When I speak at seminaries about leadership and management in congregations, professors usually need to be somewhere else, and students tend to doze. To wake them up, I mention a favorite topic, “ministerial authority.” Seminarians love to talk about the potent symbolism of the clergy role, and to picture people looking up at them projecting issues properly belonging to their parents. They reflect gravely on the special powers and obligations that the hands of ordination will load onto their heads.
On the whole this kind of talk is harmless; at best it gets some silly notions out of the way early. Seminary is the last occasion most students will have to fret about the perils of excessive clergy power. After graduation, those who take congregational positions mostly worry about how they are doing and all the things that measure that: praise, thanks, headcount, lack of controversy, money.
Money is what economists call a “lagging indicator” of congregational performance. (Attendance is a leading indicator.) This is because giving money is one of the last things most people start to do as they become active in a congregation. Blessedly, it is also one of the last things they stop doing—often long after they have left for good.
Money surely is an indicator—the hard question is, what does it indicate? For many clergy, the answer we learn early in our ministries leads us astray later.
Between the seminary chatter about ministerial authority and the attention most of us pay to our own competence, we learn somewhere that success or failure in the ministry is mostly about us and our performance. Up to a point, that’s true. But like most forms of career success, taking too much satisfaction in the excellence of our performance as a soloist eventually leads us to the brink of our own incompetence. At some point—whether because of congregational growth, a shift to a denominational staff role, or simply because people expect something different from an older person—we need to become conductors, or at least ensemble players. We need to shift our source of primary satisfaction from our own ministry to our contribution to the ministry of others.
The most concrete measure of our success in this is, as in so many other matters, money. In the phenomenon economists call “leverage,” by building up the ministries of others, a leader’s own effectiveness expands beyond its prior limits. Seen crassly, a large congregation is a bit like multi-level marketing: lots of people do a lot of work, and the results—in terms of reputation, salary, and recognition—trickle upward. The corporate body concentrates the revenue and capital it needs to attract talent, undertake new ventures, and accept risks.
Clergy who don’t make the shift from soloist to ensemble player block the growth of congregations and the progress of their own careers as well. The seeming cause of the block may be the lack of money—for staff, seating, parking, space, and other kinds of growth capacity. Clergy complain about the lack of money, but in many cases we ourselves are part of the reason things bog down. We keep on asking “Am I succeeding?” when we should be asking “How am I helping others to succeed?”
Many of us begin our ministry careers in smallish places full of people wiser than ourselves. It was certainly that way for me: my first church was in Boca Raton, Florida where I was six years younger than the youngest other person. I marvel, looking back, at how that mostly older congregation put up with my inept posturing and anxious focus on myself and whether I was doing well or poorly. Some of them were patient, others not, but as a group they mostly managed to steer me out of trouble while taking advantage of the motivated energy of a young man with a lot to prove. Far from projecting their parental issues, most of them saw me as a stand-in child or grandchild, and through their praise encouraged me to focus too much on my solo performance.
That congregation suffered from a combination punch—the ambition of a rookie minister combined with the anxious ego of a young adult. Many clergy nowadays begin at mid-life, which may spare their first congregations somewhat, but for them, too, the venue usually is small. In a small congregation, especially pastoral-size churches (attendance 50-150, counting kids), the focus tends to be on how the pastor is performing. When that is the pastor’s focus also, as it often is with newly minted ones of any age, the learning can be strong: the minister’s performance is the measure of the ministry, and all measures of the ministry, including money, reflect back on the minister.
As a consultant, the surest way I know to be sure what size-category a congregation falls into is simply to ask a group of leaders “How’s it going?” Members of a family-sized congregation talk about how much they love each other (or how much they don’t). In program- or corporate-sized congregations they talk about new ministries or programs they’ve started (or how such projects have bogged down).
In pastoral-sized congregations—the size most mainline Protestant ministers start in—they say how well (or poorly) they think the main clergy leader is performing. The clergyperson gives a similar response. It is a closed-loop system of feedback: the minister excels as a solo performer, and the congregation responds with praise. Both feel justified and both expect good outcomes.
There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the desired outcomes do not include growth, wide sharing of lay leadership, effective staff teamwork, a great increase in the congregation’s influence on the community, or building a strong institution that will stay strong even as it weathers the expected ups and downs of its successive clergy leaders. Nor is it likely that a congregation focused on the single contributions of its leader will achieve great increases in its ability to give, spend, or accumulate resources.
To lead a congregation to that kind of strength (or to be effective as a bishop, denominational executive, consultant, or member of a larger congregation’s staff team) requires a shift in the location of the clergy ego. The self-focus of the young adult or struggling novice can be helpful in its time and place, but at a certain point—signaled by the coming of midlife, or for some it is a call to wider ministry at a young age—the heart of a soloist needs to transform itself into the heart of a mentor, coach, and leader.
The transformation is a letting go: clergy who cross over spend much of their time coaching, encouraging, directing, and applauding others. At the same time it is an expansion of one’s own power to do ministry. There is a human limit to how much and how well an individual can perform, but there is no known limit to how many others a sufficiently devoted soul can ultimately influence.
“Relocating the Clergy Ego” originally appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Clergy Journal (www.logosproductions.com) and is reprinted with permission.
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