congregational life

Some Thoughts about Congregational Leadership

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

The office I now occupy in the congregation I serve went unoccupied for about eight months.  After their former pastor left, the church decided not to hire an interim pastor, but instead had a local hospital chaplain fill the pulpit on a weekly basis.   He was not responsible for any of the pastoral or administrative work that needed to be done.  His role was to preach and preside at the table.  Everything else a pastor might do, church members took on themselves to do.  I have to admit they seemed to do it quite well.  The elders and the church board kept meeting and doing their work.  The elders pastorally caring for the church members and the board overseeing the whole life of the church, with special attention to the financial situation.  Sunday school was staffed each week and the entire youth program was continued.  They kept alive their ministry of partnering with other congregations during the winter months to make certain the area homeless have food and warm shelter for the cold nights.  All in all, the folks did a very good job of keeping the ministry of this congregation moving forward.

                So I am sitting now in the office that went unoccupied for several months and thinking about my role as pastor of this quite capable congregation.  Where should I spend my time? To what areas should I give my attention?  What should be the focus of my leadership?   The question of the role of pastoral leadership in this day is an extremely important one.  Not just for me, but for anyone who seeks to provide leadership in a local congregation.  Are we called to be leaders who help maintain the organization?  Should our focus be on the numbers?  Looking for growth in membership and budget.  Are we chaplains or prophets?  Or a little bit of both? 

Since I went to seminary thirty years ago, I don’t know what is presently being taught now about the kind of leaders that congregations need.  I do know as I sit in this office that went unoccupied for a while, surrounded by people who are very able to be church without me, I am giving lots of thought to what kind of leader I need to be for this congregation.  Here are some things I think:

1)      My role isn’t to be a program builder, but the one who reminds the folks why we do what we do.  In other words, remind them about Jesus and how we are to be His presence in the world.  My role is to help the congregation stay rooted in the Gospels and the message of good news for all people that is there.  I just finished reading the book, “Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in Ministry Failure.”  The author wrote of a mega-church conference where a number of pastors spoke about their “success” in ministry without even mentioning Jesus.  When we forget about Jesus, it may not be his work that we are doing at all.

2)      My role is to help the congregation as a whole to interpret the faith for this day and time.  When the question “Where are the young people” is asked my job is to help the church ask the question “Are we talking about and doing the things that help younger folks in their own experience of faith?”  That is, are we talking about meaning and purpose and are we engaged in hands-on-mission that makes a difference in the lives of people?

3)      My role is to help the congregation be ready for the emerging expressions of faith that are popping up around us.  Not to be afraid of them or feel as if we are in competition, but to understand that it might well be God doing a new thing in our midst.

4)      I need to be a leader who lets the people know that I am on the same journey in life that they are.  I am also trying to understand what my place is in this world.  And how I try to make sense of things from the perspective of my faith.  I lead by not just standing in front of them, but walking beside them as we journey together on this path of life. I came across a quote recently that asked “What does the world need: gifted men and women outwardly empowered? Or individuals who are broken, inwardly transformed?” (Gene Edwards, “A Tale of Three Kings”)  I think the church needs leaders of the second sort.

The specifics of my leadership role, of course, include sermons, bible studies, pastoral care and some oversight responsibilities.  It includes being present with the people as we minister together to the homeless of our area.  But understanding the reason behind those specifics is, I think, extremely beneficial to myself and to the congregation.

If you are a pastor, I encourage you to try and be clear about what your leadership role is in the life of the church you serve.  If you are a parishioner, I hope you and your congregation are clear with your pastor about what kind of leader you hope the pastor will be.  Leadership makes a difference and there needs to be clarity about what that leadership is for the church today.

Can We All Be More Vulnerable?

By Colton Lott

At the risk of rant, do you want to know what my biggest frustration with the church is?[i] It isn’t that we frequently worship in mausoleums at the risk of financial ruin. It isn’t that we sing songs that reflect a theology or social outlook that we generally decry. It isn’t even that we get hung up on the silliest things and try to call it important aspects of ministry, like the color of the carpet runner or parliamentary procedure. What really trips my trigger and gets me riled up? The fact that we can barely talk about even the small things, much less the big things.

The lack of willingness to engage meaningfully and with sincere openness is, to me, the number one factor affecting the church negatively today. Much like an addict who refuses to name their problem, many churches refuse to admit that they will only have inauthentic conversations about surface issues.

To a degree, this is because leaders are not always the best at prodding and poking for the “real story” to come out. It’s a difficult job to discern when and where to apply pressure to the fault lines of people’s lives—do so correctly, and energy is released constructively, do so haphazardly, and the result is an earthquake. Naturally, I don’t really know how to do this yet myself, but I do know that it’s not being done enough.[ii]

But more pressing than some changes leaders should make, congregations refusing to have hard conversations presents the most detrimental effects on their collective ministry. I think the unwillingness is caused by a marriage between not knowing what a hard conversation looks like and a fear that such discussions, should they arise, would cause a church apocalypse. Any discussion that doesn’t protect and perpetuate the (crumbling) status quo is deadly and unwanted. Such conversations don’t attend to the “real challenges and concrete decisions” that a church has to make.

However, and this is an important however, very rarely do we stop and ask about how and why we really feel the way that we do. And this lack of reflection is showing. Why cannot we not crack open ourselves to answer questions that deal with the root of our decisions and indecisions? For example, one of my early “not my biggest frustrations” was churches who worship in physical spaces that are exceedingly too large or nonfunctional for their ministry, an inheritance from a time of single-purpose design, higher religiosity and birthrates, and lower upkeep costs.

The conversation about “what do we do now?” gets delayed because of reasons we all too often don’t want to speak out loud. Perhaps it’s because we’re afraid that we will make a financial mistake and due to poor stewardship cause the ministry to fold. We’re fearful that we’ll lose the memories we’ve attached to a specific location. We are personally satisfied and we are worried that changing something big will cause our own satisfaction to dwindle.  

These painfully personal conversations don’t happen because opening up is hard work that requires trust. And the human institution of the church, as much as we like to call it a family, is not always good at holding other people’s feelings in warm and close regard. Often, humans acting together do horrific things, things that make it hard to trust the collective with the individual’s intimate self.

Our unwillingness to be vulnerable is causing our Good News to be disconnected from our deepest self. We sterilize and package until all that is left is freeze-dried and unpalatable to even the most desperate. Goodness is mushed into blandness.

I understand that the church has lackluster obligations like paying the electric bill. But when our organizational leadership is most concerned with the earthly and not heavenly, or even the humanly, then a problem arises. I have yet to see a healthy church that doesn’t have a corresponding healthy governance structure, one that asks and reflects on the hardest questions while attempting to ask individuals to reach deeply into their feelings and ask “why do I really feel this way?”

I overheard a minister friend of mine say that whenever the folks in a church discuss important issues, one should ask “Why is that?” five times in a row to a response, causing the responder to dig deeper and deeper into their own answer, attempting to seek the root of their hope or their fear, their faith or their doubt.

Real truth occurs when we can have real conversations. They don’t just happen, though. I have to commit to trusting the group and trusting that the group will challenge and comfort me if I find out something that I don’t find savory about my own self. I have to resolve to aide others when I find out things that I don’t find appealing about them.

If you’re skimming this article, the take home pay is this: when you show up for your next church board meeting, are the folks around the table talking about something that’s deeper than replacing the lightbulbs? And if not, who is? And if no one is, then why not? And if you can, begin modeling rawness for someone else so that we can all begin to start being authentic, because authenticity starts with sheer vulnerability. Be raw, because so many of our churches are so well-done that they’re, well, done.

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[i] By “biggest frustration” I mean “the biggest frustration I have today.” Tomorrow, it’ll be something different. Frustrating, isn’t it?

[ii] This is not to diminish the reality that some churches are willing to quickly fire or abuse a minister who tries dig too deeply. That is a subject quite different than this article is attempting to deal with. 

Clergy Compensation, Debt, and Poverty

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of articles about clergy compensation in the past few days. First, there was this article in the Atlantic on the Vanishing of the Middle Class Clergy, followed by a response in the Christian Century “Pastors in Poverty” from Carol Howard Merritt, then a number of responses on several blogs and on Facebook.

I have only served in Disciples and American Baptist congregations. The region that my first two churches were in published a minimum suggested salary for starting pastors. My salary never met the minimum requirement in either church, and the first church I served was a well-known and well-off suburb church. The housing allowance offered did not even cover a studio apartment. Not only did I have to have roommates, but now out of seminary my student loans from college were due, and once meeting my rent, my share of the utilities (this was just electricity and heat and phone—we did not have cable), my student loans, my car payment and insurance—I had $175 left. That was to pay my food, my gas, and any other expenses. Thank God I did not have a medical emergency. Unfortunately, my used car did have a few repairs that had to be made. So what did I do? I opened a credit card.

With only $175 a month to live on after bills, I only paid the minimum on the credit card, meaning my debt accumulated drastically. I began babysitting on my days off to earn extra money. But by the time I met my husband, I had almost $4000 worth of credit card debt.

I did not have loans from seminary—I was fortunate enough to not only have great financial aid from my seminary, but the wonderful financial aid officer at my seminary would put a little note in my box about every single scholarship or grant opportunity she came across, and I applied for them all. I also worked two part-time jobs (three the year I did Field Education, as I received a stipend for Field Ed). My student loans were not from seminary, but from college.

Contrary to popular belief and even the line on the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form), there was no great contribution from my parents—my dad paid my application deposit, my mom paid my books every year and my plane tickets home—and that is because my parents were not able to contribute more than that.  I had two scholarships and a grant and I still had to take out loans to go to college. Poor begets poor. There is no leg up or hand out simply because we receive financial aid.

My salary and compensation package from my first church did not cover my expenses. After I graduated and later married my husband, also a seminarian with a lot of student debt from seminary, we had difficulty keeping up. We had to borrow from another credit card in order to pay taxes and make our bills. The good news was that we had a lower interest rate and therefore were able to borrow to pay off the higher interest rate cards I had borrowed on.

It wasn’t until my second calling that I finally received a salary that we could live on. And by living I mean we met our bills every month and we started to pay down the credit card debt. We even opened a savings account. Still, we did not meet the minimum salary requirement of my region.

Both churches had the ability to meet the minimum salary requirements, but chose not to for one main reason: they were afraid of running out of money. Budgets were tight and they were afraid that paying me too much would stretch them too thin. Never mind that in both locations, I made less than others with a college degree in our neighborhood (and I had a Master of Divinity). But both congregations were not in a do-or-die mode. Both had endowments, both had savings, both were running a balanced budget. But fear of not having enough made them hold back on their resources, unwilling to meet even the minimum recommendations.

Now I am serving part-time in a small American Baptist congregation in a different region. What I have seen happen over the last ten years is a dramatic decrease in salary and benefits across the country. More churches are unable to meet a minimum requirement because they cannot. Their endowments and savings have dried up.  I am serving a church that has simply run out of money. Members are no longer able to tithe what they used to.  The church needs a full-time pastor but cannot afford one. Instead, I give about the same amount of time I would to a full-time position, but receive only half-time pay. I am grateful my husband receives a full-time package, but it is by serving two churches to create a full-time position. And we have a son with a disability. It seems that we may never get out of the cycle of debt.

The truth is it is not only the pastors who are becoming poorer but the middle class is disappearing all around us. My church cannot afford to pay me a full-time salary and is being stretched thin on a half-time salary because most of the church cannot afford it any longer. Credit card debt is rising. The number of people in the community I serve that live on food stamps and other government resources is rising. While pastors are becoming poorer, so are all of the people around me.

This is not just a pastor problem, this is not just a church problem; this is a problem for us collectively as followers of Jesus: the poor are getting poorer. We can call upon churches to pay more but in many cases that is not possible. We can call upon our people to give more but in many cases that is not possible.

The question we should be asking is much more difficult: how do we tackle poverty? How do we tackle the cycle of debt that many individuals and families in America face today? We are not college kids taking out credit cards to buy stuff we can’t afford, as the media might suggest: we are people who go into debt in order to survive. We are not addressing this question adequately at all.

We have not worked towards a solution to the growth in poverty and debt. The poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer, which is the antithesis of Mary’s Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53).

We must work to alleviate poverty and debt, for all people. This must become a collective responsibility. Pastoral compensation must become a collective responsibility of the church, and poverty and debt must become a collective responsibility of us all. 

Rethinking Stewardship

By Rev. Mindi

It’s getting that time of year again, for those of us on a January-December fiscal year. Stewardship season. Pledge cards and budgets and all that.

I love and hate the season of stewardship.

I love the idea of recommitting ourselves to being good stewards of all of God’s gifts: our talents, our time, our finances, our very selves.  I grew up reciting a church covenant that included that concept of stewardship. We all participated, in all of who we are, with all of who we were. A little startup church that began in 1985 and sometimes had no more than ten members has managed to not only survive but thrive as a small church with this understanding of stewardship.

However, the first church I served in, a much larger church, talked about stewardship in the concept of filling out a pledge card. Don’t get me wrong—there were great “Stewardship Moments” during the worship which were mini-testimonials of what the church meant to them. We did a Gift’s Survey and tried to expand our concept of stewardship. But when it came down to it, the pledge cards were what drove the budget and drove the pulse of the congregation. A church with an operating budget of over two hundred thousand dollars, with an endowment—and every year there was talk of cutting the budget, cutting ministries—and cutting salaries. There was fear about not having enough.

I now serve a much smaller congregation. Pledge cards haven’t been filled out in years, and I have been told by leaders in the church they won’t fill them out on principal—it’s no one’s business to know what they will give except for God’s. While I could argue about giving as a spiritual practice and just like being concerned about their prayer and devotional life the church is concerned about their financial giving, I need to back up for a minute.

I believe that we have failed to teach about stewardship well in the church. 

This isn’t to say there aren’t good models of stewardship practiced in churches. But generally speaking in the churches I have served, and in conversation with many of my colleagues, we have limited stewardship to being about pledging or about financial giving only in our conversations.

We need to change our understanding of stewardship and we need to not be afraid of talking about all of our resources. Not just our finances, but using our gifts. How many of us scramble to find teachers every year for Christian Education programs? How many of us cannot find enough volunteers for our weekday ministries?  So are we limiting Christian Education to an outdated model of Sunday School? Are we continuing weekday ministries during which most of the people likely to volunteer are working? How can we use our resources of time, talent, finances—and our very selves—to the best of our God-given ability?

We may need to rethink our ministries of Christian Education and worship to be more inclusive, as evidenced by many churches ending traditional Sunday School programs and incorporating education and worship together in a multi-generational setting. We may need to rethink how we ask people to contribute to the work of God through the church. Maybe traditional pledge cards don’t cut it any longer. Maybe we need to commit ourselves, every year, to the fullness of the call to be the body of Christ.

We need to teach stewardship, that all of us have a responsibility to contribute and participate in the body of Christ. The old ten percent tithe doesn’t cut it any longer, as very few can afford to give ten percent with student loans, medical bills and just the plain old cost of living. But we can give in multiple ways. All too often, stewardship has been understood as financial giving alone. Volunteering one’s time has been a response to a call for a need for volunteers from leaders in the church.  Instead, we need to think about all the ways we can give, and share what our gifts are instead of waiting for someone to ask.  But we need to retrain the ways we talk and think about stewardship in order for that to happen effectively.

I don’t have all the answers—I’m still working on it—but for the past two years I have made new pledge cards that I distribute to the church. On them we write what we are thankful for in the past year. Then we write what we hope we can give in the coming year. Only a few write down a financial amount. Most write down a gift they can share—praying, helping in the church kitchen, volunteering with children. And all of us work to contribute out of what we have.

I believe not only will we survive, but we will thrive, when we all take part, recognize we are all the body of Christ, and that we are in this together.

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

--Acts 2:43-47 

The Myth of the Ten-Year-Full-Time Pastorate

By Rev. Mindi

I don’t know where I learned the myth—somewhere along the way in attending church in my youth to my college days and even into seminary and my first call—somehow, I believed that the average call to pastoral ministry in congregations was about ten years. After consulting with a few other seminary friends, they tell me that they also heard this myth in seminary. I believed that churches provided full benefits and adequate salary and housing that would help cover my student loans from college. I believed I would be able to have my own one-bedroom apartment and take my day off and work a 40 hour workweek.

That all changed very quickly. My first call was full-time and did offer me retirement and health insurance for me—but when I got married, not for my spouse unless I paid for it. My first call did not pay an adequate salary nor was the housing allowance enough to cover my rent—I found a house with three other roommates to split the rent four ways (I did have my own bedroom), and I was able to pay a car payment on a used car—but without consolidating my student loans I had $45 after every paycheck. After consolidation, I had $145 to pay for groceries and gas. Needless to say, I opened a credit card in order to survive that first year and a half until I received a raise. Then my roommates moved, and I had to move into an apartment with a roommate with higher rent. The debt caught up quickly.  This was all while working at one of the most prominent churches of my denomination in that state, connected to a seminary and regarded as a pillar church, a church that did not pay its staff a livable wage.  In addition, I was often working 50-60 hours per week. I was in charge of starting and building the youth group, running the church school, participating in worship and other duties in the life of the congregation. However, most of the time I did manage to take Friday off. I stuck with that, though I worked several 12 hour days during the week.

It wasn’t until my second call, just less than four years later, when I moved into a parsonage and I received a salary in which I could meet my expenses. Here, I was paid a livable wage, my family was covered under health insurance, and I worked reasonable hours during the week (40-50). In my first call I was an associate minister; in this call, I was the senior pastor of a smaller congregation.  It seemed perfect. I imagined myself there for seven, eight—even ten years. We wrote a family leave policy into my contract and I had a child. I began to work on writing in sabbatical leave, as the congregation wasn’t used to sabbatical leave before.

But even there, I ended up moving before four years. My husband received a call to a church in another state, and it seemed an opportunity he could not pass up.  It was bittersweet—a great opportunity not only for my husband, but for us as a family as I could be home more with our son—but leaving a wonderful church community and call.

To be honest, I really wrestled with leaving in this time. I felt that somehow I had failed to live up to the standard of a ten-year pastoral call. But then I began having conversations with other, older pastors and I suddenly learned that the ten-year pastoral call is a myth. And then it hit me: my grandfather, a pastor I had looked up to as the model of the perfect pastor, never had a ten-year call, either. Most of his were 4-5 year calls, several were shorter than that.  Many times it was because of unhealthy aspects of the congregations he was serving. Sometimes, though, it was because of family dynamics and choices made for the entire family.  Sometimes he served part-time congregations and did other work on the side. My grandfather had a slew of odd jobs over the years to help make ends meet at times.

I was so worried in leaving that church that I was leaving behind any chance of having a full-time, long-term call again. That somehow I would be marked by this. Thankfully, this has not been the case—in talking with search committees, most have been very understanding of the decision to leave full-time ministry to care for my child and to move for my spouse’s call.

At this time, I am serving at two part-time calls. I do not have full benefits—I rely on my spouse’s insurance to cover the family.  It is working, though it is hard to be in two places—as my husband, who also serves two congregations, can attest as well. Neither of us can envision a ten-year pastorate any more.

At a recent gathering of younger clergy, none of us saw ourselves in a ten year pastorate. Most of us were averaging a vision of about five years. Times have changed. And congregations, for various reasons, are no longer preparing for long-term pastors. It’s not only that fewer congregations are not providing full time salary, housing and benefits, it’s not only that there are unhealthy congregations that run through pastors every few years--it’s that our understanding of vocation, call, purpose—it is all changing. This is not to say pastors are still not called to congregations, but that perhaps the Spirit is moving in new ways.

It seems to me that one of the shifts that has happened is that the leadership within churches has become more long-term, fixed (even bylaws have been changed in churches I have served to allow for continuous terms), the pastor’s tenure has become shorter.  In congregations with history of long pastorates, often the leadership within the church went through periods of transformation and change. New people were brought into the lead, new styles brought on, new models tried out. Now, in my experience with congregations with shorter term pastorates, the leadership has stayed the same, but the pastor is the one who changes. Sometimes this is good; sometimes this is stagnant and the problems are associated only with the pastor.

A short term pastorate is not necessarily a sign of an unhealthy congregation or pastor—sometimes, the Spirit is doing something new, and the work that was done between the congregation and pastor needs to shift or move on. And often, in places where there perhaps was an unhealthy element within the congregation that didn’t get addressed by an interim (and intentional interim ministry is a key point that I am not addressing at this time) a new pastor is able to help the congregation move forward and become healthier, and once that new health is achieved, it may be time for a new transition, a new shift.  

Pastors are all unique and have different gifts and abilities. As the kinds of pastoral ministry change along with the settings (there is no one-size-fits-all pastor for an “average” church, as may have been perceived in the past) perhaps certain skills and gifts are needed in certain times of the church’s life, and the pastor find themselves wanting to continue to use those gifts and skills in new settings.

Pastoral ministry is changing, as much as the church continues to change, as much as pastoral ministry has changed. I’ve reflected on this before: in my twelve years of pastoral ministry, I have gone from having a cell phone as an emergency phone for my car only, to using my cell phone as a way of providing pastoral care through text message, tweeting prayers, and connecting with others in leadership. I have moved from being in the office 8-5 to being at the coffee shop in the mornings and a bar in the evenings. As the world of pastoral ministry has shifted in the past ten to fifteen years, so has the focus of gifts and skills in pastoral ministry, and so has the vision of the pastor’s role within the congregation. And while there are still full-time pastors serving in congregations 10+ years, the ones I know I can count on one hand. The myth is not holding up as it once did--if it ever really did.