In her Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, historian Debby Applegate tells the story of how Beecher became, during the middle of the nineteenth century, deserving of Abraham Lincoln’s claim that he was “the most influential man in America.” His passionate preaching against slavery made him a champion of the abolition movement, and in the fight for racial justice, he was a forerunner to an even more famous clergyman of recent times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Beecher, the son of a “fire-and-brimstone” preacher who early in life appeared unpromising compared to his more talented siblings, spent most of his career as a parish pastor preaching a gospel of unconditional love. His most enduring pastoral labors built Brooklyn’s Plymouth Congregational Church into one of the country’s most dynamic congregations. And although his later years were tainted by allegations of infidelity with a parishioner, his leadership was undeniably a powerful ecclesiastical and cultural force that changed people’s lives and paved the way for modern American Christianity.  

Pastoral leaders, whether saintly or even deeply flawed, have transformed the world in sometimes visible, and much more often quiet ways for two thousand years. Pastoral leadership can and should be nothing less than a fundamental resource in healing and saving the world. 

How to carry out that important leadership, however, is not so clear. Human diversity and the wide range of theological and ecclesiastical expressions of the ministry of Jesus Christ foster an incredibly rich spectrum of strategies and tactics for the exercise of pastoral leadership. Effective pastoral leaders today will likely draw upon a wealth of leadership theories and tools, but the fundamental focus of their work—their fruit—must be transforming the lives of people, churches, and the world. 

Fruitful pastoral leaders are not only faithful stewards of the talents they have been given; their leadership will also have lasting impact in the lives of people, congregations, and communities. No one leader provides a universal model for effective ministry, of course. All carry out their diverse ministries in ways congruent with their own personalities, their skills, and the distinctive situations in which they have been called to serve. Fruit is always grown and harvested locally, after all, and the leadership pastors offer and the results of their work are no exception.  

Excellent pastors inevitably have specific skills in ministry that contribute to their effectiveness. Being an engaging preacher, providing sensitive pastoral care to members, running effective meetings, conducting lively worship services, teaching interesting classes—skills like these are central to pastoral success. Beneath these skills, however, are the more important qualities of personality and practice of leadership that foster enduring transformation. Such leadership may take different forms in each situation, of course, but the pattern of pastoral leadership that characterizes excellent pastors always seems to include at least the following seven elements: 

  • They feel called to holy purpose. Vision and purpose go hand in hand. Vision is born of imagination, an ability to see beyond present circumstances and resources. Through deft skill, determined force of will, and persuasion, often leavened by heroic courage, leaders engage those around them in the pursuit of such an ideal, invigorating people and organizations in ways that bring to life that which began as a mere idea in the leader’s mind.  
  • They are dependably authentic. Authenticity is being who you really are, as fully and appropriately as possible. To be authentic is to recognize that we all have many aspects of self, just as a gemstone has multiple facets. For the apostle Paul, authenticity meant acknowledging the inner struggle between that which he wanted and that which he hated. For the psychologist Carl Jung, it was recognizing that the persona a person wears for the world masks the shadow, which is hidden from the world, and yet both are aspects of the whole self. Living with authenticity is to acknowledge that we are all complex beings who work to be in the world as honestly as possible, restraining in appropriate ways those parts of ourselves that may interfere with chosen purpose. 
  • They nurture trusting relationships. Pastors who have the courage to risk genuine authenticity and who nurture open relationships with a wide range of people are more likely to find their own lives enriched and their ministries enhanced. Enduring leadership thrives out of such an environment. For most ministers, formal or informal clergy peer groups are an accessible and effective means of growing in capacity for trusting relationships while also supporting and equipping participants for the work of ministry. 
  • They live as generous servants. Loyal service to people and to the standards of a profession is essential for the growth and maintenance of the church. Countless followers of Christ have faithfully served in such ways for centuries and so have extended the reign of Christ. These generous servants deserve to be celebrated. But the fruit of such service is greatly enhanced when accompanied by other characteristics of excellence in pastoral leadership, especially the gift of creativity, which emerges from sharing authenticity in warm human relationship. 
  • They have been creatively adaptable. Performing an adult baptism by immersion without drowning the convert, or understanding the complexities of biblical criticism or even a church budget—these are skills that can be taught and practiced. Leading a neighborhood church’s adjustment to serving an ethnically and economically changing neighborhood—truly adaptive change—requires more creative thinking and experimental action. Coping with a church’s longstanding systemic conflicts, which may even scapegoat the minister, calls on the depths of a pastor’s patience, insight, and resilience. Such pastoral challenges may require not only a significant deepening of those resources but also a creativity that envisions new possibilities for being church. 
  • They display disciplined persistence. Disciplined persistence may be out of vogue in this age of instant gratification. Becoming a “one-minute manager” generates more attention than developing strategic plans for the next ten or twenty or one hundred years. It’s not just sticking around for the long haul that makes a difference, though. It is also the disciplines of work and dedication to core values and regular prayer that make a lasting difference.   
  • They practice faithful spirituality. Spirituality must be practiced faithfully. It’s the constant attentiveness to spiritual dimensions of life and the thoughtful exploration of Scripture and theology and devotional literature that sustain the spirit, just as communication and chores and even arguments sustain a marriage beyond romantic nights of dancing under the stars.  


It is certainly possible to be an effective leader and exhibit only some of these characteristics, but these seven paths offer the best hope for practicing pastoral leadership that produces enduring results. Such excellence, like all sound ministry, begins with a vision for the future coupled with clarity about the minister’s own role in leading people toward that future. These practices are seldom included in a seminary curriculum; rather, they are charisms, gifts of God. But that does not mean they cannot be taught or strengthened or intentionally expanded and sustained. Equipping pastors to travel these paths is an urgent task of the church. 


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog    


Adapted from Pursuing Pastoral Excellence: Pathways to Fruitful Leadership by Paul E. Hopkins, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.   



AL410_SM 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.

AL388_SM Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership
by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones

Knowing your story is an essential component of effective leadership, but finding your story among the myriad narratives that fill your life isn’t a simple task. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones have offered a path to finding your own story amid the powerful family and cultural narratives that may be obscuring your vision. Know Your Story and Lead with It shows leaders how to explore their story of reality, tell it to other group members, and consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership. 

AL366_SM Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness     
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly

Four Seasons of Ministry serves as a guide for what you will find on your ministerial journey and gives meaning to the routine and repetitive tasks of ministry. Authors Bruce and Katherine Epperly invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a lifelong adventure in companionship with God, their loves ones, and their congregations.  

AL324_SM Leadership in Congregations  
Edited by Richard Bass

This book gathers the collected wisdom of more than ten years of Alban research and reflection on what it means to be a leader in a congregation, how our perceptions of leadership are changing, and exciting new directions for leadership in the future. With pieces by diverse church leaders, this volume gathers in one place a variety of essays that approach the leadership task and challenge with insight, depth, humor, and imagination.  

AL375_SM Cross-Shaped Leadership: On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice  
by John A. Berntsen

For Lutheran pastor John Berntsen, those who lead are subject to the cross no less than others. Cross-shaped leaders are not primarily the providers of master plans, nor are they master builders. Cross-shaped leadership is provisional, contextual, and fallible—an open-ended ministry that is always under construction and revision. Our moment-by-moment functioning in ministry is subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. But Berntsen offers hope and challenge in the midst of the rough and tumble of parish practice.  




Peers,Larry 120xClergy Wellbeing:
How to Balance Ministry and Life

February 1-3, 2011, Santa Barbara, CA
Facilitator: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant

Could you use just a little help in balancing your physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health as a clergy person? Join Larry Peers for a workshop designed to guide you through a review of your ministry with the aid of self-assessment instruments, coaching tools and processes, and peer- and individual-coaching as needed. 

Beaumont,Susan 120xStepping Up to Staffing and Supervision
March 1-3, 2011, Jacksonville, FL 
Facilitator: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant 

Supervising the work of others requires learning new skill sets.  No one is born knowing them, and yet supervisory skills are seldom learned during professional formation. Join Susan Beaumont at this important seminar for the pastoral leader who is stepping up into a supervisory role for the first time, or for the long time supervisor who wants to revisit best practices. 




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