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Pastor-centered churches

A reader writes: “I’m aware of the movement away from boards and committees in church life–a movement that I believe was first put forward from non-denominational churches such as Willow Creek. This is a quite different way of viewing church life and governance, but I’m not sure how it works. Is this something your book addresses?”

My reply:

“You’re right that there’s a big trend toward pastor-centered churches where the board is quite secondary. I’m not sure Willow Creek really fits into that category–they have quite a strong board, I believe, though the test of that won’t come till the next change of senior pastors. But Rick Warren, Bill Easum, and Tom Bandy are pretty clear advocates of a senior pastor who “casts vision” on his or her own authority and also directs the daily work.

“The goal of my governance work, including the book, is to gain some of the purpose-driven, permission-giving virtues of the pastor-centered church while at the same time strengthening the role of the board and congregation in making governance decisions. I’m happy to have a staff-led, hierarchical structure for getting things done (ministry) so long as there is also a robust system for engaging leaders and congregants in discernment, vision-setting, and holding the “doers” accountable for their performance (governance).

“You would like my book, I think. You might also find Susan Beaumont’s work of interest. Her book Inside the Large Congregation has quite a bit to offer mid-sized congregations also.”


Charge to the minister

Charge to the minister
For the installation of Tess Baumberger
Unity Church, North Easton, MA
March 22, 2009
by Dan Hotchkiss

Tess, I’m glad you’ve come to Easton. Traditionally, the “charge to the minister” includes wise, oracular advice to the new minister from an old one. Sadly, I have no such advice to offer; if I did, I would long ago have followed it myself.

I don’t need to tell you what a charming, admirable bunch this congregation is. I don’t need to say how hard and effectively they have prepared for this day. They’ve been preparing for 10 years: renovating Holly House; stepping up financially; stepping out into the community; growing a new cadre of leaders; taking on the parking and the steeple; right up to the thorough, thoughtful labors of the ministerial search committee.

Unity church has prepared hard and well. And so have you. Your life, your education, your careers—have readied you to be here, standing with this congregation at the threshold of a question.

And the question is: For what?

This moment points beyond the comfort of a friendly group of people with sound principles housed inside a jewel. This moment asks,

“What difference will we make to our community?”

“Whose lives will we transform, and in what way?”

“What is our faith calling us to do and be?”

These are not questions to be answered in a day. So Tess, I charge you to be patient with this congregation, which has become so good at projects, when they get anxious in the face of puzzling spiritual questions, questions about purpose, meaning, and identity. I charge you to forgive them when they jump too quickly to an answer when it would be better to sit quietly a while amid the questions.

I charge you to be patient with your congregation.

And I charge you, Tess, to disappoint them.

I’ve asked around, and just between the two of us, they have high expectations of you, for good reason.

But as you may know, congregations really don’t select ministers, they construct them out of pieces of their old ones. Unity Church wants a minister as wise and lovable as Holly Bell, as musical as Bonnie Devlin, as youthful as Eric Cherry, as intellectual as Jay Deacon and as physically attractive as Dan Hotchkiss.

And you’re all those things, except you’re not. You’re Tess. And so I charge you to look at yourself in the mirror every morning to confirm that you are not the sum of the projections and the expectations and the hopes this church invests in you.

You’re Tess. You can fall short. You can say no. You can punch out. You can refuse to take responsibility for what is not yours. It is not your job to be the minister they want. It is to be the minister you are. And so if, in addition to being lovable and musical, and vigorous and intellectual and beautiful, they sometimes find you bookish, pushy, passive, lazy, or eccentric like certain of your predecessors, that’s their problem, not yours.

It’s more than a problem, it’s an opportunity for ministry. When you disappoint your congregation you offer them a chance to learn that no one can stand in for God. All you can do is walk beside them and help focus their attention on what seems to matter most in every moment. Given what I know about who you are and who they are, I feel certain that will be enough.

When personal loyalties and ministry responsibilities collide

By law, board members are supposed to put the best interest of the church above all personal considerations — but how is that even possible? Board members in most churches play many other roles throughout the church, and many board decisions affect them and those they love. Potential conflicts of interest arise whenever a board member plays multiple roles. In churches, multiple roles and relationships are the rule, not the exception.

Look around the board table: John and Frieda work for the same company; Frieda’s daughter  babysits for Susan’s grandson; Susan has belonged for years to Peter’s study group; Peter, who has been assistant treasurer for 30 years, is married to the choir director. Then there’s the pastor, who stands in multiple relationships to everybody. Even in a relatively healthy church, an “organization chart” that tried to capture all such formal and informal links would resemble an unusually messy cobweb.

No wonder that on many boards it’s awkward to begin talking about conflicts of interest. Relationships around the table already bristle with potential conflicts, so anyone who tries to raise the subject risks a defensive response. That’s one reason boards put off this important conversation. Another is the belief (often against official doctrine) that church people are naturally well-meaning, moral people, making it offensive to suggest they might need rules to keep them on the straight and narrow. Nonetheless, a church governing board, like any nonprofit board, is mandated by law to keep its stewardship unsullied by conflicts of interest. In legal language board members are fiduciaries (from the Latin fides, faith).

Read the rest…

Ask Alban: Searching without Dividing

Q: Our minister has announced his retirement. During his long ministry, we have avoided most of the conflict about homosexuality raging in our national church. How can we look for a minister without dividing our congregation?

A: Right now, several North American religious groups are sharply split about how and whether to accept gay clergy. If your denomination is divided, you understandably want to protect your congregation from following suit.

Over the years, your church may have welcomed some openly gay people warmly, even though some members consider their behavior unbiblical or wrong. As long as your minister stayed put, you could live with the inconsistency.

Read the rest…

All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Work

Around the board table, each leader brings a point of view rooted in subcultures he or she belongs to. Subcultures of sex, race, age, and nationality are often recognized. The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator can help a group to acknowledge and “normalize” such differences. We have barely yet begun to see how powerful our occupational subcultures have become. Each person around the table has learned at work how to behave in groups. Those learnings came with powerful rewards and punishments and exert great power, especially when they go unrecognized.

I didn’t know that as a young minister, but now I do. As a consultant I often ask, “What is your work?” At first I expected some resistance. What I often find instead is that my question opens up a rich exchange about strong and different convictions about how groups get things done, and how that kind of diversity might be a good thing.

… read more of All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Work

Ask Alban: Choosing Your Next Clergy Leader

The most frequent mistake clergy search committees make is to focus too much on the perceived weaknesses of the previous clergyperson. If the predecessor was personable but poorly educated, the search committee scours the world for a Ph.D. and takes social skills for granted–after all, doesn’t every minister have them? If the last minister was an active organizational leader but an indifferent preacher, the next will spend most of the work week writing sermons and assume the laity will run the church. The trouble with this approach is that congregations are organized around the strengths of previous clergy more than their weaknesses.

Read more about Choosing Your Next Clergy Leader.

Relocating the Clergy Ego

When I speak at seminaries about leadership and management in congregations, professors usually need to be somewhere else, and students tend to doze. To wake them up, I mention a favorite topic, “ministerial authority.” Seminarians love to talk about the potent symbolism of the clergy role, and to picture people looking up at them projecting issues properly belonging to their parents. They reflect gravely on the special powers and obligations that the hands of ordination will load onto their heads.

On the whole this kind of talk is harmless; at best it gets some silly notions out of the way early. Seminary is the last occasion most students will have to fret about the perils of excessive clergy power. After graduation, those who take congregational positions mostly worry about how they are doing and all the things that measure that: praise, thanks, headcount, lack of controversy, money.

Read more of “Relocating the Clergy Ego.

Ask Alban: The Spiritual Challenge of Clergy Transition

Q: I’m the spiritual formation intern at a medium-sized Episcopal church whose rector is about to retire. Do you have recommendations for what I can do to support the congregation as the rector prepares to leave? Most of the resources I know about seem to focus more on the practical and business aspects of this critical time rather than on what it means about relationship to God and each other.

A: Clergy help us to know the love and faithfulness of God. Through words and actions and the conduct of their lives, they teach us to trust (or sometimes, sadly, not to trust) God’s promises. Everything about our spiritual lives depends on whether we develop basic, fundamentally nonrational trust. Spiritual maturity is not belief that all will go well, but faith that, when things go badly, we can count on the companionship of God and that which is of God in others….

Read more of Ask Alban: The Spiritual Challenge of Clergy Transition.

Salary Anxiety

Some years ago, advice columnist Ann Landers published a letter from a college student who was pondering his career choices. “My classmates are all in a race for the biggest salaries. I want security, a stable salary, and peace of mind. What jobs should I consider?” Ann reassured the young man that his desires were normal and acceptable, and listed several careers that offered the stability he wanted: civil service, postal work, the clergy—the clergy?What an interesting idea. Oh, I’m sure somewhere—probably in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex—a parish priest rests secure in his benefice, whiling away long afternoons writing uplifting novels. But my experience of ministry, and that of most clergy I know, has been quite different. Our calling is, of course, to be for others—to change lives for the better through practical service, spiritual challenge, and moral support. Ironically, though, even more than most employees, we must be our own advocates when it comes to the business side of our profession.

Read more of Salary Anxiety.