The first position I took as a solo pastor was in a suburban, pastoral-sized congregation with two Sunday services and a combined attendance of one-hundred-forty people. The parish had always had male senior pastors until the female interim, who was the minister immediately before my arrival. Three women had served as associate clergy during the tenure of the two previous pastors.
When I was hired, the parish search profile said that the congregation wanted and needed more than one professional minister. The budget had funds designated for a part-time youth minister with the expectation that we would hire someone in that role shortly after my arrival. After sixth months, funds became available to sustain a twenty-five-hour-per-week professional position. The board made the decision to hire an assistant pastor. I informed the leadership that all other things being equal, I would prefer hiring a woman. I seemed to have the support of the church board because a woman as preacher and worship leader would complement my ministry in those roles.
I was excited about the prospect of having a colleague. The amount of work was growing, and the liturgical, pastoral, and outreach demands were considerable. The lay leaders and I had begun to review resumes and schedule interviews. And then it happened.
A church member who had served in various capacities at the church for more than forty years wrote a letter to the board. She placed the letter in all the board members’ mailboxes at the church, intentionally omitting my mailbox. The letter was five pages long, handwritten, and signed. It made a strong case for a youth minister and then demanded that this person not be a clergyperson and not serve as assistant minister. It said that I had not been pastor long enough to deserve an assistant and that as we knew from politics, senior people hired assistants to do their work for them. I was smart enough to know that this letter was not about me, and yet I was still enraged. What happened at the board meeting only made me angrier.
Though we had a lot of other business on the agenda, the board spent more than two hours discussing this woman’s letter. During the discussion, a few people began to discuss the fact that the previous pastor’s work had overlapped with the work of one of the assistants. They noted that both the pastor and the assistant occasionally visited a hospitalized parishioner together. They suggested that this was an unnecessary duplication of ministry. I agreed and said that it would never occur to me to have two clergy make a visit at the same time to a hospitalized parishioner, though we might alternate visits. Several other issues were raised and examined. In the end, the board decided to continue with the hiring process.
I had spoken very little during the meeting. This was the first bump in the road since I had begun serving this congregation. I was quiet in part because I wanted to listen and to observe how the members of the board would deal with this issue. I suspected that I would learn more at this meeting about the health of the congregation and the competence of the lay leadership than I had learned in the entire six months I had been at the church.
At the end of the meeting, I told them that I had learned a great deal during the discussion and that there were some significant things that puzzled me. Primarily, I was puzzled as to how they had allowed one person to hijack more than two hours of their time. I cautioned that if the board continued to second-guess their carefully thought-out decisions in this way, we were in store for a lot of long, unproductive meetings. I asked them if they would be willing to meet the next week for two hours with only one agenda item—to talk about how they had come to second-guess their decision and to allow their regular agenda to be taken over. I said I had some ideas about what had taken place, and that I wanted to learn with them about how to prevent this from happening again. With less reluctance than I had anticipated, they agreed to meet.
Much of what was going on in this situation was unstated and perhaps even outside the awareness of the participants. Like an iceberg, 90 percent of the substance was below the surface. I believe the core of what people do not see often has to do with the emotions of the participants in a story. So to grasp the full story, we need to uncover the role that feelings play in individual and community transformations. Feelings carry with them information we need about how to act in a situation. Because our reasoning skills are finely honed, we often rely on them to the exclusion or impairment of our affective abilities. Becoming affectively competent means that we develop a repertoire of skills to employ in addition to our reasoning skills and our imaginations. Affective competence helps us and those with whom we are engaged get what we need from an interaction, especially when repeated attempts to reason through a situation come up empty. Put simply, when you find yourself having the same intellectual exchange with another person for the third time, trying to convince them of the importance of your idea, it is likely the problem is not intellectual but emotional. The source of the discrepancy is not in the cognitive realm but in the affective dimension of the interchange.
The difficulty in becoming emotionally literate is that most of us have been taught to be suspicious of our feelings, not to trust them. I believe that built into Western society is a tendency to view thinking as clearer and more important than feeling when it comes to learning and engaging in transformation. Because many of us are emotionally illiterate, we do not know or value the range of our emotional capabilities. And because of this we are affectively incompetent, that is we do not know how to use our emotions and the emotional abilities of others to bring about transformation.
Emotional literacy is knowing what feelings are congruent with the stimulus I am experiencing. It can also apply to the capacity to notice when another person’s feelings may seem incongruent with a particular stimulus. If I suspect such an incongruity, I can inquire about it, though it is up to the other person to discern the harmony or disharmony between the stimulus and the feeling. Emotional literacy is a discipline that requires much practice. It is a form of self-focus that may seem artificial until one has grown accustomed to it over time. Practicing self-focus may require slowing down an interaction and taking the time to ask myself what I am actually feeling and what I need before reacting to what someone else says. Getting in touch with my most genuine feeling, and its attendant message, may give me more options for speaking or acting in a situation and lead to a different quality of interaction.
When the board met the following week, a palpable tension was in the air. I suspected board members were embarrassed that they had spent so much time discussing the letter from the disgruntled member. Perhaps some were also angry that I had called them to account. I thought that this might be a watershed meeting, and I feared the water might be a tsunami that would wash away my credibility with the board. I was also excited. I thought that if things went well, we would establish a deeper working relationship.
When the meeting began, I asked the board members if they could tell me how it was that they let go of their agenda for the previous meeting and spent more than two hours talking about the letter. After a variety of comments, I asked them if they would be willing to entertain another explanation. They wanted to hear my idea.
I explained that when I was interviewed for the position of pastor, I did some research. I found out that the pastor that preceded me got divorced just about a year before he resigned from the church and took another job. Two years later, just before I was hired, he got married to one of his
former assistants. They, of course, knew the story. The pastor before him had broken his marriage and ordination vows by becoming involved in a relationship with a parishioner, thus abusing the trust placed in him as her pastor. He was forced to leave the parish by the judicatory. They knew that story as well. I said I thought the resistance to my hiring an assistant was because most people knew I likely would hire a woman, all other things being equal. I said I believed that people were afraid that I would divorce my wife, leave my two small children, and marry the newly hired female assistant.
The first response to my statement was a nervous “You’ve got to be kidding” sort of laughter from many in the group. I said that I really believed fear was behind the letter. After I explained my hunch by giving some examples to the group one man said, “It didn’t occur to me at all until you mentioned it. But now I think you may be on to something. At least we ought to talk about it.” And so we did, for nearly two hours.
This story is an illustration of the power of feelings and the tendency of most groups to ignore feelings and focus on intellectual or cognitive explanations for nearly everything. It might be that the anger directed at me by the long-time parishioner was not simply misdirected anger that was meant for the former pastor. She may have been substituting anger for sadness or fear. It may be that this woman was sad that she had lost a beloved pastor. She may have felt scared that it would happen again. The board may also have been trying to keep peace. They were certainly working very hard to find a way to placate the author of the letter without dealing with any of their own fears, anger, or sadness.
As a result of that follow-up meeting where we explored the feelings behind the letter and the board’s response, we were transformed into a tighter community of individuals and worked more effectively. Board meetings that had lasted three-and-a-half hours under previous pastors rarely went beyond two hours. A woman assistant was hired within the month. The focus of her ministry was youth work. She and I both made hospital visits, but not together. She and I are still happily married—but not to each other!
Adapted from God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences by William M. Kondrath, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences
by Willam M. Kondrath
Theologically and ecologically, differences foster life and growth, but discord within denominations and congregations frequently has to do with the inability of individuals and groups to deeply understand and value differences. In God’s Tapestry, Kondrath shows us how to embrace our true multiculturalism. He demonstrates a threefold process for becoming multicultural: recognizing our differences; understanding those differences and their significance and consequences; and valuing and celebrating those differences.
Practicing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation
by Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith
In a book that is both profound and practical, Mary Sellon and Daniel Smith make the case that the health of churches and synagogues depends on congregations learning how to live out love in “right relationships.” Practicing Right Relationship offers theories, stories, and tools that will help congregations and their leaders learn how to build and maintain the loving relationships that provide the medium for God’s transforming work.
The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving Well
by Ronald D. Sisk
Competence in ministry is a moving target. A ministry technique that works in one parish may not work in another. What works today may not work five years from now. But a competent pastor will be able to adapt to changing locations and changing times. This book is intended to help pastors, seminarians, and lay people who work with pastors understand themselves and others and to keep a realistic perspective on their work and their lives.