Jesus’s farewell words to his disciples recorded in the Gospel of John may contain both the most comprehensive and the simplest description of the call to fruitfulness in pastoral leadership. “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Out of the agrarian culture in which he lived, Jesus talked quite a lot about bearing good fruit, and the image of fruitfulness is a rich one throughout the New Testament. Fruitfulness emerges from a wonderfully complicated environment. Even a garden that began with orderly planting in straight furrows soon spreads into lush complexity. The roots and vines, leaves and blossoms, offer nourishment and protection that yield—when blessed by tender care and the fortunes of sun and rain and tiny bees—a bountiful harvest. It is a long and venturesome process, this planting and cultivating and waiting, its lineage extending back to creation and its practice sustained by relentless endeavor, patient hope, and complex relationships.

Graceful and growing faith requires careful planting, strong connections, loving care, and nourishment from diverse resources. Likewise, pastoral leadership requires planting and connections and care and resources to “bear fruit that lasts.” This milieu is the vineyard out of which fruitfulness emerges, and the whole church must protect and enrich that precious vineyard, as must individual pastors themselves. Caring for it is a shared responsibility as old as the first garden.

Four key elements are becoming recognized as imperative for the cultivation of enduring pastoral fruitfulness:

  • Systemic commitment to lifelong learning: Pastors must take the initiative to ensure that they are always refining their understanding of their fundamental purpose. This might mean writing or rewriting a personal mission statement or journaling about their unfolding discernment of God’s call for their lives. They must also examine their own authenticity to make sure they are living out of their true self in ministry and sharing that self with the community of faith. This process could include seeking therapy to identify and integrate the various and sometimes conflicting voices within. Pastors must develop skills through seminars, coaching, and mentoring relationships that can help them respond creatively to the challenges they are facing in ministry. Primary responsibility for a commitment to constant learning rests with the pastor. It is part of the cost of call. The responsibility for lifelong learning does not, however, rest on the pastor’s shoulders alone. This must always be a shared burden with the larger church, and the church in all its manifestations must continue to provide abundant resources for the continuing formation of pastors. Sharing responsibility for cultivating a community of lifelong learning is just one way that the church and its leaders must cooperate to ensure the proclamation and day-to-day enactment of the gospel. This is how ministry is practiced best—with mutual effort and expectant openness to God’s continuing creation.
  • Intentional connection to communities of shared practice: Families are one kind of “community of shared practice.” Children grow up in families learning core values and beliefs and rituals, and they internalize an understanding that “this is how the Smiths or McCraes or Jaramillos do things.” The influence of those traditions and evolving ideas and practices lasts for life. The church is a similar kind of community, one in which people are called to bear one another’s burdens, to recognize how the varieties of gifts God has bestowed belong to the same body, and to encourage one another in witness and service. At its best, the church might be described as a diverse and growing community of shared practice, whether conceived internationally, denominationally, ecumenically, or congregationally. Fruitful pastoral leaders understand the importance of being part of such communities, and they make sure they have regular continuing access to such groups. The most basic community of shared practice for Christians is, of course, the congregation. When the central relationship between pastor and congregation is working well, there will be reciprocal teaching and learning and encouraging and confronting as all seek to live out God’s call in their lives. But the demands of ministry and the peculiar relationship of pastors with parishes (employee/employer; leader/follower; servant/master?) require that pastors belong to other kinds of communities within which they might openly share ideas, hopes, and fears about the practice of ministry. This emphasis on mutual support for ministry is not an entirely new idea, of course. Religious leaders have sought to encourage and learn from one another ever since the eleven disciples huddled together in those agonizingly uncertain hours after the death of Jesus on the cross. What is new, however, is the increasing data from research attesting to the value of such groups for pastoral leaders and suggesting what works best. 
  • Careful stewardship of the leader’s own self: Pastors rarely misunderstand the mandate to love God and love neighbor, but they too often fail to grasp the full meaning of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus did not say “instead of yourself.” I suspect this misunderstanding is most often rooted in some misguided attempt to live sacrificially, although I fear it is frequently a works-driven quest for worth or reward that bears witness to a lack of trust in God’s grace. In my counseling practice I’ve seen hundreds of pastors over the years whose depression, physical maladies, spiritual burnout, and troubled family lives reflect their failure to love themselves as they love others. While Jesus’s warning in the Gospel of Matthew about bad trees’ bearing bad fruit was aimed at the dangers of false prophets (Matt. 7:15–20), the logic of his metaphor could surely be extended to the importance of pastors’ caring for themselves so that they might bear good fruit.
  • Strong roots and active exercise in a growing faith: The word ecology was coined by zoologist Ernest Haeckel in the nineteenth century, bringing together the Greek word for the “study of” something with oikos, which means “house” or “dwelling place.” The ecology of Christian ministry is always surrounded by Christ. This is both a theological affirmation and a mandate for practice. Life in ministry must constantly be grounded in the lively practice of faith and confident hope in God’s providence, even through the dark days of discouragement and loneliness that inevitably come for most pastors. Staying connected to the vine of Christ is the most essential task of pastoral leadership and sometimes the most challenging.


Both theologically and pragmatically, though, the formation of pastoral leaders is beyond precise human definition. How pastoral leaders bear fruit that lasts is ultimately a mysterious gift of God. Fruitfulness springs from tender and tangled branches watered and fed and pruned by the vine grower, the Creator who gracefully planted the vine from which the branches derive their capacity to bear fruit—bountiful and enduring.  


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.  

AL408_SM Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership   
by Bruce G. Epperly 

For more than thirty years, Bruce Epperly has followed the call of the spirit, moving through his vocations as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, seminary and university professor, and seminary administrator. Drawing on these experiences, he addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader; pastoral authority; the “honeymoon”; boundaries; death; the pastor’s spiritual life, health, and relationships; the role of the associate pastor; and continuing education. 

AL399_SM 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.  

AL365_SM Called for Life: Finding Meaning in Retirement   
by Paul Clayton

Called for Life  reflects on our calling to serve God and neighbor in the context of retirement. Clayton uses examples from his own experience and from others, laity and clergy, to explore retirement and the three components of our calling: our identity, our gifts, and our occupation. He also examines the role of community in our calling and retirement; the challenges of the transition into retirement; options for meaningful activity; the importance of identifying our purpose; doing and being in retirement; and the final call to death.   




Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision – SOLD OUT  
March 1-3, Maywood Center for Spirituality, Jacksonville, FL
Facilitator: Susan Beaumont 

Hotchkiss,Dan Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership  
April 5-7, Simpsonwood Retreat & Conference Center, Norcross, GA
Facilitator: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant and author of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership 

Skjegstad,Joy Community Ministry: Practical Models, New Resources  
May 3, Palmer Theological Seminary, Wynnewood, PA
Facilitator: Joy Skjegstad, author of Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church and Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry 

Wimberly, John_SM The Business of the Church: Faithful Ministry and Effective Management  
May 3-5, Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center, Asheville, NC
Facilitator: John Wimberly, author of The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management 

For a full list of educational seminars and other events, check out Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar  


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