deep knowledge that would enable them to take intelligent strategic risks.”
Whether a congregation goes to the extreme of “growing its own” pastor, viewing pastors as a renewable resource rather than a replaceable part requires that the congregation develop systems for nurturing.
Sabbaticals and continuing education are excellent practices to assist those pastors who have the maturity to assess their needs and find appropriate resources. Developing such insight requires feedback. Some clergy get help from peer groups, mentoring or coaching. Lay leaders responsible for nurturing pastors need to ask the pastor about whether these resources are teaching them. In addition feedback from inside the congregation is critical. Lay leaders need to find ways to give constructive assessments on the challenges and limitations they see. Like all of us, pastors need “mirrors” to see how to improve.
One of the measurable signs of a healthy church is the tenure of pastors. When a series of pastors stays at a congregation for two or three years, it is likely that the congregation is facing serious challenges that are beyond what the pastor can tackle alone. When several pastors stay 10 or more years, the congregation has likely developed skills to nurture pastors that can teach the rest of us how to develop and maintain fruitful relationships.