Leadership Capacities Every Young Pastor Must Learn

By: Stephen Lewis
September 14, 2010

What leadership capacities or skills must young pastors learn in order to thrive in pastoral ministry? Depending on whom you talk to, the answer will vary.

As I travel across the country working with denominational leaders and pastors, they continually share that leadership development is an important priority of theirs and they have invested resources in pastoral formation and congregational development. Why? Because many religious professionals understand that quality leadership is essential and inextricably tied to vital congregations and the future.

For the last few years, I have been working with young pastors on leadership formation issues through Project Rising Sun, a pastoral leadership academy. Based on my work with these leaders, I have distilled seven key leadership capacities young pastors need to develop in order to thrive in ministry:

Cultivate an inner life and set boundaries to attend to their family and well-being. One of many things that distinguishes pastoral leaders from other types of professional leaders is that spiritual leaders are dependent on God—their inner knowing, Christ or Spirit—for guidance in their affairs as a leader. Hearing and discerning this inner guidance requires pastors to slow down and to cultivate a deep inner life. Unfortunately, the frenetic pace of life, demands from parishioners and denominational officials and 24-hour accessibility via technology makes it extremely difficult for pastors, especially younger ones, to slow down and cultivate an inner life in their over-crowded schedules. As a result, pastors are overworking, experiencing health challenges and neglecting their families. If young pastors are going to succeed in ministry, they must develop a discipline of cultivating their inner life and set boundaries to protect their time. There are all kinds of inner and outer stimuli vying for pastors’ attention. But they must fight these temptations and set boundaries to cultivate a contemplative life—discerning God’s guidance and presence within and beyond themselves—and to attend to their personal life, which includes tending to family and well-being. Even if young pastors intend on setting boundaries for themselves, congregational life challenges their good intentions. If young pastors are going to lead well in ministry and have a healthy pastoral life, they must learn this first leadership capacity well.

Solicit routine, constructive feedback and assessment. Constructive feedback on a regular basis is essential to any leader’s formation. If young leaders seek to have an accurate picture of their strengths and areas for growth, they must solicit formal and informal feedback on their leadership. I have discovered the value of 360o evaluations in the formation of pastoral leaders. This kind of assessment provides young pastors with additional data points—from peers, members, church and/or denominational supervisors—to assess their strengths and opportunities for growth. 360o evaluations can also equip pastors with courage to solicit feedback from their perceived congregational adversaries, who in some cases offer the most useful feedback. Young pastors must solicit regular feedback if they are serious about their growth and development.

Exercise pastoral agency and authority wisely. Many young clergy feel that they have to wait until they pastor their own congregation before they can exercise any real agency as a pastoral leader. Others admit to waiting until they have been with a congregation “long enough” to be taken seriously as the pastor before they exercise any real pastoral authority. While this continues to be a perceived reality among neophyte pastoral leaders, in reality, they are exercising agency and authority all the time in the life of a congregation. Part of their concern has to do with questions of power and authority, which are grounded in nurturing relationships and deep trust over time. Young pastors must learn how to cultivate good interpersonal skills. They must develop relationships with people over time in order to build social capital within and beyond their congregations—and they must know when to spend it wisely.

Cultivate members’ vocational imagination and capacity for Christian leadership. Christian discipleship stands at the center of congregational life and is the pathway to leadership within the church. But many pastors and congregations struggle with developing disciples. Pastors are particularly eager to develop leaders and put members to work. But many members do not necessarily have any passion for, feel called to or feel able to do what pastors want to get done in their congregations. And, many congregants may not have a fully developed sense of vocation or what they are “called” to do. Young pastors must learn how to create spaces for members to explore and discover their own vocations, develop ministries and shared leadership around their gifts and charisms. Without shared leadership, young pastors set themselves up for burnout.

Be shapers and developers of vital congregations and communities. Vital congregations and faith communities do not just happen. Pastors and other leaders, as a team, must intentionally take on the responsibility to attend to the shape and development of the congregation. They are the architects of the community and their work often has lasting impact beyond anything else that happens in the congregation. Shapers and developers of vital congregations create and refine the foundational ideas—vocation, vision and values—of a faith community. They also design processes that harvest the collective wisdom of the congregation and inform deliberation, discernment and decisions on behalf of the congregation and the community. Shapers and developers of communities create a space where members are invited to share and reflect theologically on congregational stories and act together in ways that are signs of vitality and a life abundant in God. Young pastors must learn how to be spiritual architects of their faith communities.

Develop meaningful relationships and support among pastoral colleagues. Pastoral ministry can be isolating and alienating if young pastors do not cultivate holy friendships and companions along the journey. Many younger pastors who left ministry within the first five to seven years might have survived if they had a community of support. The joys and challenges of ministry demand that young pastors find colleagues and peers who will mutually support one another. Like other professions, pastoral leaders need meaningful peer relationships and mentors, coaches and conversation partners as well as critics who will encourage them to become their best in ministry.

Learn, discern and act collectively with other pastors in a community of practice. It is not enough for young pastors just to have friends and colleagues that support them. They must also fight the temptation of working in homogenous denominational and institutional silos. Young pastors must create with other colleagues and peers a diverse community of practice. This kind of peer learning community invites young pastors to routinely practice ways of learning from each other, discerning and reflecting theologically, and acting together. Over time, a community of practice has the capacity of building trust and support among peers, clarifying and dispelling assumptions, facilitating meaningful and difficult conversations, and shaping young pastors for ministry and life-long friendships. These types of communities are not an option for young pastors; they are something every young pastor should have access to as part of their pastoral formation.

These seven leadership capacities are crucial elements in the life of any young pastor serious about pastoral ministry. If congregations are to become vital faith communities filled with God’s people practicing life abundantly together and engaging the human and social needs of the community, young pastors must cultivate these practices over time.

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