Last year, after 15 years in management and a lifetime in the church, I left my job as a human resources vice president in a Fortune 500 company to answer a call that had been forming for several years. Through prayer and self-assessment, I realized that my gifts and passions centered around helping leaders identify their most important goals and create action plans for reaching them. I am now an executive coach working with leaders and managers in companies such as Capital One, NiSource, and Pfizer. But there is a twist to my coaching practice: I spend about 30 percent of my work time in churches with pastors and lay leaders.
As a coach drawing on both business and faith experience, I am struck by how lessons learned in one arena can be applied to the other.
The Shared Risk of Burnout
I have a theory that most pastors did not go to seminary because they had a desire to lead complex organizations. They went for reasons of call and from a desire to serve God through ministry. It is hard, though, to think of a more complex leadership challenge than pasturing the average church congregation. In Personality Type and Religious Leadership, Roy Oswald and Otto Kroeger1 point out some of the myriad roles that pastors are expected to play: leader, communicator, teacher, comforter, public relations manager, administrator, conflict resolution specialist, counselor, fundraiser, social coordinator, strategic planner, and trainer. That is an overwhelming list of responsibilities. When you add roles not mentioned by Oswald and Kroeger—such as manager, team leader, and coach—the list is even more daunting.
Most corporate managers are allowed to specialize and focus a bit more than the average pastor. Their jobs, however, are demanding in their own way. I have found that the overriding emphasis of managers is on achieving results, in areas like completing a project, reducing costs, increasing market share, or meeting earnings projections. In today’s financial markets, results are framed in terms of calendar quarters, annual budgets, or three-year plans. Too often, the effect of this short-term focus is a sense of burnout and lack of purpose. Many managers are looking for a larger meaning in what they are doing, and most do not find it in the next quarterly earnings report.
Pastors, on the other hand, are working in the exact space where the burned-out manager should look for deeper meaning. As opposed to the manager’s emphasis on results, the focus of most pastors is on relationships—at the most sublime level, on the quality of the congregant’s relationship with God. Skilled and experienced pastors also seek to establish and strengthen relationships among their congregants. In relationship with God and others, the pastor’s flock has the opportunity to find purpose and meaning in life.
But what of the pastors? The Alban Institute estimates that a large percentage of pastors suffer from emotional and career burnout. Many more experience some level of frustration in their work. Undoubtedly, there are many reasons for this. A common source of frustration for pastors is the feeling that they are not making the difference through their ministry that they had hoped they would. Put another way, they are not satisfied with the results they are seeing.
Relationships and Results
Many executives could benefit from stronger relationships, while many pastors could benefit from stronger results. Relationships and results both come from God. If we are in alignment with God’s will, we can expect both strong relationships and positive results. As in most things, though, success is achieved through experience. In the areas of relationships and results, pastors and executives can learn from each others’ experience. First, let me address what pastors can teach executives about relationships.
Ironically, the specialized knowledge and results-orientation that help most managers and executives rise to their positions and not enough to sustain them. Long-term success in the business world is based on fully applying one’s talents to the accomplishment of meaningful goals. To do that, managers must show a sincere commitment to building relationships in the workplace. The best pastors model this relational orientation. They demonstrate it by viewing people as ends in themselves rather than means to an end, by listening for the hidden needs and hopes of others, and by helping people understand that they are loved and they are here for a special purpose that utilizes their God-given gifts and potential.
The ultimate role model in this regard is Jesus as a leader of his disciples. Think for a moment about how Jesus led the Twelve. He provided an inspiring purpose: “I will make you fishers of men.” He took time to teach them through instruction and example. He modeled the behavior he expected of them. He gave constructive feedback and built them up. He was clear about what was most important. In the larger community, he included those who tried to do better and corrected those who limited the potential of others. In this way, Jesus built strong, empowering relationships with his disciples.
Learning From Managers
Pastors can learn from some common practices of successful, results-oriented managers. First, managers are very clear about goals and objectives: They understand what they are trying to accomplish and how they will measure the results. Second, they communicate these goals and standards, so that everyone is clear about expectations and accountability. Third, good managers understand that their role is to set direction and coordinate the work of others rather than to do all of the work themselves. Fourth, when problems or issues develop, effective managers address them sooner rather than later. Finally, the best managers provide feedback to their team members. When things are done well, they point that out, applauding actions that support the goal and encouraging the team to stay the course. Conversely, when a team member’s actions do not support the goal, effective managers explain why a change in approach is required.
The steps that successful managers take to get results are not necessarily at odds with the relationship-building skills shown by the best pastors. To the contrary, I believe that a well-grounded approach to achieving results combined with a sincere relational orientation is the foundation of both healthy businesses and healthy congregations.
Goals provide focus as well as guidance in resource allocation. In setting goals together, a congregation defines its priorities. Like leaders in business, pastors must guide their congregations in setting priorities. As part of the goal-setting process, the pastor should ask questions of the staff, lay leadership, and other congregants that will help everyone prayerfully determine what success looks like.
Clarifying questions might include:
- What opportunities has God put before us?
- How do our gifts and resources equip us to address those opportunities?
- What do we need to accomplish to fully meet those opportunities?
By involving a representative cross-section of the staff and congregation in goal setting, pastors can build commitment and accountability around the church’s priorities. Likewise, it is vitally important for pastors to actively involve the congregants as the church’s priorities are addressed.
The list of pastoral roles presented earlier in this article match up fairly closely with the various spiritual gifts Paul discussed in his letters. It is important to remember that while all of us have gifts, none of us has all the gifts. This is as true for pastors as it is for laypeople. By involving the laity in accomplishing congregationa
l priorities, pastors free themselves to play from their strengths while enabling others to grow in their own gifts.
As people work together to accomplish a goal, they need to hear regularly what is going well. Pastors can play an invaluable role in spiritual and leadership formation by unhesitatingly and publicly offering sincere praise as congregants and staff achieve results and build relationships.
On the other hand, very few undertakings go smoothly from start to finish. Making adjustments and corrections is part of the process. Because of their relational emphasis, pastors are sometimes reluctant to call for or take corrective action as soon as it is needed. But, when offered in the spirit of Christian love, correction can be a valuable component of spiritual growth. Again, Paul provides strong examples of this in his letters to the church at Corinth. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes the believers to task for their infighting and lack of focus on what is most important. As chapter 12 concludes, he writes, “and now I will show you the most excellent way.” From there, of course, he writes a beautiful description of the behaviors that together compose Christian love. In these chapters, Paul provides a model for giving good feedback in a tone that is firm yet loving.
In following Paul’s example, pastors should offer constructive feedback in private and in a timely fashion. A reliable method is to point out to the recipient the behavior that is impeding progress, note its impact, then assure the person of your support going forward.
Lessons to be Learned
When intent is pure and purpose is clear, pastors can sustain and even strengthen relationships while seeking results. In the end, sustainable results, whether in the business world or the world of faith, are facilitated by rich communication. Goal setting, role clarification, accountability checking, and constructive feedback are all functions of good communication. When practiced with love and compassion, this kind of communication always builds up relationships.
Pastors can learn from business executives to intentionally apply communication tools to achieve results in Kingdom work. Executives can learn from pastors how to be more relational as they strive for results. When leaders in any field bring together a relational orientation with a results orientation, good things begin to happen.
The author offers special thanks to Rev. Tom Berlin of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, for his valuable insights in the preparation of this article.
1. Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, Inc., 1998.