In the mid 1970s, I served as the director of educational research and then as advisor to the president and board of trustees at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
With a concern for students and a desire to gather, in a sustained way, insights into students’ experiences and their perceptions of their theological education I identified seventeen first year students who approximated the diversity of the entering class and then listened to and talked with them throughout their years at the seminary. The approach was straightforward. I met individually with each student every semester, and at each meeting I turned on the recorder and usually asked an open-ended question like, “How have things been going?”
The first interviews were conducted in 1976. Occasional reports on the study were developed in subsequent years, and a final report with pertinent recommendations was presented to the president, faculty, and trustees in 1981.
In 2004, I began contacting the eight participants who had spent almost all of their ministry as parish clergy and were currently in full-time pastoral leadership.
When I spoke with each of the eight and arranged a time when I could visit and talk with them, I was gratified that after all these years there was a sense of connection and an unhesitating interest on their part in resuming the conversations begun so many years earlier. The interviews were held over the next several years in various locations around the country.
The stories of these eight lives in ministry raise important issues for the church, theological education, and ministry itself.
The first issue is simply the recognition that things are changing. Even as interest in spirituality grows, we know that fewer Americans see any need to connect this spirituality to organized religious institutions. While there are many congregations that are thriving and growing, many face lowered membership, financial strain, and internal dissension. Pastoral leaders, who were not necessarily educated for this new reality, are often caught in a complex web as they try to equip the church for its contemporary mission but meet fantasies of restoration to a more secure past that are powerful and resistant to change.
A second issue is that few of the eight reported any real experiences of assessment or evaluation as a regular part of their life and work. Evaluation, when it comes, therefore, often arrives as something ominous—a political thing—rather than something constructive as in “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
Third, a pressing concern is how theological faculties can hold on to the best of their traditional strengths while yet recognizing the need to attend to questions of professional growth and formation of their students. While pastors’ thinking is shaped by what they know from formal study and personal reflection, it is most of all formed and reformulated in the actual practices of ministry. It is more a matter of “reflecting-in-practice” than it is an issue of applying a set core of knowledge to a pastoral situation. A faculty’s role in encouraging students in classrooms and ministry settings to develop such habits of mind and heart is crucial in sustaining those habits through a lifetime.
Fourth, these stories make clear that congregations are key to the calling and formation of pastoral leaders. The fundamental Christian education they experience in worship, mission, and the activities of congregational life is something that continues to inform their understanding of ministry and something they can call on in later years.
Fifth, many religious leaders, by circumstance and sometimes by choice, are pulled into ways of being more appropriate for men and women far older than themselves. As one of the eight ministers says, “I learned to be responsible a little too soon and also learned back then to not take too much time for myself. That shapes me even today in my life and ministry.” Part of the difficulty clergy face in such situations is the ambiguity about ministry as a profession. Clergy are certainly included within professional ranks, but they hardly have the same kind of benefits and authority as lawyers or physicians. Denominations can help alleviate this situation by striving harder to deal with clergy compensation and educating congregations on the most fruitful and appropriate relationship with their pastors.
Sixth, the spaces that we inhabit are not neutral. Sometimes we are aware of how the habitats in which we live affect us, but most of the time we are not conscious of what we so take for granted that we no longer perceive it. Schools, and churches for that matter, seem to run to the extremes of acute awareness of space or dismissal of its importance.
Seventh, it is obvious that the narrative mode is a powerful means of expressing who we are and what is important to us. Stories allow us to craft the elements of our life in a narrative thread that takes us to places and realizations we cannot manage in more prosaic forms. Stories have a way of unfolding in unpredictable ways that do not avoid the contradictions we so often try to hide or defer; in fact, a story told one day may change direction on another.
Eighth, since ministers are often put on a pedestal of moral and emotional strength, either by others or themselves, it is often difficult for them to seek the help they need. At times it arises from the fear that someone will find out that they are seeking help and will judge them negatively. For a few, the insulation they have built around emotional difficulties has become so thick and confining they cannot hear the sounds of their own pain.
With few props and even fewer tangible rewards, the eight have held on to their calling. And, in the end, what is most important about the eight is their faithfulness. All of this urges a new realism in characterizing and encouraging the ordained ministry of the church. We too often focus on a few clergy who are privileged to serve congregations that have a relative abundance of fiscal and material resources. The actual life of most clergy is very different from their more affluent colleagues who do not confront daily the hard grind of leading a congregation struggling with its own survival. Seldom are the ministries of such churches lauded; instead, they are more often criticized as being neither large nor successful. The fact is that our usual notions of what constitutes success in ministry seldom correspond with biblical measurements of faithfulness. Most of the eight men and women we have followed have served churches that express, perhaps, a more typical portrayal of congregational life than what we usually see.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry by Malcolm L. Warford, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry
by Malcolm L. Warford
The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry tells the stories of eight men and women from their days as students at Union Theological Seminary in New York through their work today as pastors in local congregations over thirty years later. Since 1976 when they entered Union, Malcolm L. Warford has documented their experiences, first in theological education and then through their ministries. Finally, he has asked them to reflect on their vocational journeys and express what their calling has meant to them personally and professionally. The book reveals eight richly textured narratives full of the insight, heartache, and delight that go hand in hand with the practice of ministry—unvarnished truths from eight who have been formed by this work and calling.
Pursuing Pastoral Excellence: Pathways to Fruitful Leadership
by Paul E. Hopkins
In Pursuing Pastoral Excellence, pastoral counselor and educator Paul Hopkins aims to help pastoral leaders make a lasting and positive difference in the lives of the people and communities they serve. The heart of this book is the stories of seven ordinary pastors whose leadership has become extraordinary. Their stories not only highlight important characteristics and practices that nurture fruitful pastoral leadership, but they invite readers to examine their own stories, to think about the value of longevity in ministry, and to enhance the enduring impact of their own pastoral leadership.
Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace
by N. Graham Standish
Humble leadership, grounded in the teachings of Jesus, means recognizing that what we have and who we are are gifts from God, and our lives should reflect our gratitude for these gifts. It requires us to be radically and creatively open to God’s guidance, grace, and presence in everything. When we lead out of such openness, God’s power and grace flow through us. Standish helps us explore the practices and attitudes that make humble leadership effective leadership..
A Lifelong Call to Learn: Continuing Education for Religious Leaders
by Robert E. Reber and D. Bruce Roberts
A Lifelong Call to Learn is aimed at directors of lifelong learning and continuing education that serve both clergy and laity in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish seminaries and conference and retreat centers. While proposing new approaches in continuing theological education, it also addresses the need for programs that involve both clergy and laity at the congregational level and that support ongoing interreligious dialogue in our increasingly pluralistic society. In this time of foment in theological education, when institutional leaders are striving to develop new models for the basic master of divinity degree, this collection will be of keen interest to theological educators in every setting.
Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership
by Jeffrey D. Jones
Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you—Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are.
Make beautiful Lake Junaluska near Asheville, NC, your learning destination!
Do you ever feel trapped by the routine demands of congregational leadership? Let Alban Author Bruce Epperly help you rediscover the core of your call in the midst of your everyday ministry.
August 30–September 1, 2011, Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
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October 11–13, 2011, Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.
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