“Churches are either plums or pills,” an older colleague once declared to me as I was discerning whether to accept a call to a certain congregation. “Make sure this one is a plum.” It would have been easier to figure out if he hadn’t mixed his metaphors, if I could have devised one taste test or blind study to determine a plum or a pill. Another experienced pastor was more helpful: “Churches have either problem-making or problem-solving cultures.” Healthy churches find ways to address the challenges they face without degenerating into toxic conflict. They build confidence over time that they have the spiritual and relational resources necessary to make the community of Christ a witness to the promise of new creation and not a lingering sign of the sin and sickness of a world passing away.
Healthy congregations ought to reproduce themselves. We want their kind to propagate. Unhealthy congregations can get healthy, but they certainly should not expect a pastoral residency program to cure what ails them. That would be like a married couple deciding to have children as a way of resolving conflict between them. The effect of that will more likely be that they will teach another generation to repeat the same mistakes they have made.
Churches that host pastoral residency programs have a formative effect on young ministers in the way those future pastors come to view the church as well as how they develop their skills in serving it. If the church they train in is a healthy congregation, it will instill a vision of vitality and sound functioning in the novice pastor that will remain for years to come.
When Wilshire Baptist Church was discussing whether to call me as pastor in 1989, a line of questioning arose about my youth and inexperience during a congregational meeting. “Is he up to the challenge of leading a large church like ours?” they asked. After some back and forth about my age and maturity, about whether I could grow into the job, and so forth, an elderly deacon rose to speak from the back of the room. “It seems to me that we are putting the question the wrong way. It’s not a matter of whether he’s up to the challenge; it’s whether we are. Great pastors don’t make great churches,” he said. “Great churches make great pastors.”
Conversely, churches that find themselves in perpetual conflict have a way of taking the heart out of a pastor. Pastoral ministry is challenging to begin with. It requires sacrifices small and large. Pastors have to persevere. They shouldn’t expect congregational Camelot, given that even a church founded by Christ and animated by his Spirit is a human institution. But like families that fall on a continuum between functional and dysfunctional, pastoral residency work is most successful in a church that is more life-giving than life-draining.
How then do you determine whether your church is healthy enough to move further down the road of discernment toward initiating a residency program? Many have attempted to assign markers to what constitutes a healthy church. These attempts generally reflect the theological or denominational tradition in which the expert has been formed. Or perhaps the definitions of health are sociological and financial. But is a church that is growing numerically and monetarily automatically a healthy church? Or course not. They may have fleeting appeal. Healthy churches are deep and wide both. They have spiritual depth and increasing scope.
The more important question of congregational health may be whether it experiences itself as a spiritual community of well-being. Two questions for congregational reflection to that end may be:
- Does the church have a long record of holding together through times of dispute, or have church splits been the key to ever-narrowing unity? People will come and go in every church. Conflict increases the likelihood that people will leave the membership. Sometimes people will join the church after that time, partly due to a clearer congregational identity. But if the church has a history of splitting, it would not possess important resources to share with a novice pastor about how to help a congregation work through its challenges and stay together. Stability is a bedrock virtue of a congregation that is ready to begin a residency program.
- Is there evidence that the church has an adventurous spirit that can try new things? If the virtue of stability keeps a church grounded, creativity defies gravity. Churches need this kind of tension between being security minded, which assures continuity, and risk-taking, which adds vitality and opens the church to new possibilities. Every venture does not have to succeed in order to be successful. Because the church is not a business per se, it doesn’t have to show a financial return on investment in order to justify a new ministry. Because the church is the body of Christ that is ever dying and rising again, it can risk itself for the sake of the gospel and find that the very venture undertaken that looks to some like failure may in fact have transformed the lives of those involved, making it successful in spiritual ways. But if a church has no history of risking failure by attempting new things, it will have a hard time creating a pastoral residency program that will demand much of the congregation.
Healthy churches are congregations that keep stability and creativity in tension. They hold together the tried and true with the untried and new. They imagine what may be without neglecting what has been. They exercise prudence and faith at the same time.
This article is adapted and excerpted from Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy by George Mason, copyright © 2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Amid the widespread discussion about “the future of the church,” an important point is sometimes overlooked: tomorrow’s church will depend to a great extent on the new pastors of today who will serve and guide our churches in the years ahead. George Mason’s Preparing the Pastors We Need: Reclaiming the Congregation’s Role in Training Clergy makes a timely intervention, asking us to redefine pastoral leadership by analyzing how, in fact, pastors are made in the first place.
Becoming the Pastor You Want to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.
The Spirits Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry
by Malcolm L. Warford
The Spirit’s Tether: Eight Lives in Ministry tells the stories of eight men and women from their days as students at Union Theological Seminary in New York through their work today as pastors in local congregations over thirty years later. Since 1976 when they entered Union, Malcolm L. Warford has documented their experiences, first in theological education and then through their ministries. Finally, he has asked them to reflect on their vocational journeys and express what their calling has meant to them personally and professionally. The book reveals eight richly textured narratives full of the insight, heartache, and delight that go hand in hand with the practice of ministry—unvarnished truths from eight who have been formed by this work and calling.
Shaping Spiritual Leaders: Supervision and Formation in Congregations
by Abigail Johnson
Supervision—the shaping of spiritual leaders—occurs formally and informally in many aspects of congregational life. Johnson views supervision as a ministry and shows how leaders can use their own innate gifts to enhance their supervision skills. By shaping the supervision relationship based on the gifts of the people involved as well as the context in which the relationship occurs, supervision can become an opportunity for mutual growth and learning that strengthens all other areas of ministry.
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Raising the Roof: The Pastoral-to-Program Size Transition in Congregations
July 16-17, 2013, Cincinnati
Leader: Sarai Rice, Alban consultant
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