I became a pastor because of Eugene Peterson. Sort of.
When I was discerning a call to ministry in college, Peterson’s book “The Contemplative Pastor” was a gratifying view into the work of ministry. I fell in love with the possibility, yes, but also with the way Peterson spoke to the desire and passion for the church that was already stirring within me.
I loved it all. I loved exploring the Bible and discovering the ways God’s story of love and redemption intersected with our daily living. The church’s seasons and rhythms spoke to me.
In seminary, I was motivated by teachers, leaders and pastors who took seriously the task of the theological and the practical. It was indelibly impressed on me that this was the material substance of the pastoral vocation.
"The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans.”
@PetersonDaily, Twitter account of Eugene Peterson quotes
Fifteen years later, I am in my sixth and final year as an elected member of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. It’s one of the six agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and is focused on world mission, congregations and ministries, and justice, among other things.
It’s been a full and busy time: I’ve worked at two churches, had three children of my own and lived in four houses. And I finally understand a little bit about the ins and outs of such a large, complex organization as the national center.
What I’ve learned from this mix of pastoral and institutional experience is that the vocation and work of the pastor is changing. Now, this is nothing that hasn’t already been talked about and debated, explored and analyzed, criticized and bemoaned by so many today -- including the inspirational thinker from my college days, Eugene Peterson.
So when I saw a tweet with a quote from Peterson that said, “The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans,” it gave me pause. It seemed negative and judgmental.
Who is he speaking to, and about? And why should pastors have to choose between good management and ministry?
I don’t share Peterson’s disdain for the entrepreneurial -- even businesslike -- aspect of ministry. In my experience, pastors today are creative, compassionate and enterprising. They center their communities around the marginalized, investing in food programs, art classes and interfaith projects. They have coffee houses, food trucks, yoga classes and co-working spaces -- all the while remaining anchored in their faith traditions.
I’d say we need more entrepreneurialism, not less. What I continue to see is the increasing necessity for pastors to have -- for lack of better language -- savvy. Seminaries usually don’t teach about complex organizations and effective administration, and yet when many pastors begin ministry, they are expected to know how to run and moderate meetings and manage a budget and staff.
We leave seminary with an understanding of a theology of stewardship, but how do we translate that into income-and-expense sheets? Look at any Ministry Information Form -- the PCUSA profile form for churches with clergy openings -- and the job description for a solo or senior pastor will invariably include the following duties: moderate meetings, provide vision and leadership, manage long-range planning, develop strategic plans for membership growth.
This sounds very businesslike. I wonder whether some clergy burnout is exacerbated by struggling to do ministry without these skills. For many newly ordained clergy, there is the sense of scrambling to learn practical management, and a trial-and-error approach to leadership.
Thankfully, through digital technology and social media, struggling pastors can crowdsource questions and tap into the wider collective. But why should they have to? All these skills can be taught.
Indeed, “Leadership Can Be Taught” is the title of a book about the work of Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Seminaries should require business and management classes, and the governing bodies of denominations (presbyteries, synods, districts) should provide training and workshops to their pastors. This should be a no-brainer.
I know I am not the only one asking this. Sitting around a table with young adult leaders, seminarians and graduate students, I hear the opinion that while churches are like families, maybe they need to be run like businesses.
Likewise, in Facebook groups, the question raised by Peterson’s comment touches a nerve. In one discussion, Chad Andrew Herring, minister of John Knox Kirk Presbyterian Church, commmented: "On the one hand, I see critiques of a certain view of pastoral leadership where the pastor doesn’t drive a shared vision of a community. I’ve served in churches with this sort of pastor, and I admit that I often see them floundering and aimless. On the other hand, I’ve also been in churches where things are so driven by a “business plan” and the pastor is so much a “CEO Pastor” that there is not much pastoral about them. For them, Peterson is right on. So where’s the both/and in there? I’m not sure I know yet."
Now, as the Presbyterian Mission Agency searches for its next executive director, I hear the push-and-pull from both sides on whether the denomination needs a manager-CEO or a pastor-theologian.
We are grappling with the issues that face many mainline denominations: major budget problems, divisive theological debates, people who feel disconnected and lost, and are wondering whether church is relevant and useful. But do these challenges mean we need one kind of leader over the other?
We need both. We need leaders who have compassion and theological acumen to articulate the ways God is present in the midst of terror, violence and death. And we need leaders who can manage and provide a clear structure for these human gatherings.
We need religious leaders, teachers and entrepreneurs. We need vision, instruction, creativity, strategies and business plans -- even branding and marketing. (After all, as Presbyterians, we are all about proclamation.)
“Strategy,” “entrepreneur” and “business” don’t have to be dirty words. Professionalization doesn’t have to be negative, and institutions aren’t evil.
Because the work we have in front of us requires the best of us: a diversity of skills and a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace. Thanks be to God, we have the latter in full measure.