In the second episode of “Leading and Thriving in the Church,” Prince talks with David Emmanuel Goatley, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
David Emmanuel Goatley was inaugurated as the sixth president of Fuller Seminary on January 21, 2023. Prior to his appointment, he served as the associate dean for academic and vocational formation, Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Research Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry and director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School. For nearly four decades he has served in leadership roles in organizations dedicated to justice advocacy, Christian mission and global ecumenism. He earned his BS in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Louisville and holds two degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: an MDiv with an emphasis in pastoral care and counseling, and a PhD in Theology.
A constructive theologian and globally recognized missiologist with a background in pastoral counseling, Goatley brings a unique blend of experience and expertise that aligns with Fuller’s major disciplines of theology, missiology and the psychological sciences. Having studied or worked in more than 35 countries, he brings a global perspective to his leadership and vision for Fuller, believing the gospel of the kingdom is truly good news and hope for all of the world, transcending politics, denominations and single nations.
For more than 20 years (1997–2018), he served as CEO of Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, where he led the organization’s efforts to sustain mission partnerships in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. He is passionate about justice and advocacy as reflections of God’s desire to offer flourishing to the whole creation. As such, he has been both a thought leader and an activist in addressing the issues of genocide, poverty, racism, hunger and inequality, serving in leadership capacities for organizations including Kids Against Hunger, the Save Darfur Coalition and the NAACP. Ordained in the National Baptist Convention, USA, he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Campbellsville, Kentucky, for nine years (1986–1995).
In addition to his articles, essays, and book chapters, Goatley is the author of “Were You There? Godforsakenness in Slave Religion” and “A Divine Assignment: The Missiology of Wendell Clay Somerville,” as well as the editor of “Black Religion, Black Theology: Collected Essays of J. Deotis Roberts.” His current research focuses on flourishing in ministry and thriving congregations, most recently working on projects funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment.
Prince Rivers: What does it mean to lead now, especially in the church, especially in this political and social climate? I’m Prince Rivers, and this is Leading and Thriving in the Church, a podcast from Alban at Duke Divinity. Our mission is to help you be the leader God has called you to be. It’s been my privilege to serve as a pastor for more than 20 years, and I absolutely love supporting people who lead congregations. It’s one of my passions. But doing ministry in the post-pandemic era has unearthed new leadership challenges, and it has led us to pay more attention to the need for thriving ministers and congregations. This podcast features conversations with some of the most innovative pastors, leaders, and authors I know. They’re going to help us do church faithfully and effectively, and in a way that is life-giving to those who lead and the people we serve. I’m so glad you’re listening. I can’t wait to introduce you to today’s guest on Leading and Thriving in the Church.
I’m pleased to welcome our guest on this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church, the Reverend Doctor David Emmanuel Goatley, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. On this podcast, we bring on guests who have unique experiences and wisdom to help cultivate flourishing ordained and lay leaders for the church. And, David, you certainly fit that bill. You’re an accomplished theologian, missiologist, academic administrator, and you’ve been a pastor. And we first met when you were the CEO of Lott Carey Foreign Mission Society, a role you held for 20 years or more. And during that time, Lott Carey’s impact grew tremendously. Their influence expanded tremendously. So welcome, David, to Leading and Thriving in the Church.
David Emmanuel Goatley: Thanks so much for the invitation to be with you today. I really appreciate you thinking of me and grateful for your ministry and your leadership and for our friendship across the years.
PR: Well, David, you’ve done a lot in your distinguished career, and I know that you’re doing a lot now as the President of Fuller Theological Seminary. In fact, we just crossed paths at a conference in North Carolina, and you told me you would be in five more cities before heading back to California. Your role lets you see a lot of different places. And so let’s just start with this: As a seminary leader, you have a love for the church and a love for a global perspective. What do you see happening on the ground that excites you these days when you think about the church and the kingdom of God?
DEG: Well, thanks for that question, and thanks for even asking it in that way about what I’m excited about. There’s so many of us. We run across people who are Christian leaders and Christian people who operate out of such a deficit mentality. And so what they do is they begin by complaining about what’s wrong. I had a conversation with somebody recently. They were telling me about a lament, and I was telling them that Christian lament is never lament without hope. People can get caught in what Richard Wright called, he wasn’t talking about this, but in his classic book, Native Son, a hot and whirling vortex. And sometimes people can get caught in the hot and whirling vortex of negativity, and that’s the kind of thing that you’re celebrating. So, thank you for that asset-based question. I think it says a lot about how you think about the church.
And so there are many things that excite me. One of them is the people who are committed to Christ and seeking to be faithful. Now no one is perfect, but I see Christian people committed to the Lord, committed to the church being faithful and fruitful, committed to their communities. I spent 22 years with Lott Carey, which is providing a prayer partnership, financial support, and technical assistance to indigenously led ministries around the world, primarily in the global South. And so my slice of the church, which I’m most familiar in its work mostly, is also committed to what God is doing around the world. So, I am excited about seeing people who are committed to the Lord, to the church, and to the world.
I’m also excited about seeing churches as communities of disciples who are seeking to be faithful in what God is calling them to do. And some of that faithfulness has to do with trying to adapt effectively to the constantly evolving realities that they’re facing. You, as a pastor, have had experience with that of having to work through the pandemic and still working to emerge out of it. And one example of that is the number of things that the pandemic accelerated, whether it’s weaknesses; it accelerated weaknesses. Whether it’s people trying to adapt, for example, with embracing technology – it has accelerated that. And I’m excited about people trying to adapt, trying to figure it out. Some people see that kind of uncertainty as problematic. I see it as people trying to figure out which way is up, trying different approaches. There are a number of business leaders who say if you haven’t failed a hundred times, you haven’t tried anything. And so we need to work on that.
I’m excited about seeing people really struggle with the economic challenges. There are communities facing gentrification, for example. And there are some churches – I mean they’re out there working, swinging, and trying to respond in constructive ways of how to build community, how to make sure that people are not trampled over by so-called economic progress.
And then, finally, I’d like to say that I’m excited when I see churches being faithful in trying to respond in constructive ways to the toxic politics that we have. There are people who could just roll over and be despondent, but there are people that are standing up to inequities. There are people that are standing up to people who tell and advance lies. There are people who are trying to respond to the toxic politics and even how it emboldens violence and disrespect for people. And there are churches that are standing firm and saying we stand for righteousness and justice, and we’re not going to take that. And we need people who have enough spine to stand and say you are wrong, that is not the truth, and we are people who live for righteousness and justice. So, some people are frustrated by that. I see that as signs of life and of vitality, and I’m grateful there are people who are in there trying to be faithful despite what they find themselves up against.
PR: You’ve given us a lot to think about, Dr. Goatley, and I’m glad I asked the question because now I’m excited when I think about all that you’ve just stated and articulated about what’s going on in the church.
You talked about a couple of things. You talked about adaptive leaders. You talked about leaders standing up to the injustices and inequities that they’re seeing in the world. What do you think are some of the characteristics that make it possible for leaders to work in that way? Everyone is not doing it. What do you see as some of the defining traits within leaders that allow them to operate in that way?
DEG: Well, I think that, for Christian leaders, we need to anchor what we’re doing in the biblical witness. There are always ideas that are part of political strategies, of sociological movements, of cultural expressions. And I think that we need a solid anchoring in the biblical witness of embracing the kind of things that, for example, Walter Brueggemann’s signature text about prophetic imagination and how the biblical witness can stir up our imagination for being able to see.
One way that I’ve embraced talking about a prophetic vision is being able to see something of what God dreams for the world, of being able to discern where we’re coming up short, and then working with others to bridge that gap. And if you don’t have all three, then I think you’re destined to come up short. But we need to be inspired by God’s dream of what a world can be that is humane and habitable for the most vulnerable, and, for me, that’s children. And if we can work to make this world habitable and humane for the vulnerable children, then that will help us.
So, I think that that is, for Christian leaders, I think that is the fundamental thing we need to work on is continuing to firm up our grounding in a biblical vision of righteousness and justice. You know, there are a lot of people that talk about justice. But the biblical witness talks about righteousness and justice, and you have to live right and do right. You’re not going to do right if you don’t live right. I think we need to be serious about that and unapologetic. So, I would say that kind of grounding.
I would say another characteristic that we need to have is a characteristic of humility. I mean we have to live with confidence that God has called us, but we have to also live with the kind of humility to know that this does not rise and fall on me alone, and that this is a team sport. We need to learn to play in the sandbox well with our colleagues, and sometimes all of us don’t do that well. Many of us who are Christian leaders know people who, if they’re not in charge, they’re not going to participate. And if it’s not their idea, they have difficulty valuing other ideas. But we have to have a spirit of collaboration. We have to be able to appreciate the different gifts. Some people have a real gift of choreography. I’m thinking about – I saw a parade earlier in the year and was inspired by one of the marching bands. They had a lot going on, but they were following that choreography. Once I played trombone. And if you were behind somebody with a trombone, you need to make sure you’re following the choreographed steps or somebody’s going to get hurt.
PR: That’s right.
DEG: But we have to have a spirit of collaboration and cooperation as well as that grounding in the text. And then I think another piece is that we have to have a spirit of generosity. And that’s a generosity of sharing ourselves, of sharing our resources, and also generosity of spirit to know that everybody’s not going to do everything right all the time. And we do have to have a generous spirit so that, if somebody trips and if they fall, then you know the Bible tells us that we ought to help restore that one with humility and self-awareness of our vulnerability. So I’m sure that there are a litany of things, but I would say that at least those kinds of things about our biblical grounding, a spirit of collaboration and cooperation, a spirit of generosity of our own gifts and a generous spirit, and working with those others who are trying to get it right. And we’ve got to just keep on working together to move the needle in the right direction.
PR: Yeah. Thanks for talking about that. And I can see the kind of leader you’re thinking about when you describe and use those phrases. Let me back up and maybe ask a higher level question, a 30,000 foot question: What is a leader? When you think about it, you’ve served a global nonprofit, you serve as president of a seminary, you’ve been a program director, an academic dean, and a pastor. Now you’re preparing seminarians to go out into the world. What should they be thinking about when someone calls them a leader? What’s the definition of leadership from your perspective?
DEG: There are many people who have tried to give a crack at this one, and so I would say a leader is someone who helps to enable people to do what God is calling them to do. And I am more interested in leading leaders than leading followers.
DEG: And what I mean by that is for people who lead followers, the followers are always dependent upon the leader. You turn right, you turn left. Do I have permission to make a decision? They sometimes are fearful that I better not do the wrong thing. And it’s almost like all these followers are tentacles of the leader, and the leader is like a puppet master. And so that may work for some people. I’m more interested in helping people to lead leaders, to help equip and encourage and empower other people to lead so that they can equip and encourage and empower other people to lead, and they can equip and encourage and empower other people to lead. It’s kind of a pneumatological idea of leadership, where the Spirit distributes gifts generously so that different people can do what God has and is gifting them to do.
So, fundamentally, for me, leading is helping to enable others to do the work that God has called them to do. And God doesn’t call us to do the same thing. And so we need to be able to help people to recognize what their abilities are.
One of the leadership journeys that I’ve been on with some others is using something that I discovered in some research working with leaders in the Global South during my Lott Carey years, and I was working on a research project with partners where we’ve been in relationship for 50 years or more. And, out of that, I discerned what I describe as a formula for flourishing. And so what that formula holds is one has a higher probability of flourishing if you take your leadership capacities and your service context seriously, and, out of that, let your capacities and your context yield your ministry content. So, another way of saying it is your content should go grow out of your capacities and your context. And I think when leaders do that, there’s a higher probability of flourishing because you’re not trying to drag and drop what somebody else has done. For example, I’m thinking now of a friend, we were in seminary at the same time, and we are of similar ages. But my colleague was called to one of the most populated cities in the United States and is a professional grade musician. I was called to a county seat in a rural county, and it was a smaller town in a small county. And I was a less-than-professional-grade musician. But my colleague’s capacities – and it wasn’t just the musician, but his capacities in terms of his temperament and his talent and his education, and all of that – that kind of capacity in that context, that church grew to 15,000 people. There weren’t 15,000 people in my whole county.
DEG: And if I was going to try to compare what I was doing to what my colleague was doing, I was always going to be frustrated. But I was able to work in my context that allowed for faithful and fruitful ministry. But it wasn’t going to have 15,000 congregants, but it still was going to make a difference in people’s lives, where I had invitations to provide people who could perform and they would be moved to the top of the list with employers in my community. And if I could get them people who could get through a drug test and who could function, then they would give them some privilege. Well, I don’t know if my colleague had those kinds of invitations coming, but that’s just one example, and there were others because when you are a pastor of a first church in a county seat, then there’s a certain kind of influence and engagement that you can do there.
So, context was different and the capacity was different, which meant the content was different. And that is a part of being a leader, of being able to appreciate that. And none of those are constant. All of those are variables because your capacity changes over time, and your context changes over time. Even if you’re in the same place 20 years, it’s going to change, people moving in and out, the economy, the politics, all of that. So, all of that has to do with expected leadership and helping to equip people.
So, one of the things that I was doing with both younger leaders and women leaders of pastors was helping them to use this formula as a frame for thinking about themselves as leaders and to have them think about leading leaders so that it changes the way that they interact with people. They don’t have to script everything, but they curate opportunities, curate experiences, and give people time and space and freedom to grow and exercise and flourish. So, that’s some of the way that I have been growing to think about leadership.
PR: The formula is a powerful image and way of thinking about leadership, particularly the context piece, because a lot of leaders don’t fully appreciate what the context provides, what it prevents, what it promotes. And you’ve laid that out very well.
And I think about your trajectory pastoring, leading this global nonprofit, being at Duke Divinity School, now as President of Fuller Theological Seminary. How do you think about transitioning among different contexts, and what lessons have you learned about how to transition well from one leadership role to another context, to another? Are there some things that you would want to pass along to other pastors who are in the process of transitioning?
DEG: Great question. So, I will share my testimony, and this is what I have found to work for me. I don’t try to impose it on everybody, but it’s my testimony. So, the first thing about transition is I have not found myself trying to transition to something else. I have responded to invitations, and it may not be only an invitation from the calling entity. It may be an invitation from people who see something in me and see something in a place that I may not know about, and say, “I know this ministry. I know what they offer, and know what they need. I know you. I’ve seen you. I know your gifts. I think this opportunity and your gifting have real potential, and therefore, I want to encourage you to make yourself available.” Now, that’s different than saying I’m looking for my next, in my opinion.
DEG: So, for Christian ministry, my testimony has been I needed to listen for invitations to consider this opportunity. And so I would say, the first step about transition is listening to the Lord, and listening to people who know your gifting and have a view of opportunities that you don’t have. The few times I have perhaps asserted myself and found a locked door, that was aggravating, it was frustrating, it was depressing, but I’m so thankful for – in our tradition we talk about God closing doors that no one can open.
DEG: And opening doors that no one can close. And so I’ve come to trust the Lord that if I tried a door, and it’s locked, that’s all right, that that may have been a good door, but there is a better door that the Lord has decided rather than me. And I think about the Macedonian call for Paul and where the Lord, the Spirit forbid them to go. And it’s a good thing when the Spirit shuts you down. I had a friend of mine say, “It’s also a good thing when the Spirit continues to talk to you.” So, I would say that’s the first thing in transition is be listening for the invitation to discernment.
I would say another thing about transition is to remember that the people who call you have lived through transitions of other leaders before, that’s if they have called. So, you shouldn’t get frustrated because as soon as you show up, everybody doesn’t fall in line and do what you want them to do. They’ve seen leaders come and they’ve seen leaders go, and it’s not healthy for people to just keep turning on a dime every time a new leader comes with a new idea. So, we have to have enough patience in transition to build relational equity, build relationships, because people have to come to know you.
One of the things that I think I discovered as a leader is it’s almost like baseball. People have to know you, trust you, like you, and then they’ll support you. And you can’t cut from first to third base. They have to know you first, and then they have to trust you, because there’s some people I like, but I don’t trust them. So, they need to get to know you, and that takes time. It takes relationship. It just takes time for people to know you. They have to know you. They have to trust. They have to like you and then they’ll support you. And if you’re not willing to invest in those first three, that support, if you get it, it’s something close to a miracle as far as I’m concerned because all of this is relational. So, in transition, you have to take the time to run the bases.
And then I would say a third thing in transition is spend a lot of time listening and, to use the advice of utility companies, call before you dig.
PR: That’s good.
DEG: Because underground, you’ve got at least two things going. One, you have infrastructure underground. And as utility people, you can call and get wires and blow up yourself, knock out the power, all kind of things can happen. But in addition to the infrastructure, there’s organic stuff going on underground where there are shrubbery, and trees, and stuff that, above ground, they look like they are not connected. But below ground, you’ve got root systems that have woven together over time, and that has to do with some of these relationships in these communities, because you don’t know who is related to whom emotionally, psychologically, genetically. You don’t know that stuff. And if you don’t take the time to listen very carefully and call before you dig, you can end up knocking all the power out, blowing yourself up, rupturing the water line, setting yourself back. But you also can end up damaging the organic nature of the organization. And, when you’re in transition, you just have to take the time to run the bases, and then you better listen and call before you dig because, sooner or later, you’re going to hit something that is going to be problematic, and then you’re going to spend a whole lot of time doing repair work, if you can do the repair work. And you can set yourself back in ways that you don’t need to. So, those are some of the things in transition that I would advise leaders to take very, very seriously.
PR: I know that, as a pastor, I have been at places where it’s been years before I realized people were biologically related. So, I say amen to calling before you dig and the organic reference that you made there because it is so true. It is so true.
David, you do a lot on a day-to-day basis. You’re always coming up with new programs and new ideas. And a lot of what pastors do and what we are seen doing is work in the pulpit or a hospital, pastoral care, but there are also these other aspects to ministry which involve management. And I imagine that you’ve seen that throughout your professional career. What’s your approach to management, and maybe more specifically, how can pastors develop more of these muscles to be more effective in the roles that they serve?
DEG: That’s a great question, and it trips up people more times than they would like to admit. And then also, quite honestly, a lot of schools that train pastors underemphasize the role of managing. I think they like to emphasize leading and that is important. But you’ve got to manage, and you cannot delegate all of the – you’ve got to manage somebody, some people, and some processes.
I would say that there are kind of three key things to managing, and I know that there’s some people that talk about “you lead people, you manage processes.” Some of that is word game. Some of it is people who’ve never done it. Sometimes you read that stuff and say “what universe is this happening?” Or, if everything was a constant, that you could decide what the constant was, then that might work. But, as I mentioned earlier, everything is a variable. All of ministry, you’re dealing with variables, and they can change at any time, and they are constantly changing and evolving. So, in management, I would suggest the following three things to prioritize.
One is to be very clear on the deliverable, so that they’re not assumptions about what is supposed to happen in a process, in a project, etc. Now that does not mean detail everything, but, for example, I’m in Pasadena, California, today talking to you. So, if I’m coming to Durham, then the deliverable can be: I need to get to Durham. Now I mean I can come by car, I can come by train, I can come by plane, all of that stuff. So, the manager does not need to detail all of that, how it gets there, but be clear what the deliverable is.
The second thing is to be clear on the due date. And one of the things that I’ve tried to say to people is that if we agree that December 1 is the due date, do not wait until November the 29th and tell me we’re not going to make December 1 because other things are dependent on standing up on December 2, 3, or 4 because you’re hitting December 1. So, there’s a chain reaction of potentially problematic issues that happen. So, if you need to renegotiate the due date, let’s do that earlier and along the way. But don’t see that you’re going to miss it or think there’s a high probability I’m going to miss it, and then don’t say anything about it.
So, first thing, be clear about the deliverable. Second, be clear about the due date. And then number three, to delegate people: give them the power that they need to do what they need to do. My son helped me with this. He was in a management role with a company, and he said, “To have responsibility and no authority is a disaster.” And you cannot give people responsibility for delivering and they have no authority to make things. It’s kind of like when you go in a store and something is wrong, like in a restaurant, and something is wrong, and the person you’re dealing with, they don’t have the authority to make it right. Well, they have the responsibility to make sure that their customer or the client has a good experience, but then when the customer or client has a legitimate concern, then the person who is responsible for creating the experience has no authority to make sure it’s right. Then they’ve got to ask somebody. They have to go ask somebody.
And so I would say those are key issues in being an effective manager. Be clear on the deliverable, be clear on the due date, and clear on the delegation of authority, and don’t back it up. Don’t second guess. Don’t look over people’s shoulders. If they’re not ready for it, they’re not ready for it. Or if you need to, build in report-backs and some interim deliverables along the way. So, if there are four big things, it may be a due date for number one, a due date for number two, and then that way you can pay attention to what’s going on. You may be able to kind of coach somebody up and groom them. And overall, people don’t have to do things the way that I do them, but they do have to get them done. And mature managers get to a point where it doesn’t have to be the exact shade of color that I would have picked. I mean if we agree on green, then we all agree on green. So, whether it’s lime green, or hunter green, or whatever. But that’s a mature manager who is able to say, “I wouldn’t have done it quite that way,” and evaluation, that is a part of being a manager.
I have a friend who is a pastor in the deep South. And one of his constant things is “I inspect what I expect.”
PR: That’s good.
DEG: And what he’s talking about is evaluation, and we have to do that. So, I would say those are some of the key issues of management for ministers and pastors that they would do well to consider as they build their styles of work.
PR: You used a couple of phrases when talking about delegation. You talked about responsibility, and you talked about authority. And I remember a mentor, a colleague a few years ago, several years ago actually, said to me – I said the phrase that I was going to delegate some responsibility to someone. And he looked at me and he said, “You can delegate the authority, but you can’t delegate the responsibility.” In other words, as the leader, the outcome was still my responsibility. I needed to give the person the authority to get the work done. And how does that resonate with you? I mean, maybe it’s splitting hairs, but it was helpful to me to realize that no matter what I delegated, as a leader, in some ways, I was still taking responsibility for the outcome, or at least the completion, of the assignment.
DEG: Yeah. I would say that when you’re leading leaders, all leaders have responsibility for something else. And so I can’t take responsibility for every single thing that every individual does. To me, that’s leading followers. Now I have responsibility for the overall strategic direction for the overall goals that we’ve agreed on to. I don’t believe I have responsibility for every single step along the way.
So, for example, if you are my leader, my manager, whatever, and you say to me, “Be in Durham on December 1st,” you have tasked me with a deliverable. I don’t think you are responsible for whether I come by air or train or car. I think that is what people would call micromanaging, and I think that that is disempowering for people. I think it does not allow people to mature the muscles that they need to grow. I might come up with the bright idea that, okay, I want to drive. Well, if I’m going to drive, I’ve got to give myself a certain amount of time, and I have to calculate the right route. If I’m trying to drive an electric car, I’ve got to pay more attention to where I can charge. If I come by train, it’s a different kind of thing. I can maybe sleep overnight. If I come by plane, it’s faster. I need to operate within a certain budget, money, time, effort. I might be worn out if I drive cross country, and I get there on the right date but I’m so wasted that I’m no good once I get there. So, all of those kinds of things are part of it. So, I would say that if you are a pastor, you have ultimate responsibility for the character and quality of the experience. I would not want to work for a leader, or a manager, or a minister, or a pastor who felt like that person was responsible for every single decision that is made to roll up. I would not find that environment one that is conducive to my continual growth as a leader.
PR: That makes sense.
So, let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about thriving. What are the practices, given all that you do, all the responsibilities you have, the roles you play – what helps Dr. David Emmanuel Goatley thrive?
DEG: Part of thriving is self-care. Some of us in ministry, because of our calling, we struggle with boundaries for personal self-care. Stephen Covey, who wrote the famous “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” one of the habits was talking about sharpening the saw. And I once heard a recording of Covey, and he talked about a guy that comes up on somebody trying to saw down a tree, and he’s really just sawing, he’s working, he’s really working hard, not making any progress. And the observer asked, “What are you doing?” And the man says, “I’m trying to saw the tree,” and the guy says, “Why don’t you sharpen the saw?” And the guy says, “I don’t have time.” And if you don’t take time to sharpen the saw, you’re going to burn a lot of energy and not get much done.
So, self-care is important, and that means boundaries. It means being able to learn how to say “thank you but no” to invitations, to opportunities, to committees, to speaking engagements, to invitations to write. There’s a lot of things we’d like to do, but we have to figure out, “How much time do I need to recharge?” It also includes habits of not eating real late. Some of us, we travel and we have these engagements, some will be over by 8:00 and then we’re going out to eat dinner at 9:00, and then you go to bed. That’s not healthy over time. Exercise – I know you’re faithful in a certain exercise routine, and it’s good for your health. Everybody can’t, you know, my knees won’t let me do what I used to do, but I can have healthy practices that have to do with rest, with diet, with exercise, with scheduling, and with the people who bring me joy, who help to replenish. Because in the life of a pastor, particularly in the life of a pastor – I was a pastor nine years, a lead pastor nine years. And one of the things that I discovered is, the way I recall it, not only now but a number of years ago, I only recall about two or three times a congregant called on me, a person on the phone, just to say, “I just called to check in on my pastor, seeing how you’re doing.” I remember two. I’m assuming it may have been three. And it’s not that people were being inconsiderate. It’s just when people called on you, they called on you because they needed something from you.
So, people were withdrawing from you all the time, and unless you make sure that you get filled up again with the relationships, with your spouse, your children, or your siblings, or your friends – unless you take responsibility for doing that – you’re putting yourself in danger. So, I think that those are some of the kinds of things that we need to make sure that we’re doing so that if we are leaders, and we have places of responsibility for taking care of organizations and communities and etc., we also have responsibility of caring for ourselves.
Our son is now 30 years old, as you and I talked. But when he was born, I said to the congregation, “I get up at 6:00 in the morning, but don’t call after 10:00 unless you are already dead. If you’re already dead, then call me after 10:00. Otherwise you’ll be dead in the morning.” Because I had a young mother, I had a young child. They needed their rest as well. So, I had to create some boundaries, and I got that, I quoted an elderly mother. She’s in her 80s and she said, “I told my children if something happens overnight, don’t you wake me up out of my sleep. You’ll be dead in the morning, and I need my rest to deal with all of this, what I’m going to have to deal with.” So, I decided if it was good for an 85-year-old mother, it would be good for me. But very seriously, it was creating boundaries. And people said to me, “Thank you for telling us that,” because, otherwise, they don’t know our schedule. They don’t know what we need.
PR: That’s right.
DEG: And so if we don’t take the responsibility for creating boundaries for ourselves and our families and those we love, we can’t be angry or upset at somebody else. And if you don’t take care of those personal relationships, that’s going to bite you years later.
I had an older guy tell me once, because at the Lott Carey convention earlier, in my earliest years, the annual session would begin the first week of school. So, I’d come in Friday and work Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I’d be on a plane Sunday night going back home so I was there to take my son to the bus stop on Monday morning, and then pick him up on Monday evening. Then I’d be on a plane going back. It was important to me and a signal to him that I was invested in his well-being. And I had an older pastor who, with tears in his eyes, commended me for that. And he said that he’d always had a stressful relationship with his son. His son was 45 years old before they finally had a blow-up, and his son told him that: “You were never here. You were always out doing revivals, doing conferences,” etc. And the old man said, “I thought I was providing for my family, and I was trying to generate all this extra income so that they would have plenty of what they wanted.” And the man’s son was 45 years old before he learned that what his son needed was the personal, physical presence of his father in those formative years. And that is a part of learning how to care for yourself, for your family, for your relationships. That’s a part of being a good leader.
PR: That’s a great, great reminder, and I know there are a lot of clergy listening that can use that and really grow from that because you’re right. We think that what people want are the things that we can bring, but often what they really want is our presence, a relationship, and it is so important and so difficult when we are engaged in this work that we love to do. We feel called to do it, but it’s demanding and, to your point, people don’t know what our boundaries are. They will keep asking and asking, and more than likely we’ll keep saying yes. So, thank you for that very personal and practical reminder.
DEG: May I add one more thing that occurs to me? Because there are a lot of pastors who get this unhealthy codependency on the role, and we get so wrapped up in what we do, and we think who we are is what we do. And that’s some real unhealthy stuff going on, and we need to have relationships that are not at all related to our role and our function.
We need to have activities that are not to cause you to pastor, to minister, because some of us, everything we get invited to is because we’re the pastor of the church, or we’re the minister, we’re in the role. Every meal we get invited to, every sporting event we get invited to, every concert we get invited to, every trip we get invited to, it’s all bound up and bundled. And we need to have relationships that have nothing to do with the role that we play, because it’s very, very unhealthy, and then we get to a place where it’s time for us to relinquish the role. We get our hands around it, and we can’t get our hearts around it because we have no identity, we have no activity, we have no relationships that are not bound up in the role. So, to retire from the position means we retire from our lives, and nobody calls us and invites us to preach, and nobody calls us and invites us to speak, nobody invites us to dinner because they weren’t inviting you as a person. They were inviting the office that you occupy.
Now we can think it’s they’re inviting “us.” They’re not. They’re inviting the position, and we happen to be the person in that position. But as soon as we relinquish it, those invitations start going away, and then our identities get wrapped up in it. So, we have to disentangle our person from the position, and I think that’s really, really critical for leaders if you’re going to lead with effectiveness and with faithfulness, and be able to sustain yourself over time.
PR: Thank you for really reminding pastors about the difference between the soul and the role. It is so important. That’s why I try to attend every one of my kids’ sporting event games where I can stand on the sidelines as dad and really just enjoy them and watch them growing. It’s just one of the ways that I try to take that advice that you’re giving so well to some of our pastors.
So, as we sort of wrap up this conversation, what advice has someone given to you that early on, maybe in your ministry, that really continues to sustain you going forward?
DEG: One of them came from my father, Dr. W. H. Goatley, of blessed memory. He was my pastor. He served First Baptist Church in Eminence, Kentucky, for 47 years. One of the pieces of advice I overheard him giving to somebody else, but I kept it. He said, “You can’t afford a lot of fights when you’re a pastor.” He said, “You just can’t afford them.” He said, “Even if you win, you can’t afford them because every time that you win one fight, you create another set of enemies. And you can keep winning, and you can keep winning, and you can keep winning, but eventually the one thing that everybody has in common is that they all lost to you. And even if they don’t like each other, what will bind them together is the fact that you beat everybody. And then they will lay down their weapons that they would normally take up against each other, and they will point them all at you.” Now, I’ve not had a contentious career, but that is something that I passed along because there are a lot of ministers who get in these tough situations. You just can’t afford that.
One other: William Calvin, of blessed memory, when he retired from his second church, he’d been there 60 years. And one piece of advice he said is, “You can’t do everything at once. Don’t try to do everything at once. Break up whatever you’re trying to do into bite-sized pieces that people can handle, because if you claim that the Lord has revealed something to you, don’t get mad at your people when they can’t see it because you’re not the Lord.” He said, “If the Lord revealed it to you, don’t get mad when you try to tell it to others because you’re not the Lord.” So, break up these big, bold pieces into manageable things that people can see and grasp and handle, and then let it accumulate over time because you don’t have to do everything at once.
Those are a couple of pieces of wisdom from elders that I have found useful, and I try to pass them on. I apologize. I’m a preacher, so I tell too many stories, and I’m a theologian and I give too many footnotes.
PR: No, it was perfect.
DEG: So, above the line and below the line.
PR: It was perfect.
DEG: But it was good to see you. Thanks for inviting me.
PR: Yes, sir.
DEG: Take care. Thanks for including me, sir.
PR: Talk to you soon.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Leading and Thriving in the Church. This podcast is produced by Emily Lund and recorded in the Bryan Center Studios on the campus of Duke University. I’m your host, Prince Rivers. If you want more great leadership content, be sure to check out our website, alban.org, where you can sign up for the Alban Weekly newsletter. And make sure you subscribe to this podcast on your preferred podcast platform so we can keep you informed as we release new episodes. Until next time, keep leading.
Sign up for Prince’s weekly reflections and resources in the Alban Weekly.