Pastors, church leaders, and members at large are failing to form a basic partnership in the early months of new pastorates. They are neglecting to establish the bonds of rapport, trust-based relationships, and a spirit of mutuality.

This conviction stems from my experience in eight years as a parish consultant working with more than 100 congregations on leadership training, board development, clergy coaching, strategic planning, and new models for parish revitalization—all faith-based and spiritually grounded.

Often a church leader invites me in an initial telephone call to help a congregation address a problem or resolve a conflict. But the conflict, I often find, centers on a problem between pastor and church leaders, or between pastor and congregation. From my vantage point, a single dynamic, almost epidemic, occurs with alarming frequency.

A Failure to Form Trust 

A case in point: A mutual ministries committee chair called to express concern about the pastoral effectiveness of the congregation’s solo minister. After an initial two-hour meeting with the committee and the pastor, I invited them to read an essay of mine about conflict in churches, and to work with the Alban Institute’s “Five Levels of Conflict” assessment typology.(1) They identified the level of conflict as “significant but not insurmountable.” They conceded that damage had been done but insisted that reconciliation was possible. We began a four-month, two-phase process of one-on-one clergy coaching. I met with the pastor twice a month for two-hour sessions. A three-member team from the mutual ministries committee, the pastor, and I conducted a “recovenanting” process. Progress seemed slow, but steady and promising. Then a new crisis emerged, prompting the church council’s executive committee to meet with the bishop, the bishop’s assistant, and me. At one point I asked a provocative question: “Are you trying to re-establish a partnership relationship between the church and the pastor, or did such a relationship in fact ever exist?” Nods and comments around the circle suggested a consensus—that no effective partnership had formed in the first place.

I could cite similar situations from my consulting experience. My hypothesis is that basic, trust-based partnership relationships are failing to form between new pastors and their congregations, and that the impact is profound. Such has not always been the case, I would argue. I believe that a combination of factors has converged to create a phenomenon, not new but occurring now with greater frequency and intensity.

Six Factors at Play 

I suggest that some combination of the following factors, and no doubt others, coalesce to impede or abort formation of trust and partnership building between new clergy and congregations:

1. Professional roles, including that of pastor (priest, minister, rabbi), have lost their intrinsic prestige, position, and authority. One’s identity as a professional—a physician, a professor, a psychotherapist, or a lawyer, for example—carries far less weight than it did 15 or 20 years ago. In earlier years a level of esteem, respect, presumed character, competence, and authority accrued to the roles of professionals. Not only has that level of esteem diminished, but sarcasm and cynicism may have taken its place.

If esteem, respect, and authority were always a blend of implicit elements of the role and the respect earned by the efforts of the professional, the former ingredient has diminished, placing greater weight on the latter. Professionals increasingly must earn their esteem, respect, and authority. When a professional, in this case a clergy leader, is ineffective in eliciting these qualities, difficulty follows.

A colleague (a pastoral psychotherapist) puts it more cryptically. If a person lacks intrinsic authority and the capacity to elicit respect, esteem, and a sense of self-worth, then a profession might appear to be a “good place to hide.” In another era it was. But a professional role, in this case “being a pastor” (“The Rev.” on the letterhead, a name on the church signboard, formal introductions in public places, liturgical garb on Sundays) has lost its ability to serve as a “hiding place.”

Starkly put, too many clergy lack basic self-esteem, fail to command respect, and do not know how to project authority. Less and less often aided in these deficiencies by the role, the pastor finds that conflict in the church is an inevitable by-product. Consequently, many clergy are lost, confused, disoriented, frustrated, depressed, and angry.

2. Clergy often lack basic ego formation, clear self-definition, and a solid level of self-esteem—perhaps to a greater degree than the general population. Psychological profiles of clergy across denominational lines, observed over almost three decades, suggest that certain deficiencies in ego development are consistent and typical. In everyday terms, clergy struggle with self-image, self-worth, and self-esteem every bit as much as the general population, or more so. In and of itself, this finding need not be significant—except, as suggested above, clergy may be seeking to “hide” in a no-longer-viable professional hiding place. Clergy are often placed in feeling-laden situations with emotionally vulnerable people, settings where self-awareness and self-monitoring are crucial. No wonder so much inappropriate “acting out” by clergy has surfaced in recent decades. But because they are assumed to be psychologically strong, clergy often are often treated with interpersonal insensitivity, are not offered appropriate affirmation and nurture, and become isolated.

A double bind is evident. The pastor may have chosen the profession in search of a role that would ensure a fuller measure of recognition, appreciation, and affirmation. But since the profession necessarily identifies the minister as a leader “set apart,” and since, in a real sense, no true peer relationship is possible in a parish, the pastorate limits the flow of authentic recognition, appreciation, and affirmation.

Finally, although clergy often refer counselees to professional therapists when a troubled person’s psychological needs exceed the pastor’s level of expertise or the scope of the pastoral role, clergy seem reluctant to seek such professional treatment for themselves. It is part of the human condition to “carry psychological baggage,” to wrestle with unresolved psychological issues, and to project those issues onto others and onto present situations. But when a pastor does so unconsciously in emotionally difficult situations, the results can be damaging.

Starkly put, too many clergy are unaware of their psychological issues and act them out in disruptive, chaos-making, destructive ways. Such clergy behavior renders the formation of trust-based relationships and pastoral partnership almost impossible.

3. As the pendulum swings away from the pastor’s constant availability to parishioners, clergy may be overstating the “boundary issue.” I spend much consulting time working with pastors, usually over age 45 or 50, and their official boards, persuading them to eliminate from the pastor’s job description any requirements that promote overgiving, overfunctioning, workaholism, and an unrealistic distribution of time and energy. Whatever the psychological motivation, many older pastors have allowed themselves to be thoroughly accessible. Unable to say no to almost any demand, they stick their fingers in every pie and teeter on the constant edge of burnout. Often they and their families smolder with quiet resentment.

But in a younger generation the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. One parishioner put it strongly: “Pastor has made clear the four or five things in his life that have priority importance, but I don’t think the churc
h made the list!” I applaud the movement toward clergy self-care. I support a commitment to a reasonable workweek and a quantifiable job description, as well as a fair compensation package. I urge clergy not to list their home phone number in the Sunday bulletin, to develop protocols for getting in touch with the pastor, and to define ground rules for claiming the pastor’s time. But overstating these boundary concerns has, in some situations, implied that being a pastor is merely a job, a clock to punch, an agenda of tasks to address, and the church “the place where I go to work.” Some parishioners seeking access to the pastor feel like intruders or unwelcome interruptions. It is difficult to build a spirit of partnership with a pastor who seems to regard himself as a mere employee.

4. Many new pastors do not tend to the art of relationship building, of establishing basic rapport and pastoral conversation. My wife, a pastoral psychotherapist, will ask in an initial session what brought the client to therapy, invite some narrative and commentary, and likely have some immediate insights into the situation. But the real work of therapy must wait until the “therapeutic alliance” is built. The work of uncovering will continue. Feelings may begin to be expressed more vigorously. But the most urgent work of the early sessions is to develop a sense of safety, an ever-deepening trust, a foundation on which the weight of the later work can stand.

A manager newly appointed in a corporate setting, a supervisor to a new team of workers, or an administrator with clear goals to accomplish in her new role will stop by the offices of her fellow workers, linger at the coffee urn, strike up idle conversations, take a personal interest. She knows that effectiveness and productivity will be in direct proportion to the quality of relationships. A coach who has hopes for a winning season, maybe even a championship, wants to coax the highest and best from each player and to mold them into a team in the truest sense. He knows that the personal connection he forms with each player is an essential ingredient.

But clergy seem less and less apt—by instinct, training, or conscious decision—to do the same. A collusion aids this failing. Parishioners’ expectations may be naïvely high. They may extend no hand of greeting, issue no invitations to supper, and hold no welcoming event. People assume that the pastor has been to seminary and logged some pastoral experience and will know what to do. Pastors arrive with high hopes and often well-formed plans. They unpack the boxes, arrange the office, and get down to business.

But in my practice, I have yet to find a pastor who has formulated a start-up plan for relationship building. Having tea with the women’s circles, visiting church leaders in their homes, making a call on some older former church stalwarts, going on a walking or riding tour of the neighborhood—these seem a distraction from the real work of ministry. Little thought is given to the first month or two of sermons. Some of these pastors confessed to feeling personally ill at ease with “small talk” or chat. And none reported receiving either coaching or encouragement from a judicatory or seminary about forming personal relationships.

5. More and more clergy have been trained in, or at least exposed to, systems theory, but it is used by some to “explain” conflicts by blaming the “dysfunctional church.” A major contribution to understanding dynamics at play in a church has been made by systems theory. The pioneering work in general systems theory in the 1930s and 1940s; the family therapy movement, especially the work of psychologist Murray Bowen; and the translation and interpretation for congregations by people like Rabbi Edwin Friedman and writer Peter Steinke have all become an enormous resource for those seeking to work with congregations. We have all become familiar with the term “dysfunctional family.” We have learned that a person we might once have labeled a “problem person” may in fact be a “symptom-bearer” of a “dysfunctional family.” A new glossary of terms has entered the pastoral vocabulary.

But I think I am seeing what may be an unfortunate misuse of the material. When conflict arises between pastor and congregation, pastors frequently interpret it in terms of “them”—the “dysfunctional family.” The explanation is sweeping, comprehensive, and airtight. Blame is fixed, and the pastor is exonerated from responsibility. This position becomes frozen when church lay leaders, unfamiliar with systems theory, react by blaming the pastor—the “problem person.” Distance ensues, dialogue ebbs, blame intensifies, conflict builds, and a momentum toward irreconcilable differences accelerates.

I find it helpful to think of a “degree of dysfunction” in any person or system, including a congregation. We are “wounded healers”—some more wounded, more dysfunctional than others, but only in degree. Systems theory is best employed first as a lens of interpretation, a helpful assessment or diagnostic tool, a way to begin to make sense of things. Insight can then translate into strategy. Understanding can lead to effective action. A family therapist working from a systems perspective urges a client to take responsibility rather than fix blame.

6. Pastors of all ages have virtually no process leadership skills. “Process theory” entered the scene about 30 years ago under various names: experiential education, action/reflection learning, learning-through-discovery, group dynamics, sensitivity training, and process leadership. As an educational philosophy and method, it suggests that people learn better when they are active participants in the learning process—and that what is learned becomes more practical, applicable, and life-giving. What I “discover” is more meaningful than what I am “told.” And when I am able to learn from my life experience, I gain not isolated facts but an ongoing, self-motivated process. As an organizational philosophy and method, it suggests that a greater degree of ownership, thus of empowerment, develops when people participate in the decision-making, envisioning, goal-setting, and action-planning of congregations.

This process-centered approach has deeply penetrated educational systems and the corporate world, but it has failed, it seems, to influence the churches significantly. After a promising start in the ’60s and ’70s, its influence seemed to ebb.

Among the consequences is the inability of pastors to form partnership in the pastoral start-up phase. Pastors seem more inclined to “teach and tell” the truth from their particular theological bias and linguistic style, forgetting to be “quick to listen and slow to speak.” Even small groups, workshops, and discussion groups become a venue for the pastor to “hold forth.” People dutifully nod agreement but are excluded from a true learning process. Theological correctness displaces exploration and dialogue.

But the problem seems more telling on the organizational front. Many clergy arrive at a new church fresh from an enthusiastic reading of the latest and best of church-growth literature, or attendance at a church-growth seminar. They have forged a clear and exciting, usually biblically shaped, vision for the church. They have a clear mental picture of how the “church of the future” will look. It is good, it is right, it is urgent, and it is faithful. And they set about the task of explaining and implementing it. But—big surprise!—the response is unenthusiastic, even resistant, but most likely lethargic. The pastor defines his role and plays his part for the “new church.” The laity still live in the “old church.” The pastor has failed to engage and involve the membership in reflecting on ministry at the church, its strengths and weaknesses; in exploring New Testament models or those suggested by books and workshops; in
envisioning together new possibilities; or projecting plans for change. No partnership, no teamwork, no collaboration, and no consensus-building emerge.

A pastor can try to make decisions, announce a vision, set goals, publish a plan, assign roles—one style of leadership. Process leadership, on the other hand, teaches and guides a decision-making process, a way to envision together, a way to coax goals implicit in the shared vision, a process to craft a plan, an invitation to discern one’s calling and gifts to see where they may best be used. It seeks to motivate the broadest possible congregation-wide participation, which inspires ownership and empowerment.

1. Speed Leas, Moving Your Church Through Conflict (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1985), 19.