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Pastoral Leadership

Recently, I came across in my files an Op-Ed piece written by Thomas L. Friedman on December 11, 2013, in the New York Times.  The title of the piece was “Why Mandela Was Unique.”  For months, Mandela’s death had been anticipated, and following his death, much was written including this Op-Ed piece.  According to Friedman, what made Mandela so unique among world leaders was because Mandela possessed an extraordinary amount of “moral authority.”

Since starting my BLOG, I have been doing a lot of thinking about leadership, especially pastoral leadership.  I have been a pastor most of my adult life.  And over the years, I have known and worked with many, many pastors.  I have even taught seminarians-in-training to be future pastors.  And since retirement, I have mentored and coached pastors.  What do I know?  What have I learned?  Leadership is key in every society, in every culture, in every institution, in every organization, in every social grouping, in every congregation.  In this essay on leadership, my focus is the congregation.  Of the many contributing factors to a healthy congregation, and there are many, I want to pay particular attention to pastoral leadership.

Pastoral leadership has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension.  It must be both-and.  When it is either-or, there is no leadership.  The horizontal dimension of leadership is the equipping and empowering of others to lead.  Envision the increased potential of a congregation when you have many leaders working together cooperatively and collaboratively.  The pastoral leader is responsible for the training, teaching, equipping, nurturing and empowering of the congregation.  The pastoral leader is required to know her people so well as to be able to match them with the right tasks and responsibilities and to equip and empower them accordingly.  Pastoral leadership is not about recruiting to fill vacancies.  The congregation is a corporate body, a system; it is a network of people, of interconnecting parts.  The pastoral leader has to see the big picture, the whole body in order help knit the various parts into a functioning whole.  The pastoral leader listens, shares, gives of himself in service to the whole.  The pastoral leader monitors egos and builds trust and develops teamwork.  The church is always larger than any one individual, including the pastor.

The vertical dimension of pastoral leadership perhaps is the more challenging and demanding.   And here is where I found Friedman’s Op-Ed piece so helpful.  The pastor draws from a source that is beyond her, that transcends him, a source that installs them in their proper place.  The vertical dimension by definition is “top-down”.  But at the pinnacle stands an authority to which the pastor must submit even as she or he is appointed to a position of status and power.  In that position, the pastor must be willing and able to serve as the channel for the congregation to access that same ultimate authority at the top.  The pastor is the spiritual director for the congregation, guiding and directing her people to seek and to rely on that ultimate reality.  Preaching and teaching are the most important tasks to fulfill the vertical dimension of pastoral leadership.  When we step into the pulpit to preach the Word of God, we fail at the task of providing vertical leadership when we settle for preaching our own (personal) word.  Whenever we do that, we commit the sin of idolatry and we abuse our leadership. In exercising “moral authority”, the pastor must treat that authority as a gift, not a possession.  The pastor empowers and guides his people to access that moral authority in order that they can serve and lead as servants to that spiritual authority.  In the end, the pastor shows her people how to learn and to claim the same qualities of leadership for themselves—horizontal (giving away) and vertical (submitting to). 

The pastor who places all her/his attention on the horizontal dimension may develop an active  and vital congregation, busy doing lots of good things—service projects, mission programs, fellowship groups, activities.  But that does not distinguish the church.  There are many  service organizations such as Rotary, the Elks and Lions Clubs, the PTA, etc. that achieve similar accomplishments.  I have observed congregations that function exclusively on the horizontal dimension vulnerable to burn out, unable to survive its frenetic busy-ness and programs and activities.  Eventually, in the absence of meaning, purpose, and spiritual direction, even the most successful programs fade.

Even more alarming is the pastor who places all his/her attention on the vertical dimension.  When the pastor claims all power and authority, we no longer have a congregation.  We have a sect, a cult.  The identity of the congregation is all about the pastor.  And when something  happens to the pastor—misconduct, illness or departure– the congregation finds itself in crisis.  Here is what Friedman wrote about Nelson Mandela:  “People reject  leaders who rule by formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power.  They crave genuine leadership—leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire, to elevate others and to enlist us in a shared journey.  Nelson Mandela did not make the moment of South Africa’s transition about himself.  It was not about his being in jail for 27 years.  It was not about his need for retribution.  It was about seizing a really big moment to go from racism to pluralism without stopping for revenge.  Mandela did not make himself the hope.  He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others, so they would do the hard work of reconciliation.  It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.”  

Leadership must be held in reverence.  Being a pastoral leader means that we have been placed in a position to serve others.  And one of the most distinctive traits of effective leadership is the ability to inspire, motivate, challenge, and support their people to succeed and grow.

1 thought on “Pastoral Leadership”

  1. Beautiful, beautiful. Eloquently concise. Pastoral leadership in a nutshell.
    The new pastor of our present church is being ordained on Sunday. I wonder how she might relate to these reflections. If I have the chance, after she’s settled into her role, I may ask her.

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