In the beginning, there wasn’t even coffee . . .
So began life with my first congregation—a part-time call to a congregation rattling around an enormous building with wrinkled carpet in the sanctuary and cracked linoleum pretty much everywhere else. They were running out of members, money and, frankly, energy. So much so that they had even stopped serving coffee at “coffee hour.”
“I guess we could make you some Taster’s Choice,” said someone sheepishly after my call sermon. I felt embarrassed that I had embarrassed them by asking.
Still, I loved the congregation, and I rooted for them, and they loved me (if only for that), and also my family. So we decided to make a go of it together.
My first act as pastor was to throw out the long-dead bamboo plants on the platform behind the pulpit. With so many challenges to face down, it seemed a reasonable place to start. One, small success. A possibility for new growth, perhaps?
I did all the things that pastors do to try to make such growth happen—worship leadership, counseling, budgeting, writing the annual stewardship letter, mopping the basement after any big rainstorm, saying the benediction at the town’s Memorial Day Parade.
And yet, at the end of my time there, I had to conclude that, though nothing got worse, and some things got a little better, not that much had really changed.
I did all the things that pastors are expected to do, and did them reasonably well. I am grateful that I got to start my ministry in such a loving, kind place. But all things considered, I wish for their sakes that they had called a very different person as their pastor instead of me.
They needed a specialist. And I—newly minted clergy with more enthusiasm than experience—I was surely not that.
Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t offer much by way of specialization in its pastors. It’s time to rethink that. It’s time to admit that we’ve come to rely on the fuzzy notion of a pastor as well-meaning generalist, a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, a scholar-counselor-fundraiser-driver-plumber all in one.
Pretty much every church profile in Christendom announces that its people are looking for “a dynamic Christian leader who is a team player and person of deep faith.” The idea candidate should be “a strong preacher; a supportive pastor; good with youth and seniors, having had successful experience as a fundraiser and a proven track record of church growth.” And, of course, “a great sense of humor” is a must-have.
Each church wants—needs—all of those things. Alas, however, they seldom, if ever, exist in one person.
Believing that they do—Oh, if only we can call the right person!—sends the wrong message to congregations and clergy alike. It sets up pastors to fail, members to feel uncared for, and congregations as a whole to feel mired in and overwhelmed by challenges that slowly but surely bleed the church dry, not only of its financial resources, but also of the membership’s joy, energy and commitment.
No wonder that, more and more, we’re seeing the rise of the “dones,” the formerly active congregants who come to decide that, even though they still believe in God, they are just plain done with church. Their crisis isn’t primarily spiritual or theological. It is a profoundly institutional crisis that drives dones away.
It’s a crisis of expectations. Expectations of what the church can be at any one moment of its life, and expectations of what its leaders will be able to accomplish in any given season, given the resources they have to put to the tasks at hand.
The myth of the pastor who is all things to all people—We just have to find her or him!—isn’t helping. Indeed, it might be actively harming congregations as we all struggle to move through what is clearly a period of significant religious transformation in America.
So here’s one possible alternative:
Instead of asking clergy to be generalists, and feeling frustrated to discover that their pastor is better at some things than others, what if congregations made a commitment to a particular focus for the next 5 to 7 years, then found someone with those skills to lead them until it was time for the next point of focus?
What if there were areas of specialization for clergy, like “endowment development” or “building community relationships,” “Biblical literacy” or “adult spiritual growth” or “integrating new worship services”? What if it were not just okay, but actually a mark of vocational maturity for a ministry candidate to say something like, “I don’t have all of the competencies on your list, but I am very good at this”?
Over time, clergy specialization might help congregations to remember that they—not the pastor (whatever insight and experience s/he might offer)—are the stewards of God’s vision for their communities, and the guardians of their particular charism.
Rather than looking for a new Moses to descend from the mountaintop with the tablets that lead to renewal and vitality, the congregation might work more diligently at looking within . . . and looking to God, asking the pastor to help them do that with honesty, grace, and patience. (After all, even Moses called on the counsel of more experienced elders in his community.)
With everything that happens in churches, there’s no doubt in my mind that the work would still be infinitely varied for clergy, and that there would be ample room to develop further competency in a given area and to develop new competencies as well. But, whatever happened along the way, there would always be mutual understanding that the pastor was brought in with a particular focus, and that the ongoing discussion would be expected to circle back to that focus quite regularly.
When was the last time you heard of a church that said, “Yes . . . so it turns out we need a new roof. But we can’t lose sight of our community outreach while we’re figuring that out. So how can we make sure we’re addressing the challenge without losing our focus? After all, that’s what Pastor Wendy came here to do . . .”?
And if the circumstances change and Pastor Wendy now isn’t the right person to see the church through an abruptly different set of priorities, maybe specialization allows for an easier parting of the ways. Maybe, indeed, Wendy signed on knowing that her call was only for the period time it would take to develop a particular ministry. With the new family-centered ministry successfully in place, there is much celebration and no hard feelings. Now it’s time for the church to find someone to accomplish a different ministry agenda.
Such an approach might also renew active denominational involvement with search and call, not only as congregations engage in deeper and more significant visioning work prior to calling a new pastor, but also with the matchmaking itself.
Are there downsides? Sure. For one thing, a successful ministry is always greater than the sum of its parts, and a specialization approach risks defining success almost exclusively in terms of particular parts and skill, and not in terms of the wonderful and holy messiness that is so often the heart of ministry.
It’s also a prescription for shorter pastorates, which are increasingly the norm, anyway, but still short of the ideal for many congregations or pastors.
And there is a danger that such an approach makes someone’s piety, their commitment to pursuing a life of godliness, or commitment to Scripture less important than the number of successful capital campaigns they’ve overseen. God help us all.
We put something very important at risk if we decide that churches are simply another type of not-for-profit institution, to be run along the same principles of maximum effectiveness that govern other worthy institutions, rather than an alternative community, to be run according to its faithfulness to God and shepherded by women and men who have devoted their lives to “seeking first the Kingdom of God” in their own lives and in the lives of the churches they serve.
And yet, it seems fair to ask for more detail, and to discern carefully if how a leader goes about that seeking process meshes with what a particular congregation needs, in terms of coaching and leadership, in a specific moment of its life.
Seeking the Kingdom of God can mean a lot of different things. But when the right person arrives at the right time, and understands the tasks at hand, everyone recognizes that God’s purposes have been particularly well served.
Maybe specialization is a way to achieve that.