Bill sat across from his counselor and recounted the pain of the last eighteen months. After nine years at First Church, he had taken a well-deserved sabbatical to travel, reflect, study, and pray. On his first Sunday back at the church, he found a sealed envelope conspicuously placed in the middle of his desk. It was an anonymous petition asking for his resignation. The ensuing months were a blur of board meetings, interventions by denominational officials, listening posts with members of the congregation, and sleepless nights. He had survived the ordeal (he thought) but it had clearly taken an emotional toll. He now wondered if he should even remain in parish ministry. He pondered with his counselor: “What red flags did I miss? What should I have done differently? Why does this seem to be happening so frequently to me and my colleagues?”
Virtually every pastor has battle scars to show, and conflict seems almost part and parcel to the practice of ministry. So, what’s going on here? Is it our congregations and their particular cultures that create these scenarios? Or, is it the pastors themselves? Are folks who are drawn to ministry less emotionally healthy than the general population? Of course, there are no simple answers to these questions and no one person or situation is to blame.
However, it was precisely these kinds of recurring situations that prompted us to search for clues. In order to get an accurate handle on some of what might be happening, we decided to mine the data bank of information stored at North Central Ministry Development Center which has been in the business of screening candidates for ministry for over 40 years. There were several questions that we brought to the data:
- Are pastors emotionally healthy and effective in ministry? The data provides some really good news! In many ways, pastors far exceed the national averages for overall emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s own emotions and relate effectively to others. Particularly encouraging, their scores for emotional self-awareness, which many theorists identify as the foundation for all other emotional competencies, consistently place them in the upper twenty-five percent of the population. Even the lowest ministry scorers tend to still be right at average.
- Do pastors over time become worn down? Do they become more conflict avoidant? Here’s some additional good news. We found that both long-term pastors and those just entering the ministry score similarly high for emotional intelligence. Both groups are in the above average range and there is no statistical difference between the two groups. Here’s the downside: Both experienced and beginner pastors need to broaden their conflict management repertoire. Pastors, in general, are far more likely to accommodate (to give in to others and sacrifice their own needs) and far less likely to compete (to assert their own position regardless of other’s needs) than their congregants. Some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t being a good Christian all about turning the other cheek, being willing to sacrifice and not win at the expense of others?” It depends. Our experience shows that pastors take their conflict styles to an extreme so that they end up selling out their opinions, even when they are a matter of principle in order to appease others. Over time such a practice can lead to disillusionment and burnout.
A more nuanced look finds that those clergy who came to North Central because of difficulties in their ministry scored lower than other clergy on three dimensions of emotional intelligence: self-actualization (the ability to fulfill one’s potential), happiness (the ability to experience joy on a day-to-day basis), and impulse control ( the ability to manage one’s impulses and not overreact). By the time they seek outside help, they are often feeling ineffective, sad, and a bit on edge. They may also have gotten into a bit of trouble by acting without thinking (reacting) when they are feeling emotionally drained.
- How can pastors improve their skills at managing their emotions in the midst of conflict? The data from our study are clear. Of the five conflict management styles on the Thomas-Kilmann inventory (collaborating, compromising, competing, accommodating, and avoiding), the two dimensions that predict to lower scores for emotional intelligence among pastors are the overuse of accommodating and avoiding. By developing other conflict skills, especially when things are calm, clergy can be more flexible in intense situations that require them to think on their feet.
So how does one move beyond accommodating and avoiding? Learning concrete behavioral skills through continuing education and coaching are two options. Another approach is to practice becoming more assertive and independent in decision making as part of one’s day-to-day interpersonal style. Our research also shows that individuals who possess these qualities tend to rely less on accommodating and avoiding when conflict arises.
A final recommendation is to focus on the development of problem solving skills. Interestingly, in the study we published two years ago, we found that the lowest score for seminarians on the BarOn EQi (BarOn Emotional Quotient-Inventory)is problem solving, or the ability to think things through logically and systematically. This is also the lowest score for more experienced clergy. By learning to step back and think things through, pastors can avoid being driven by their emotions, gain perspective on a problem, generate options and solutions, and stay grounded. This is a skill that can be learned!
Want to learn more? Read Susan’s article Leading into the Promised Land and listen to Susan and Mark’s podcast conversation with Greg Meland, Director of Formation, Supervised Ministry and Placement at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, MN.
Adapted from Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry by Barbara J. Blodgett, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.
A Generous Presence: Spiritual Leadership and the Art of Coaching
by Rochelle Melander
Rochelle Melander brings the lessons and insights of the coaching world to ministers and other spiritual leaders in a way that is uplifting and relevant for their work. The tools provided in this book will help leaders understand themselves and enable them to strengthen their definitions for healthy living, raise their awareness about their own life and relationship skills, and improve their skills in relating to individuals and groups.
Gifts of an Uncommon Life: The Practice of Contemplative Activism
by Howard E. Friend, Jr.
This book of ten essays is a breath of fresh air, a source of inspiration, a wake-up call, and a bold challenge for pastors, congregational leaders, and church members—both active and lapsed—who long for a new perspective, even a touch of creative irreverence. Howard Friend offers forthright, at times disarming, candor as he shares his personal pilgrimage of activism rooted in contemplation. Drawing on a range of stories from the Bible and his own lived experiences, Friend invites us to meet real people—pastors, leaders, everyday folks—who dare to dream a new dream, journey toward a far horizon, walk with tireless determination, and press on with awesome hope.
Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly
Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.
The Grace of it All: Reflections on the Art of Ministry
by F. Dean Lueking
Dean Lueking shares the fruits and foibles of his 50 years in parish ministry, 44 of them in the same congregation, Grace Lutheran in River Forest, Illinois. A lively storyteller, Lueking writes as the wise friend and colleague every pastor would hope to have. He gives life to a truth many congregational leaders will recognize: a congregation never stands still but is at once new and old, vexing and inspiring, lively and dull. It is life-giving year after year, in quiet moments and in open view.