A pastor who sows his or her energy in community leadership often discovers that the work returns a harvest of benefits to the congregation, community, and pastor. We do not give, one would hope, so that we might get in return, but neither do we invest our limited time and energy unless we feel it will increase our effectiveness in ministry. In my community a local radio station recently began publishing a local-events magazine in an effort to increase advertising revenue. What caught my attention was the title—What’s in It for Me? Asking “What’s in it for me?” sounds a bit selfish, but asking “What’s in it for the Kingdom?” is a pretty good question. Here are a few of the benefits to my congregation and ministry I have found through participating in community leadership.
A Sense of Connection
Any time we expand our relationships, we cut into the sense of isolation common to all human beings. The greatest benefit I have received from expanding my ministry to include community leadership is the opportunity to meet others. Whether other community leaders have become good friends or simply acquaintances, these relationships have helped me to grow. Despite our working with people, many pastors have a profound sense of isolation. Though I enjoy many close relationships within my congregation, the roles we play as pastor and congregant are always part of the equation. Sometimes it’s refreshing to step out of my pastoral role, and when I’m in community meetings, I’m like my church members—a volunteer. I can choose what I want to do and with whom I’d like to work. Even when community folk ask me for advice about their congregations, it doesn’t seem like pressure. In fact, it often helps me to know that my congregation and I share many of the same struggles as other congregations and their leaders.
A Synergy of Resources
Expanding our relationships to include those in the larger community doesn’t benefit only the pastor; it also benefits the congregation. Like pastors, congregations can become isolated in their ministries. Even the most ecumenical congregations tend to rely upon denominations or other faith-based resources for programming needs or solutions to ministry challenges. Likewise, congregations that define themselves as nondenominational community churches tend to associate and exchange ideas with similar congregations. The problem with many of these church resources is that they are still one-size-fits-all. Pastors and congregations that actively participate in the community around them often discover new non-church-based ideas and resources that are working for other entities in their community.
Sources of Inspiration
Though we pastors hope our leadership in the community is encouraging and helpful, we often find that we are inspired as much as we inspire. Like all pastors, I am continually on the lookout for ways to illustrate biblical truths through contemporary examples. I have heard from more than one source that we pastors have a problem demonstrating how our grand thoughts can be put into daily practice. An honest congregant once said to me, “Mother Teresa is a great example, but when you use her, Billy Graham, or some of those other extraordinary saints, you set the bar higher than I can jump right now.” In other words, “Can’t you talk about someone to whom I can relate?” As I move around our community, I see people who are an inspiration to me, and with their permission I share their example with others. Though most of them humbly say that their stories aren’t all that different from anyone else’s, it is precisely their courage amid everyday life that inspires.
Stepping up to leadership in a different setting gives us the chance to hone our leadership skills in a personally less threatening environment. For instance, after chairing a particular United Way meeting, I left with a sense that something didn’t go quite right. I sought out a former United Way officer who had attended the meeting, shared my discomfort, and asked for his thoughts. He gently pointed out that I had run too quickly through some of the ideas brought up by others in deference to my own solution. Though his response was hard to hear, it seemed less of a threat to my professional life or personal well-being because it came from someone outside my congregation. Likewise, the kudos I received from the group when I confessed my mistake to the committee and reopened the discussion to include more ideas were easier to accept than those I receive from people who have a more personal stake in my ministry.
As we minister within our congregations, an unintended consequence can often be that we become isolated from anyone outside the church we serve. As I have expanded my involvement in the larger community, I have gained the opportunity to make friends with many people who have lost interest in, or never had an interest in, congregational life. One such person, a local businessman who had a negative impression of pastors, is now an active congregant who contributes a great deal of talent and support to our congregation. Because of a friendship that had developed through a community project, I had been invited to a party by a local businesswoman who was involved in a congregation but whose husband was not. After the party she called me and said, “My husband wants to have lunch with you because he doesn’t believe you’re a pastor.” We had lunch and began a friendship that continues to grow.
Even when a pastor’s involvement in community leadership doesn’t lead directly to the addition of new members, it can serve as a catalyst to church growth. For better or worse, every congregation develops a reputation within its community. We can either let the community develop its impression on its own—an impression that may or may not be accurate—or we can actively define ourselves.
Fitting the Pieces Together
Doing pastoral ministry often feels like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece fills in a bit of the puzzle and gives us clues to the next bit needed. The problem with our ministry puzzle, however, is that we don’t know how the final product will look. To further complicate matters, each book we read or workshop we attend offers us yet another piece to work in. We want to assemble an effective ministry, but sometimes it feels as if there are more pieces than we can fit into our picture. Practicing ministry requires sorting through the plethora of pieces available, finding those that fit into our unique style and place of ministry, and trusting God to reveal a beautiful picture in due time. We begin sorting through and fitting together the edges of our puzzle as we work through our sense of calling. We are given some help with the basic color schemes in the picture as we develop the ability to think theologically. But the practice of ministry is just that—practice. We pick up a puzzle piece and turn it every which way until we decide if it fits into our framework. If it fits, we build upon it. If it doesn’t fit, we either discard it, assuming it belongs to a different puzzle, or we keep it to the side in the hope that it might fit later.
Some pastors will look at community leadership and decide that it doesn’t fit into their picture of ministry at all. Others will sense that the color scheme is right but that they need to work on another piece of the puzzle right now. And others will find community leadership to be just the piece for which they have been searching. Many who decide that community leadership isn’t right for their ministry have a strong sense of the boundaries between the sacred and the secular. They rightly point out that you cannot simply take a secular leadership model, splash a little baptismal water on it, and expect it to advance the cause of ministry.
If a pastor decides that community leadership lies, at best, outside his or her skills or, at
worst, outside the boundaries of pastoral ministry, she or he certainly has the right to hand this responsibility off to others in the community. Pastors who choose to exercise leadership beyond the congregation, however, recognize that all of God’s world is sacred and hope to be agents of redemption. What these pastors often discover is that community leadership not only provides a piece for their ministry puzzle, but that their ministry in a congregation or other organization also fits into a larger puzzle in their neighborhood, town, or city.
Adapted fromLending Your Leadership: How Pastors Are Redefining Their Role in Community Life, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.
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