Ever since I entered pastoral ministry I have struggled with the idea of self-as-leader. What does it mean for me to be a leader of a congregation? Who am I as a leader? What are my strengths and weaknesses for leadership? How do I lead with others whose roles are different? How do I hold my own self-understanding along side the expections others have of me?
My greatest anxieties and failures in ministry have been around these questions. The more I grow in my comfort with the questions themselves, become able to talk about them with others, and even draw some conclusions from them, the less anxious I become as a person and as a leader.
God called me, during college, to a vocation of Christian service and theological reflection. Over the years, it has seemed that God desires for me to live out that vocation in service to the church as incarnate in a local congregation, and thus far in pastoral staff positions. Unfortunately for all, for most of my adult life I have been growing into this with inadequate mentoring/ advising/ counseling/ coaching, and so have been in a default position of figuring things out as I go, which has left damage in my wake in my own life and in those around me. This was not my desire. I left seminary knowing that I needed mentoring as I had in college (but not during seminary, for the most part). In my first fulltime congregational ministry I sought out such mentoring, but received less than I hoped for or needed. Since then, I have been blessed to have colleagues and friends sow blessings of insight into my life and ministry sporadically and unsystematically.
Through CPE, PCS training, and my experience working with New Church Ministries as a Barnabas~Coach, I have grown in my skills at coaching myself, and in extending this ministry to others. While I was serving in Gladewater I received the following feedback about my PhD application to the University of Chicago, “You really come across as a resident theologian style of pastor more than a college professor.” “OK, Great!” I thought. “Let me in the program so I can receive more training as a theologian.” It was not to be. God, in divine wisdom, kept us in Texas, close to family and friends, and in an environment where I have been privileged to continue to minister and grow. In counseling several years later, I wrestled with the distinction I drew between a teacher and a leader – I felt called to be a teacher, or more accurately felt that to be my identity – “I am a teacher” – while I continued to think I heard congregations (and God?) calling me to be a ‘leader’, which seemed different.
Lately, I have been experiencing ‘effectiveness’ coaching and supervising ministry interns and others. I find this to be the most rewarding ministry I do, along side preaching. There are many things in congregational ministry that I can do well because of some combination of innate ability and learned skill. While I am doing them, I even find some enjoyment in them. They do not, however, make my heart sing. They are not a part of my calling as I understand it.
I think we (institutional mainline church, at the very least) fall into a trap of defining a particular staff position as a set of tasks, and then ‘hire’ a person to do those tasks, with little conversation about gifts and calling. The result is significant frustration among staff and laity alike. It just now occurs to me that a part of my problem in Midland (where I served 14 months as an associate minister just out of seminary) was my inability to recognize this, and my inability to see what the life and hope for my ministry could have been as a result. The personnel committee was absolutely right that G. had gifts and abilities, and right that God probably wanted him to use them in congregational life and ministry. What we all failed to then do was to say, “Therefore, Kendrick, let’s reimagine your role here to create space for others’ gifts to be exercised and for you to thrive in the use of your gifts!” OMG! What pain so many people have suffered because of that one simple failure! I was clear from the outset that I really didn’t want to be a youth minister – though I was happy to have that as a part of my portfolio, I felt called to much more than that – to experience the breadth of congregational ministry. If we could have given ourselves space, we could have gotten there, and I would possibly still be living in Midland. God has certainly used the results of that failure to bring new growth in me and in the congregations and communities I have served. Which doesn’t mean God willed that it happen that way- God would prefer, I believe, that we do things the easy way, but in our stubbornness we refuse, and so God’s will is done in the redeeming of our suffering and failure to diving glory and for the furthering of God’s kingdom.
So, the challenge before me is to grow in the ways God has SHAPEd me for service to Christ, Church, Community and Kingdom.
My personal, specific calling is to:
- participate in a community envisioning the future for the congregation and community, drawing us to be the Kingdom of God
- think, write and speak theologically for church and community,
- coach and direct others toward spiritual growth in life and ministry.
My gifts, passions, abilities, personality and experiences have and are preparing me more each day for this work. When I step outside these roles, I disrupt someone else’s path of doing their ministry, and fail to thrive in my own. Thus the Body, as Paul speaks, is not healthy because each part is not healthy nor is each part working fully as God intends (Ephesians 4:16).
My hope and desire is that the more clearly I can speak these things among congregational leaders and the community at large, the more clarity we will all have about our various roles in the life of the church and how God desires us to live out our faith together. A dear friend was able to say to me just recently “Teaching is my ministry” and thus she was able to say that she therefore needed to say no to various other ministry opportunities. What an empowering gift.
As I grow closer to health and maturity in my own personal faith and the living out of it in ministry, I feel more alive. I am more at peace, and thus better able, I think, to create a space around me where others can also make this journey and move toward peace. I believe, as I said above, that as I am able and willing to be open about these things with others around me, a community of knowing in common will grow toward maturity, with each person living into their own personal, specific calling from God for life and ministry.
To you, my reader, I extend a warm invitation to enter this conversation with me.