The wise among us will carefully consider the special aspects of the role of senior pastor in a large congregation before leaping into it. I have been uniquely privileged to serve in a variety of congregations—from rural to small town to a large congregation in a major city. Since 1983 I have been rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., where attendance on an average Sunday is about 600. It’s no megachurch, but certainly big and complex enough to fit into the company of large congregations. The perspective gained from a long-term pastorate in such a place may have some value for those who are considering a call to a similar ministry.
Most of us in congregational ministry are a little like Teddy Roosevelt, who is said to have wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. There is some ham in all of us, and the desire to play out our roles on a larger and better lit stage is tempting. It is tempting because it is rewarding, make no mistake about that. But there is more to be considered than what one might experience at moments of high liturgical drama. Many fine pastors have followed an upwardly mobile career track only to find themselves trapped in a gilded cage or leading a life of high-pressure misery. Neither God nor the Church is served in such circumstances, and the burned out wrecks of so many of our brothers and sisters are evidence that mishearing God’s call can be costly. But some do thrive in the role, and looking closely at them may provide some valuable insight.
My own journey to this calling wound through various judicatory roles while I was serving smaller congregations. Service on committees, helping to plan judicatory events and programs, and working with multiple constituencies unlike the basic homogeneity of a self-selecting congregation all served to introduce me to the large church pastorate. Discovering that I could understand reports, communicate effectively with strangers, and interpret budgets was personally satisfying but also an indication of aptitude for this ministry. The discovery that I liked politics—both in the literal sense of dealing in the affairs of people and in the common sense of getting things done in a system—was a major factor. I did not know that these involvements and discoveries were laying the groundwork for a certain ministry, but when it came time to consider the call to St. Alban’s, these points were a significant part of my “yes.” My “yes” was, of course, one of those holy guesses that make up a life of faith. I really did not know what I was getting into, but I have since learned some things about the joys and sorrows that attend large church ministry.
Consider Albert Schweitzer, the incredibly gifted physician, theologian, concert organist, and missionary who did so much to bring witness and relief to the people of Africa. I am told that he was once asked why he did not use his lucrative talents in Europe since that would have enabled him to send several doctors and missionaries to Africa. He replied that he knew that, but he had to be there himself. Such thinking gives us another reason to admire Dr. Schweitzer, but it also indicates that he would not have been happy as the senior pastor of a large congregation. The role is not one that satisfies the hands-on, do-it-yourself instinct. Senior pastors work with systems more than individuals. We make it possible for pastoral care to happen on a large scale, but we do not often get to the hospital ourselves. The intimacies of congregational life are not our regular fare. If one’s reward system responds mainly to walking with individuals at key moments, the senior pastor role will not be especially satisfying. If one cannot clearly see faces in budgets or ministry in meetings, if one does not appreciate the gospel proclamation that can be made by establishing a good policy, or if one does not draw pleasure from seeing systems work as they should, the ministry aspect of this role will prove illusive. Zubin Metah is a marvelous musician who has conducted orchestras all over the world. He once made the point that in a symphony the conductor makes no sound. Similarly, the senior pastor does not do a lot of the traditional work of congregational ministry but, like the conductor, he or she makes everything else happen. Finding delight in making things happen, as opposed to actually doing them oneself, is a key to thriving in the large church pastorate.
The primary community we serve in a pastoral role is the staff. That role is more than a little complicated by the fact that we hired those people and may, on occasion, be required to fire them. Our primary job is to provide clarity for their roles, resources for their work, and direction in selecting their priorities. We are part of every problem they have, as well as every success they enjoy. On our best days we can lessen their problems and heighten their successes. In my experience, the best pastoral care I can offer is based on prayer. The staff community needs to know that I pray for them daily and, in the best of worlds, pray with them regularly. Those prayers establish a meeting ground where the dynamics of the office are less of a factor and the dynamics of our lives can have freer reign.
I genuinely like and admire the people with whom I work. I care about their lives and I think we know and trust one another well enough for them to call on my pastoral gifts as readily as whatever gifts I may have in administration, decision making, and planning. One would hope that this would be the case after 21 years, but it is not automatic and does not come with every corner office with a nice view. Staff issues are common concerns among senior pastors and much anguish is lavished on them. Oftentimes the “senior” part of the job must take precedence over the “pastor” part. In those difficult times, it is hard to enjoy the warm satisfactions of caring for the people closest to you. Enjoying the role of pater familias in the staff setting without losing one’s humanity or humility is a bit of a trick that relies on mental as well as spiritual health. But the role can be very rewarding, especially if one finds joy in seeing others do well.
Like pastoral care, money is a defining quality of life in a large congregation. Having a big budget is a heady thing. Because of their financial abundance, large churches are full of possibilities, and the sense of largess is satisfying. It is important, however, to remember that the topic Jesus addressed most often was the spiritual dangers of wealth. His point was not to celebrate poverty but to emphasize the vital importance and challenging demands of stewardship. The million- or multi-million-dollar budget is an enormous responsibility. Turning those assets into useful service in the Kingdom of God is no mean task. The temptation to wallow in some ill-begotten concept of opulence has ruined more than one pastor, pastorate, and congregation.
The greater financial base of a large congregation can also serve to isolate the senior pastor from his or her colleagues. The person serving amid the rewards and demands of a smaller congregation is not likely to be sensitive to the pressures and issues of the Big Steeple clerics. The clergy person who is cranking his own mimeograph machine may well think that a multi-staff situation would solve all of his problems. Actually, of course, it simply provides a different set of problems—and opportunities. These differences in large and small congregations make some of the bonds of collegiality difficult to connect. If, as is often the case, there are only one or two large congregations in one’s jurisdiction, the result can be a particular kind of loneliness where there should be a particular kind of fellowship.
Most of the features of large church life that make it different from that of smaller ones are matters of degree rather than actual substance, but those degrees make a difference worth noting. I
find that I work with ideas a lot more than I remember doing in other congregations. My job is to guard and appropriately proclaim the principles that govern our congregational life. This requires tending the junction of ideas and action. Since most people and institutions rightly focus on action, I have to keep my attention on the ideas. Oftentimes, others actually apply the themes and principles to programs and events. I do a lot of planning, goal setting, clarifying, and reviewing, and less often experience the work and satisfaction of leading a small group or joining a mission effort. The same can be said for community involvements. I meet and think with others about needs and resources, but I do not get my hands dirty as often as I used to or probably should. Finding money for a worthwhile project is challenging and important, but the effort and rewards are different from traditional sweat equity. I teach and preach to large groups and I love it, but it means that more people know me than I know in return. People hear how I think and understand far more often than I get to hear how they think and understand. This requires a major effort on my part to find opportunities to listen to others’ hearts and minds lest I trip into thinking that my view is everyone’s view or—what is worse—that my view should be everyone’s view. Large church pastors need to be heartily proactive in the work of finding out what is going on in the lives and, more importantly, inside the lives of individuals.
If I were to sum up my ministry in this wonderful place it would be to think of myself as a traffic cop on the road to Emmaus. It was on that road that disciples were discussing the events of the days we call Holy Week when they were joined by Jesus. As they walked, Jesus revealed the truth to them by teaching, and ultimately in “the breaking of the bread.” What I have been doing these 21 years is helping people—lots of people—get on a path where the Lord can speak to them, tell them the truth, and share the wonder and mystery of worship. That may sound simplistic, but it really is what all of the meetings, reports, speeches, sermons, plans, fundraising, and just plain work are about. It is, in some ways, a silly way to make a living, but it is a wonderful way to live.