Matt Bloom: Flourishing in ministry

Pastoral ministry is hard and challenging, but God wants clergy -- and everyone -- to experience meaning in work, says a management professor who studies well-being and work.

Despite the many challenges of pastoral ministry, pastors are right to expect meaning and even joy in their work, said Matt Bloom, associate professor of management at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

“What pastors struggle with and what I’d like to help them with is that ministry is and should be rewarding -- that it's good and important to be happy in your work, that the marker of a successful ministry isn’t toil,” Bloom said. “It can be hard and challenging work, but I really believe that God wants all of us, particularly pastors, to experience meaning in work.

“I think the ones that I’m beginning to see who are flourishing have in their own minds been able to draw the line between this sense of really giving it their best but then also being able to say, 'I don’t know all the answers, and I’ll rest easy knowing that God will fill in the rest.'”

Bloom studies wellbeing and work, with a focus on intrinsic motivation, happiness and meaning. He also teaches and studies innovation. Last year, he launched an in-depth study of wellbeing in ministry, Flourishing in Ministry, part of a broader research project, Wellbeing at Work, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. His interest in pastoral wellbeing is both professional and personal: his wife, the Rev. Kim Bloom, is a United Methodist pastor.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership about meaning and work, flourishing in ministry and innovation. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: Your research focuses on “the improvement of the human condition at work,” particularly regarding meaning at work. What are you discovering?

We’re finding that meaningful work is work that is closely aligned with a person's core values, and one of the challenges for many people is to learn how they can live out their core values in a work context that often seems hostile. People who have a deep sense of identity in their work -- their work feels like something they were destined to do -- are the ones who find work most fulfilling.

Early on, I realized that there is nothing about a particular position in itself that makes it more meaningful. I had thought, for example, that being a pastor would inherently be more meaningful, but that alone is not necessarily the case. Whatever the job, it's something about the integration of a person’s sense of self -- their gifts, graces, personal values and personality -- and how that is reflected in their work that may be the most important determinants of meaning in work.

Q: Within your broader research on work, you’re studying clergy and have a research project, Flourishing in Ministry. Tell us about that.

The traditional business model says you get people to perform well by giving them the right rewards and aligning those with what you expect them to do. Our premise, however, is that if you create environments in which people find work meaningful, then high performance is just a natural byproduct.

The underlying theory is that if you’re called to something, you want to do well. You have this deep internal desire to do your best. But if you’re in a context in which you're stressed or frustrated and burnout is high or life just begins to beat you down, no matter how strong your internal drive, you can’t be at your best.

This idea of flourishing in ministry looks at people who find ministry a life-enriching experience and who are also highly effective. What does wellbeing look like in ministry? What are the conditions that sustain or impede it over a lifetime?

Q: You don’t have the answers yet, but what do you think those conditions might be?

Early in ministry, people probably focus more on outcomes, on things that are measurable like, “Did I preach well?” “Are the pews full?” “Are people putting money in the offering plate?” But later, I think, it will be a deep internal sense that you understand God’s call on your life and you see it manifested in your work over time. It will be much more a sense of the unfolding of your career, seeing your ministry as living out God’s work, seeing your work produce fruits of many different kinds over many years.

Q: What difference does it make when, as with pastors, you see your work as a calling from God? How do pastors work through that?

For many years, beginning with Luther, work at its best was this image of work as a calling. We held up the idea that if you are called to something, if it’s what you were born to do, then that was work at its best. I actually agree with that, but there's a dark side to work as a calling. Because a calling is so much a part of your sense of identity, when things don’t go well, the implications are far greater than a paycheck. I might lose my paycheck, but even more, I might lose my sense of identity.

So a call from God to pastoral ministry has the potential for huge rewards and huge costs. The rewards are this profound experience of contributing to God and building God’s kingdom. The risks are if you fail, you’ve not just failed yourself or your family or your church. You’ve failed God, and that’s a failure of deep and profound importance.

What pastors struggle with and what I’d like to help them with is that ministry is and should be rewarding -- that it’s good and important to be happy in your work, that the marker of a successful ministry isn’t toil. It can be hard and challenging work, but I really believe that God wants all of us, particularly pastors, to experience meaning in work.

I think the ones that I’m beginning to see who are flourishing have in their own minds been able to draw the line between this sense of really giving it their best but then also being able to say, “I don't know all the answers, and I’ll rest easy knowing that God will fill in the rest.”

Q: Have you been able to identify specific factors that contribute to flourishing in ministry?

We’re able to identify some, and we have a lot more to learn. One thing that many pastors have long thought mattered is good, strong relationships -- having friends who are pastors, having a high-quality married life or a life partner. We're trying to understand, what does a good relationship look like? What does a good pastoral friendship look like? What does a really positive marriage for ministry look like?

We know that pastors who have a clear sense of their own personal theology are more likely to flourish. So what does it mean to have a personal theology, and why does that matter? We know that pastors who have a sense that their gifts and graces map onto the needs of their church are more likely to flourish.

Our early data suggests that relationships with denominational leaders tend to be neutral at best and harmful at worst. In other words, a pastor’s relationship with denominational leaders matters, but it tends to do harm rather than good.

Q: Can you elaborate on that?

In general, when we measure the effect of relationships with denominational leaders on a pastor’s wellbeing, what we have not found yet is that there are positive effects. We have not found that good relationships with denominational leaders help pastors have a higher level of wellbeing. But we have found that negative relationships with denominational leaders are highly detrimental to pastors’ wellbeing.

At best, pastors’ relationships with denominational leaders have no effect on their wellbeing. That’s the best we can hope for. At worst, it's detrimental. Bishops and district superintendents are deeply committed to helping pastors flourish, so we need to understand why that’s the case.

Relationships with congregations tend to be much the same. At best they’re neutral, and at worst they’re detrimental. Of course, there are always exceptions. Some pastors have great relationships with their congregations that clearly help them to have high levels of wellbeing. But in general, clergy relationships with congregations are neutral at best, but they tend to be negative. Rarely are they positive in terms of their effect on pastors’ wellbeing.

Q: Explain that.

The simple answer is that congregations by and large don’t help pastors flourish, but they can hinder pastors from flourishing. We need to understand, what is the mechanism there? One of our hypotheses is that congregations that are antagonistic or complain a lot undermine a pastor’s sense of call. Rather than a pastor telling the congregation, “You've just got some concerns that I can’t or won’t meet,” pastors tend to then doubt their ability and the efficacy of their call.

A second explanation might be -- and this is probably true for people in many jobs -- if most of your interactions with the people you’re trying to serve are negative, that has a wearing effect over time. It’s one negative interaction after another, one complaint after another, so rather than work being a positive experience, it just might wear you down.

We know that for most people generally, for every one negative interaction, you need three positive experiences just to maintain your level of wellbeing. It might be that pastors’ lives have a ratio the other way, with three or four negative experiences for every neutral experience, so that overwhelming flood of negative experiences might just wear on their wellbeing.

Q: How pervasive is that scenario you describe of pastors having this negative relationship with their congregations?

Our early data suggests that more than half of our pastors experience their congregations mainly in a negative way. As we continue to do surveys, we’ll be able to confirm if that is right. Maybe this was an anomaly in our early studies.

One reason this is interesting is that pastors will tell you that things are great with their congregations, and I think that’s because they want them to be and they strive hard for them to be. Spouses will be a little more honest and say, “No, this is a very challenging appointment.”

Once we’ve worked with pastors awhile, we begin to learn that there are many challenges in ministries. Pastors are great people. They tend not to blame their congregations, but when you hear their stories about life in ministry, what you take away is a story of one problem after another, one complaint after another, one challenge after another.

So it isn’t necessarily that pastors are saying that their relationship with their congregations is bad. It’s a matter of hearing them explain what life in ministry is like, then looking at their explanations and seeing that it’s mostly full of complaints and challenges and criticisms rather than rewarding, positive experiences with the people that they’re trying so hard to serve.

Q: It’s a tough job.

It is a tough job. I think it may be that many churches have a consumer mentality: “I’m here for you, the pastor, to delight me. And when you don’t delight me, I’m going to let you know about it.”

But what the pastor needs to tell you in order to preach the word of God may not be delightful. What I hear in my interviews with pastors and what we’re seeing in the survey data is that trying to do the work of God requires leading people to change their lives in dramatic ways. And people don’t want to change. So if they are saying, “You better delight me, or I’m going to complain,” that’s a recipe for a difficult work environment.

Q: In addition to your research on work, you teach and conduct research on innovation. Tell us about that.

Innovation is about thinking about the things we do daily in a very different way so that we can radically change what we’re doing. Innovation is about thinking differently about those very things we know well that are deeply habitual in our lives and then dramatically changing them.

So part of innovation begins with a caveat. Innovation leads to radical change. Do we want to make radical change? If not, then let’s just improve things.

Innovation at its best takes the perspective of the individual whose experience you want to change -- seeing the world through their eyes so you can understand it in a richer, more nuanced way. Now you have the platform for imagining how to make that experience better.

And then you have to be willing to take the risk of trying out something new in hopes that it will lead to this radical positive change. If it doesn’t work, it’s not a failure. It’s one more step on the path to this radical positive change. But it’s really hard for people to do. It’s hard for them to think differently.

Q: What are the challenges for leadership in that?

Many organizations that say they want innovation, what I’d like to say is, “You really don’t. You want improvement. You hope to have radical change, but you really aren’t ready to embrace this idea of thinking differently and taking big risks that are the only way to achieve this huge positive leap forward. So you’re better off just trying to improve what you’ve got.”

It’s hard for leaders. They have been successful because they’ve thought about things in one particular way that led to success. To set that aside can be difficult. It’s setting aside the very thing that made you successful. In some ways, the thing that you own and made -- are you willing to set that aside and say, “There's a better way than my way”?

Q: Do you think the church really wants innovation?

Well, it’s an interesting conversation to think about: “Does the church want innovation?” I’m not a theologian, but my understanding as I read the New Testament is it’s full of innovators. I mean, Jesus was an extraordinary innovator. Paul was an innovator. There's story after story of these people who were innovators and who literally changed the world. Does the modern church want to innovate? I don't know.

My sense is that it needs to innovate to continue to build God’s kingdom, but what we know of other organizations, and it’s probably true of religious organizations, is that it’s very hard for them to innovate because they have built systems and structures that led to success but now are deeply embedded.

And innovation, this radical change, may require setting aside some of those traditional structures that were good that may no longer be good.

Q: Is there a link between innovation and meaning in work?

I think so. True innovation arises out of this deep internal desire to make things better. So people who find meaning in work are going to have the highest capacity for innovation. They find profound importance in what they do. They want to do it as well as they can. They aspire to do great things, and they’re in a perfect position to be innovative, because they’re deeply committed to the organization and its mission.

Q: Theres a huge lesson there for institutional leaders.

Oh, there is. If you want people to be innovative, their reason for working has to be more than a paycheck. You've got to create a context in which people really believe in what you’re doing. Then you can help them think differently. You can encourage them to take the big risks that will lead to true innovation.

Q: You’re a business professor teaching innovation, and you’re engaged with Christian leaders and clergy about their work. Where do you see potential intersections and synergies between these worlds?

One of my dreams is to foster a conversation between people of faith, people in the business world and people in the research world. There is a lot they can learn from each other. People yearn to live out their faith in their work, whether in the for-profit or not-for-profit world. They struggle with knowing how they can do that. They’re tired of being limited to things like, “Be a nice person” and, “Be an honest person.” They know that faith is much more than that, and yet they find it difficult to understand how their faith can inform their work at this deep level.

They need profound theological reflection on work. When you invest 40 to 100 hours in something, it is going to mean something to you. It is going to be important to you, and so the need for that experience to be meaningful is really high. There is no other place to turn but faith to understand how to do that. The business world doesn’t tell you that. They tell you it’s about making money, and most people know there’s a lot more out there. So there is a lot that religion can offer. It is the bridge to meaning at work.

Q: What are the distinctive challenges and opportunities that Christian institutional leaders have in engaging innovation?

The challenge for leaders of religious organizations in encouraging innovation is to disentangle those things that must not change from those things that can change. How do we understand those core practices, doctrines and beliefs that must endure throughout time from those that really can change?

Sometimes it’s difficult to disentangle the two. Sometimes a practice can change but the underlying belief or doctrine that the practice upholds should not, and it’s sometimes hard to disentangle what is that underlying principle that the practice is enacting. So it's a difference between tradition that inspires and encourages and creates that enduring, important mission from tradition that anchors or impedes.