One afternoon while I was rifling through backed-up periodicals, the tag line for an advertisement caught my attention: “Think Differently about Ministry in Order to Minister Differently!” The ad showed three pastors. Two, photographed in black and white, were dressed in traditional clergy attire. The third, positioned between these two, wearing casual clothes and sunglasses, leaped off the page in living color. The ad’s subhead asked, “Ready to do something different?”
The ad was promoting a doctor of ministry degree program, claiming that this particular seminary could point the degree seeker in a new direction. Most of us know that it takes more than forsaking clerical collars to be effective in ministry today. It requires an ongoing consideration of what should remain at the bedrock of ministry and where change should occur. It requires that both pastor and congregation truly struggle to discern what’s working and what’s not, what needs to be added, and what has to be retired to make room for God’s new vision of ministry.
Martin Copenhaver, senior pastor of the Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, calls pastors “the last generalists” in a world of increasing specialization. In “The Good Life,” Copenhaver says, “A pastor’s work is not simply distinct tasks performed at different times. Rather, the various tasks relate to each other in dynamic ways, setting each one into a richer context.” He calls for a revival of pastoral imagination to help pastors, once again, fall in love with their vocation. Gil Rendle, senior consultant at the Alban Institute, also believes that congregations can best be served by those whom he calls “deep” generalists. In his excellent article “The Leadership We Need—Negotiating Up, Not Down,” Rendle says this about leadership for the future: “We would need to move outside of cultural norms to value the strange gifts our new leaders would bring. Those leaders would need to be exceptionally mature and able to stand outside of cultural norms, knowing that their gifts are valuable.” I agree with both authors that the vast majority of 21st-century pastors will need to be generalists. The fast-paced, constantly changing world in which we find ourselves demands diverse skills. Pastors who want to specialize may simply be out of date by the time they finish their training.
Through research, personal observation, and interviews with clergy who are widely acknowledged to be effective in leading the modern-era church into a postmodern ministry, I have developed a list of 12 characteristics of an effective 21st-century pastor:
- The ability to maintain personal, professional, and spiritual balance. Ministry in the postmodern world is hard, and a pastor must keep emotionally and spiritually fit.
- The ability to guide a transformational faith experience (conversion). Pastors who are effective in the 21st century will be those who know how to introduce a person to Jesus, not just to the church. The task of evangelism belongs to every Christian. It is often, however, the pastor’s task to walk with individuals through a conversion experience and to help them become grounded in the faith.
- The ability to motivate and develop a congregation to be a “mission outpost” (help churches reclaim their role in reaching new believers). The modern world expected the pastor to be the head evangelist. The postmodern world requires that the pastor identify and equip all members to be evangelists.
- The ability to develop and communicate a vision. Compelling vision means believing that our best days are ahead, and that God can perform remarkable acts in our midst. The process of discovering this destiny is often led by the pastor but is never solely the pastor’s task. The pastor must talk, act, and lead as if the vision can and will be made real in their midst.
- The ability to interpret and lead change. A pastor’s ability to create an environment ready for change, to lead the change process successfully, and to anchor the change in the congregation’s culture is one of the most important skill sets needed for the 21st century. The most successful churches will be those that embrace rapid change as a way of life.
- The ability to promote and lead spiritual formation for church members. One of the characteristics of the postmodern world is the freedom to explore in the spiritual realm. The effective 21st-century pastor understands the longing of parishioners to know God in a deeper and more meaningful way and reintroduces such traditional practices as prayer, Bible study, small groups, and discernment of spiritual gifts to give them new meaning in the postmodern era.
- The ability to provide leadership for high-quality, relevant worship experiences. Worship in the modern era often focused on learning about God. In the postmodern era worship focuses on experiencing God. Postmoderns see worship as a matter of the heart, not the head. Successful 21st-century pastors understand the need for culturally relevant worship that has integrity and speaks to the heart of believers and believers-in-the-making.
- The ability to identify, develop, and support lay leaders. Effective postmodern pastors remember that the ancient church was a movement led mainly by the laity and know that each member of today’s congregation also has a ministry in his or her own right. Whether working to encourage members in developing and executing their own leadership gifts or working with the official or elected leaders of the church, the pastor serves as leadership coach.
- The ability to build, inspire, and lead a “team” of both staff and volunteers. The future belongs not so much to movers and shakers but to leaders who can work in teams. The successful pastor will encourage the use of teams and will model healthy team leadership by how he or she recruits, trusts, and supports the team. The effective pastor also demonstrates that he or she can comfortably be a team member when not serving as the team leader.
- The ability to manage conflict. Conflict in the church is not new, but 21st-century pastors have an even greater challenge than before as they respond to conflict that emerges from the difficult transition from a modern-era church to that of a postmodern Christian community. The effective pastor believes that conflict, if managed skillfully, can be energizing and can lead to highly creative moments in the life of a church.
- The ability to navigate successfully the world of technology. Effective pastors in today’s world must be technologically literate and know how to encourage their congregations to use technology for the building up of Christ’s kingdom. Being techno-savvy involves not only being able to use a computer but also seeing e-mail, Web sites, PowerPoint, video clips, and other media tools as additional resources for communication, pastoral care, evangelism, teaching, and worship. Twenty-first-century pastors and churches must walk into the new marketplace bravely and with confidence that God can use even these secular tools in creative and life-giving ways.
- The ability to be a lifelong learner. Twenty-first-century pastors need to run smarter, not faster. The key to working smarter may lie in how they approach learning. Learning isn’t limited to the classroom, and learning “smart” means using every experience as a potential tool for ministry.