A Theology of Pastoral Leadership
It seems wise to name (albeit tentatively) some of the principles guiding both my (Pastor Jeff’s) understanding and practice of pastoral leadership. At the outset, I confess that saying “pastoral leadership” seems bewildering and redundant. For me, “leadership” has always been swallowed up in the work of a pastor. The pastor has always been one who offers care and guidance (direction, leadership).
Perhaps the need for adding “leadership” to the role of pastor arises in a context where growth and development are measured. Perhaps “leadership” reflects notions of productivity and efficiency in the 21st-century, North American context. No matter the genealogy of pastoral leadership, the need for an articulation of guiding principles seems most pressing. These guiding principles reflect an orientation more than a list; no hierarchical status is intended. Each principle “plays with” the others.
1. Pastoral leadership is deeply personal. Pastoral leadership emerges from the pastor’s personal formation. A pastoral leader reflects the shaping influences of her family of origin, mentors, authors, and opportunities in her parish work. Pastoral leadership reveals her life values and reflects her intimacy with God.
2. Pastoral leadership always takes place in a particular context. Contextualized ministry respects uniqueness. Each unique match of pastor, people, and location places particular expectations upon the pastoral leader. Thus, contextualized ministry influences and shapes a pastor’s practice of care and leadership, as he influences and nurtures those entrusted to his care. The result is that no two pastoral leaders are alike. While they may share attributes, each will respond to a given situation differently.
3. Pastoral leadership is dynamic. The saying “one never steps into the same river twice” seems appropriate for pastoral leadership. A pastor cannot rely on what worked in the past. People and circumstances change. Each morning introduces new variables into a pastor’s life. Because the ministry context is always dynamic, no pastor “pastors” the same congregation on subsequent weeks. Certainly, many (hopefully most) of the people are the same, but the events of any week cause the people to push and pull at one another in new ways.
4. Pastoral leadership pays attention to individuals immersed in systems. The persons to whom the pastor offers care and guidance are caught up in a matrix of relationships. No individual stands alone untouched by others. Parishioners’ relationships with friends, family members, professional colleagues, and others accompany them everywhere they go. Individuals carry personal and familial histories. Congregations carry histories. Matrices of relationships are all around us. Pastoral leaders notice these matrices of relationships.
5. Pastoral leadership creates space for the congregation to face the future and discern God’s leading and direction. It is easy to believe the pastor should solve a local church’s challenges or to identify the future. Yet it seems that God often works through the vehicle of the congregation as much as through the pastor. A pastoral leader holds open safe space for the congregation to hear from God. As the congregation discerns God’s voice, the pastor then helps the people figure out how to live into God’s way of being in the world.
6. Pastoral leadership is “pastoral.” While she may borrow leadership principles from other fields, she is always pastoral in orientation. Historically, a pastor was one who “cared for souls.” Today, one might suggest that a pastor is one who helps individuals and families bring the various strands of their lives under the direction of God’s Spirit. Pastoral leadership is possible because of pastoral care.
7. Pastoral leadership is “directional.” Perhaps a better word would be “prophetic.” Under the guidance and direction of God, the pastoral leader scopes out potential areas of exploration and invites the congregation to move in a particular direction. Sometimes the pastoral leader points out ways the congregation might consider living out God’s mission in the world. Other times, the pastoral leader helps the church name its sin and, through the grace of God, orchestrates the act of reconciling individuals and/or groups. Ultimately, the pastoral leader remains committed to pointing the congregation to faithful ways of being God’s people.
8. Pastoral leadership presupposes a congregation. “Pastor” implies a specific relationship with a particular people. That is, pastoral leadership lives and breathes in a matrix of relationships of care and concern to a specific group of people. Much as an individual carries numerous matrices of relationships, the congregation functions as a matrix of relationships, of which the pastor is part.
9. Pastoral leadership is rooted in trust between pastor and people. The pastor always has the good of the people in mind. Pastoral leadership is not self-serving. The pastor’s desire is that healing and wholeness occur in the lives of the individuals and the systems to which he gives care. Likewise, the people of the congregation believe the pastoral leader has their good in mind. When transgressions have occurred, pastor and people must confess their sin, be reconciled, and learn to trust one another.
10. Pastoral leadership is humble. The pastoral leader understands that he has not cornered the market on God. The pastoral leader embraces a posture of humility, as he listens to God and others.
For me, these principles are a compass rather than a list of commandments. Together they help orient me amid the complexities of my parish work. In fact, these principles remind me that care and guidance remain at the heart of my parish work. I am called to be a pastoral leader.
As I reflect, in these days it seems pastoral leadership is a compound word. Maybe hyphenating it would be better: pastoral-leadership. No doubt, as I give more reflection to this (and you help me see areas or principles I have overlooked), new insights will emerge, and I will become a better pastor-leader.