I left Duke Divinity School certain that I would dedicate my life to connecting people to God through pastoral ministry. But here I am, 14 years later, starting something new. Certain one minute, full of doubt the next, I fall forward into a new expression of my ministry: resourcing pastors and congregations.
Duke was my foundation for ministry. The divinity school made me think critically as I wrestled with difficult concepts. Thanks to excellent biblical and theological training, I was prepared to help people connect to God in diverse circumstances and contexts. I could preach, teach the Scriptures, and engage theologically with others, exposing them to the possibility of God at work in their lives.
In 1998, my bishop asked me to lead a new initiative: an “executive university” for conference clergy. This involved developing a core curriculum and leadership development processes steeped in Wesleyan thought and theology, and current with emerging leadership strategies. It also changed the trajectory of my calling.
For the two-plus years I did this work, I engaged gifted laity and clergy in conversation about ministry, the church, what worked, and what did not work. These church leaders had heart, vision, innovative ideas, and knowledge of what to do, but they felt stuck by elusive constraints.
I believe that the church is God’s gift through which the world is offered salvation—a specific purpose that no other organization can carry out. I want the church to work! Those years spent in leadership development led me to the following conclusions about some of what frustrates the work of pastors and churches.
Training. Asking clergy to manage a church without the benefit of leadership and administrative training is like asking an auto mechanic unfamiliar with computer technology to repair today’s autos. Pastors are essentially asked to run a business franchise without the organizational knowledge necessary to lead it. Training in organization theory, strategy and change is needed to catalyze productive and effective ministry.
Job Design. The pastor’s job is one of the most difficult. Pastors require flexibility and freedom to create a meaningful and contextually relevant role. Unfortunately, the United Methodist Discipline and, my guess is, other mainline denominations, define a one-size-fits-all set of duties for pastors. The reality is that our churches are not identical.
The Itinerant System. The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that ordained ministers will be deployed into churches according to the church’s needs and the pastor’s gifts. In reality, deployment is largely subject to mutual availability of pastors and churches. When appointments are not optimally aligned with a pastor’s abilities, gifts and knowledge, he or she is constrained.
Church Bureaucracy. Although local churches are typically in rapidly changing environments, church bureaucracy is slow to change. Local churches flourish with flexibility bounded by the minimum specifications for effectiveness and accountability.
One pastor I know is striving to head off some of these constraints. She is the pastor of a 690-member church with an average worship attendance of 280. Demographic changes, rapid suburban sprawl, and an inherited organizational structure constitute a sample of the issues confronting her church. The church’s model for ministry dictates that the pastor and staff do most of the “ministry” (pastoral care and visitation, Christian education, youth ministry), while the congregation meets in committees.
She is redesigning not only her work as senior pastor, but is re-aligning staff according to their strengths, even if it means hiring new staff to fill potential gaps. She keeps the lines of communication open with both her district superintendent (parish supervisor) and her UM Book of Discipline . I believe she is demonstrating that pastors can work within certain systemic constraints (they exist in every job), and not only avoid burnout for themselves and their churches, but thrive.
Annette Flynn D’90 operates Wisdom’s Edge, a consulting firm. She and her husband, the Rev. Mark Flynn D’88, senior pastor at Kern Memorial UMC, live in Oak Ridge, Tenn., with their two daughters.