I recently attended the funeral of a small-town pastor, held in the church where this man had served as pastor for many years. He'd had a "knack" for pastoring small-town churches, a fact evidenced by the five or six he served during a forty-year ministry.
A comment made during the service seemingly summed up both this man's life and calling. In his eulogy, the minister said, "This dear man was not only pastor of First Baptist Church; he was pastor to the whole town as well. Most mornings after eating breakfast in the local diner, he would walk down Main Street stopping in stores to say hello, waving to people on the street, listening to friends and neighbors as they shared their troubles. He loved people regardless of where or even if they went to church." This pastor's love for people made a difference in that town. I am told he performed almost as many weddings and funerals for persons who were not members of his church as he did for church members.
I can readily imagine this gentleman preaching "the whole counsel of God" Sunday after Sunday, sitting up all night with a family as their loved one hovered at death's door, sharing the love of Christ with the most hardened farmer in town, or leading his little flock with great patience. Surely this preacher would have no trouble being labeled a "leader."
Or would he?
Shortly after that memorial service, I read that church-growth guru George Barna has discovered that only 4 percent of pastors have the gift of leadership. Most, he claims, are gifted as shepherds, teachers, and preachers—but not as leaders. Leadership, he said, is primarily about indicating what direction to take (Carson Pue, "What Do Leaders Do?" [Inspiration from Arrow, November 2000]). Reading Barna's comments, I began to reflect on the word Leadership and the primary task of seminaries and graduate theological training. I thought especially of the program at Beeson Divinity School
Is the nature of pastoral leadership changing? Has the church simply given in to secular leadership theories that emphasize mssion, vision, and empowerment to the exclusion of the timeless call of God to "feed my sheep" (John 21:17)? Or, is the more narrow understanding of leadership—the personal characteristic or behavior that provides direction—a more accurate description for what the church needs in a pastor?
The nature of pastoral leadership is surely a major issue for seminaries and divinity schools whose very reason for existence includes the equipping of ministers for the church of Jesus Christ. This fact was heightened in 1996 as the Association of Theological Schools (ats) made "ministerial leadership" the cornerstone of its redeveloped standards of accreditation (The Association of Theological Schools, Bulletin 43, Part I, Sec. 4.2.1 [Pittsburgh: Association of Theological Schools, 1998], 60).
Is the landscape of pastoral or ministerial leadership changing? If so, what does this mean for theological education?
Competency in Leadership: The Beeson project
Beeson Divinity School is one example of the study of this modern-day dilemma; the school. recently joined several others in a research project entitled "Competency in Leadership," sponsored by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's Center for the Development of Evangelical Leadership (cdel) in Charlotte, North Carolina. cdel received funds from The Lilly Endowment to examine the issue of ministerial leadership from an evangelical perspective. "Competency in Leadership" was the third and final phase of the project, which had earlier focused on "Calling in Leadership" and "Character in Leadership."
Our project, "Leadership Development for a New Millennium," sought to address this question of the changing nature of pastoral leadership. We understood first that most evangelical pastors learned leadership the hard way—through experiences of success and failure. While experience is, no doubt, an indispensable element in developing leaders, what would pastors say about such experiences? What skills and/or behaviors would they identify as essential for an effective ministry in the local church? What advice would they give theological educators about how to prepare a new generation of ministers for service in a changing world? These questions needed to be asked, and we wanted to hear from and dialogue with practitioners about what contributes to a competent minister. The factors identified in the dialogue would, we believed, be of primary importance in a seminary curriculum, plan of spiritual formation, or other institutional program(s) designed for the preparation of ministers.
In our research, we worked mainly with a new group, the Beeson League of Churches, consisting of some 40 to 50 churches and serving as a network of congregational support for Beeson and its mission to prepare God-called persons to serve as ministers in the church of Jesus Christ. The pastors of these churches serve as a sort of quasi-advisory board to our faculty and administration. The research included written surveys and diagnostic material, and perhaps most important, the inclusion of a two-day retreat where these pastors joined faculty for dialogue and discussion. We wanted not only to garner quantitative data about what really happens in pastoral ministry, but also qualitative information from those practicing ministry.
It was exhilarating to see practitioners from different denominations, geographic locales, and ethnicities sit down with seminary professors and administrators to discuss openly the state of leadership development within the church. Their findings can be grouped into three basic types: (1) issues regarding pastoral leadership; (2) seminary preparation for pastoral leadership; and (3) advice to theological educators regarding pastoral leadership.
The underlying assumption in our research was that pastoral leadership is best defined as "servant leadership." In 1998, the Beeson faculty adopted a statement entitled "A Theology of Christian Ministry," which set forth our understanding of servant leadership: "Servant leaders are called both to care and share generously in the life of the people of God in a specific time and place, and to teach, exhort, and equip the people of God for their ministries in the church and in the world." In turn, when we asked the pastors in our study what the term servant leader meant to them, most indicated that it includes empowerment, effort, motivation, courage, strength, and vision. It is perhaps significant that the respondents chose to define servant leadership in a manner that involves effort, for 70 percent of the pastors surveyed indicated that they spent more than ten hours a week in direct leadership of other people.
The pastors we talked to face a variety of problems in church leadership. The most pressing problems seem to be vision casting, staff/laity management, balancing personal devotion with ministry, navigating a changing culture, training other leaders, and time management. Yet "church-specific problems" such as the congregation's past history, lack of quality lay leaders, sin in the church, and the exercising of discernment in the church were also mentioned. Surprisingly few referenced burnout or resolving conflict as the most pressing problem.
The pressing problem of a changing culture received considerable attention in our research (by both pastors and theological educators. Attention to this issue took many forms, such as dealing with postmodernism, contextual ministry, congregational studies, and theology and culture.
Pastors clearly thought communication and strategic planning were the most important aspects of their current ministry. These were followed by motivation, team building, staff relations, and goal setting. Least important aspects were group process, vision, and recruiting of volunteers. The fact that group process, vision, and volunteer recruitment were low on the scale was somewhat surprising given the pastors' shared definition of servant leadership (above); one would think these attributes would contribute significantly to the empowering and motivating of people. This could suggest a discrepancy between what servant leadership is perceived to be and how it is actually practiced. One pastor, in a group setting, observed that for him the idea of empowerment involves relinquishing control. "That," he claimed, "is crucial to my definition of a servant." Therefore, interpersonal and organizational communication appears vital to effectiveness in ministry. Yet, where is this subject taught in most seminary curriculums?
Thesse pastors had definite ideas regarding the obstacles of pastoral leadership. When given the opportunity to discuss how biblical leadership has been most hindered in their ministry, 45 percent said "lack of training in how to do it." Thirty percent thought the congregation's past history was the major hindrance—that something in the past, either their seminary education or the congregation's past history, is the major obstacle to effective pastoral leadership. Interestingly, in the minds of these pastors there seemed also to be a connection between the hindrances to effective ministry and failure of other leaders. More than one-third of the pastors attributed ministry failures in other ministers to inadequate training and/or lack of personal integrity/character.
We also attempted to address a pastor's personal leadership development. Asked about personal reading habits, most pastors indicated they regularly read periodicals dealing with leadership matters. For example, 46 percent indicated they read Leadership Journal regularly; 39 percent read Christianity Today; and 9 percent read Leader to Leader. When it comes to books, the most popular authors on leadership were John Maxwell, Rick Warren, Calvin Miller, and Oswald Sanders. In general, however, we found that most pastors do not read secular leadership material. While pastors appear to be interested in staying current with issues of leadership, they are dependent on the Christian publishing industry for material. Personal reading was not the only identifiable means contributing to a pastor's personal development. Approximately 11 percent indicated that outside seminars/conferences (postseminary) meant most to the development of their leadership skills.
Seminary preparation for leadership
More than one-third of the pastors in this project had not had formal leadership courses in college and/or seminary. Several most likely had attended seminary more than twenty years ago, however, so it is possible that such an inference is simply a reflection of the past. The emphasis on pastoral leadership (and leadership in general) is a fairly recent phenomenon.
The seminary courses that most helped these pastors in church leadership were (in order): pastoral ministry, preaching, church administration, Bible, and leadership. These five were followed closely by courses in systematic theology, evangelism, pastoral counseling, church history, and field education. The courses least helpful in developing their leadership skills were (in order) Greek, Hebrew, church history, Bible, and preaching. These five were followed closely by systematic theology, church administration, and religious education. The inference is that pastors value most that which most directly relates to what they do after graduation. This should not be surprising.
The issue of biblical languages became a major topic of discussion, with the pastors seemingly divided on this issue. Some thought the teaching of biblical languages needs revision in seminary curricula; others were strong advocates for the biblical languages and their effect on pastoral leadership. And while this has been an ongoing issue for several years, the perception that the languages need to remain a vital part of the seminary experience was strongly expressed by this group of pastors.
The participants indicated that they felt seminary best prepared them to interpret the Bible (in English), preach, understand doctrine, and perform pastoral ministry. They appeared less prepared to articulate a philosophy of ministry, deal with church polity, or be a leader in missions. Pastors observed the ambiguity of many field-education programs. Some considered field education an important "nonacademic" experience in developing leadership skills. Though few considered it the most helpful course, others relegated it to the "useless" category or not very helpful in developing leadership skills. When we pressed the participants, the conclusion was that field education is important in theory—but rarely seen as helpful in practice. At least two pastors equated field education as the beginning step in lifelong or continuing education. Most sensed the need for ongoing theological education in both the primary disciplines and in leadership development. Seminaries, they thought, were fulfilling their obligation to this important aspect of their work.
Advice to theological educators
The project included asking the pastors to design a new curriculum for a hypothetical seminary scheduled to open in the near future. In response, they considered the following courses to be the most important. Based on the total votes, the courses would be ranked as follows:
- English Bible courses
- Leadership/Church Administration
- Systematic Theology
- Historical Theology
- Pastoral Duties
- Field Education
- Biblical Languages
- Christian Education
- Spiritual Formation
This ranking reveals three surprises. First, though courses in English Bible ranked highest, most seminaries spend a great deal more time on exegetical courses in Hebrew and Greek. Second, Leadership/Church Administration was seen as the second most important course. While several respondents indicated their experience with church administration courses were not helpful, they did want these courses to remain a priority, with the content (and perhaps method of instruction) adapted to contribute more positively to a student's skill development in the area of leadership. The third surprise is the low ranking of spiritual formation. When asked to rate how best spiritual formation could be accomplished, the pastors said: (1) personal devotional life, (2) mentoring, (3) growth-group experiences, (4) classroom instruction, and (5) chapel services. In many seminaries, spiritual-formation programs concentrate on classroom instruction and chapel to stimulate development.
Asked which extracurricular activities were important in preparing ministry leaders, the pastors responded with:
- Ministry experience while in seminary.
- Faithful involvement in a local church.
- Small-group participation with other students.
- Consistent contact with faculty outside classroom.
- Informal development of peer relationships.
These responses reiterate the need for a meaningful field-education experience, but also the need for students to be actively involved in a local church and (preferably) engaged in ministry outside of the field-education experience.
Strategies for leadership education
How then should those involved in theological education respond to the issues raised in this research? First, more work needs to be done in reaching a consensus about how evangelicals use the term servant leader. As at the funeral I attended of the small-town pastor, the Beeson faculty defined servant leader with words such as care and share, and while acknowledging the tension and struggle involved in ministry, it rests in the fact that being a servant leader is paradoxical. On the other hand, while most pastors would likely embrace much of the language of the "Theology of Christian Ministry" document, they defined servant leadership in terms of effort, vision, and empowerment. This should be no surprise, for they are the ones "on the ground" doing all the leading and loving. Their definition is saturated with action words, while the Beeson statement consists primarily of relational words. Could it be that the church is experiencing the tension of a life of grace versus a life of works when it comes to servant leadership? I heard Dallas Willard say recently that "grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. Effort is action, but earning is an attitude" (Spirituality and Spiritual Formation," address at "For All the Saints: Evangelical Theology and Christian Spirituality," a symposium at Beeson Divinity School, Oct. 2-4, 2000). That is a valuable statement when applied to servant leadership. Further reflection is needed to incorporate a theology of grace into the servant leader model.
Second, these pastors articulated "communication" as the most important leadership attribute. Yet, many seminary curriculums do not provide instruction in interpersonal and organizational communication. Is it possible that this is one reason why "lack of training in how to do pastoral leadership" was considered the biggest hindrance to effective ministry? How many ministry failures could have been avoided if the pastor had been trained adequately in interpersonal communication? Furthermore, I believe the Christian community can learn a great deal from the business community when it comes to organizational communication. No Christian leader should feel as though he or she must reinvent the wheel. Similarly, seminaries should be willing to explore secular resources in such matters and engage, when necessary, specialists from areas outside the theological education community to discuss matters that we may be ill equipped to handle appropriately. One of these areas may be organizational communication.
Third, the pastors believed leadership is both uniquely given by God and a learned trait. Being able to interpret and preach the Bible remains vitally important, as is having knowledge of systematic theology and pastoral duties. But there appears to be a need for seminaries to provide more meaningful leadership courses in seminary and beyond. This means that in addition to the normal biblical and theological content received in seminary, pastors desire cognitive competence along with practical skills in leadership and administration. If it cannot be delivered within the seminary curriculum, pastors will seek to obtain it through personal enrichment courses and/or other continuing education opportunities. Knowledge about how to do leadership is considered a core competency at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Fourth, the pastors believe the biblical languages are helpful in an effective ministry, but they also believe more emphasis should be placed on the English Bible. Though pastors need to understand and be able to work in the biblical languages, most realize they will teach and preach primarily from the English Bible. In addition, developing a holistic biblical theology (Old and New Testament) is a worthy goal and needs to be added to the seminary curriculum.
Fifth, spiritual formation is best seen as being done in connection with a mentor or the local church—not in the seminary classroom. A competent minister is one who has been mentored in the spiritual life and is (perhaps) better equipped to mentor others. From an institutional perspective, this adds impetus to forge strong partnerships with local churches and denominational judicatories. Those in theological education may think spiritual formation is occurring in spiritual formation classes and through well-meaning and thoughtful chapel experiences, but these pastors seemed to disagree. While no one would suggest doing away with organized chapel services, programs of spiritual formation may need to be broadened to include a kaleidoscope of the items mentioned above.
Finally, pastors believe they should be students of culture and their own contexts as well as students of the Word. With the rise of postmodernism, they are forced to deal with a changing culture. Many feel their seminary experience left them unprepared for this type of engagement. Practitioners are strongly urging seminaries to address the issue in curricular offerings. Several schools now make culture and context a major component of all degree programs. For the evangelical church to be able to confront the pressing issues of a changing society, theological curricula must be reshaped to address how to equip ministers in engaging in contextual and cultural concerns.
This research project has, at a minimum, opened the gate for further discussions with the pastors from the Beeson League of Churches about the nature and context of pastoral leadership. So how has Beeson responded to the issues raised?
First, we realize that not everything can be accomplished in a 90-plus hour M.Div. curriculum! Some lessons must be learned on the job. But we are now trying to be more sensitive to the demand for courses on pastoral leadership—taught by professors with substantial pastoral experience. For example, Calvin Miller recently joined our faculty, and we are capitalizing on his vast parish ministry experience in the teaching of such traditional courses as church administration, but also additional courses on ministry leadership, planting and leading churches, and the life and work of a pastor. Recent faculty appointments include persons with experience in the pastorate. We are also re-envisioning our field education program—Supervised Experience in Ministry. We want to strengthen mentoring relationships between local ministers and our students, which will not only provide students with the necessary "hands-on" experience of ministry, but should provide a more balanced approach to spiritual formation as well. As educators we feel the burden to prepare our students to be "leaders" in the sense of being able to provide guidance and direction, but never to the exclusion of being servants and shepherds to the flocks that God entrusts to them.
The spiritual formation program at our school is also under review as we seek to increase the number of courses offered in this area, but also to provide different alternatives to spiritual formation. A few years ago, we implemented a program of small groups where, after the sharing of a meal together, volunteer covenant groups meet for prayer and sharing. We have found this to be a significant step not only in enhancing spiritual formation, but also in the building and modeling for our students what Bonhoeffer labeled "life together." We want to model a koinonia community. We also want to integrate the arts into ministry preparation through experiential learning and new course modules such as "The Pastor, the Poet, and the Kingdom of God," led by Craig Gallaway. The arts are a powerful medium for expression and learning, and we hope to champion the integration of theology and the arts by making this emphasis a distinctive part of our program of spiritual formation. Finally, we are dreaming about the possibility of designing a spiritual retreat experience for every Beeson student and faculty member.
Our faculty at Beeson is not backing down on our commitment to biblical languages. We believe strongly in a classical approach to ministry involving the study of the Scriptures in their original languages. We are convinced that if the Word of God is to be preached and taught in the church, pastors must have a proper foundation for the interpretation and exposition of Holy Scripture. But this emphasis is to be coupled with a strong, practical theology and pastoral application. It is not enough to know what the text meant (in the past); pastors need to be able to communicate its meaning and relevance in the present to real human beings. We also want to increase our offerings in English Bible and encourage students to develop and be able to articulate a holistic biblical theology.
One of the more demanding challenges we face comes in how to address the cultural and contextual concerns of ministry. Several years ago, the faculty became concerned to offer a course in the area of congregational studies. It has been offered either as a distinct course or as a module of another course in ministry leadership. While this effort helps a student understand a congregation's own cultural traditions, it does not address the need to understand other cultural, ethnic, and economic groups—not to mention the changing nature of society in general. Short-term mission endeavors and urban mission consultations contribute positively to an understanding of other cultures and/or people groups, but these must not be relied upon as the only tools for engaging in contextual theology. This need is particularly acute given the cultural phenomenon of postmodernity.
The future of the church
In September 2000, all grant recipients from this phase of the project gathered with several peer reviewers in a roundtable format to present their findings and discuss in general the competencies of leadership. In one of the wrap-up sessions, David Tiede, president of Luther Seminary in Minnesota, remarked that the seminary is where the future of the church is embodied. If that is true, what an enormous sense of responsibility that should place on all those involved in theological education! But we are not left without a model to point our students to—Jesus Christ, the man of sorrow and friend to sinners. If, indeed, leadership is living in the middle of calling, character, and competence, then I have no doubt we should look to the One who was prophet, priest, and king and strive to be molded into his image in our teaching, preaching, sharing—and yes, our leading.
By Gregg S. Morrison, director of external relations at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He was project director for the "Leadership Development for a New Millennium" research project, sponsored by the Center for the Development of Evangelical Leadership and funded by The Lilly Endowment, Inc.