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Three habits of highly effective pastors

1 – Remembering names. We sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” But, Dale Carnegie wrote that the sweetest sound to a person’s ears in any language is the sound of one’s own name. I cannot count the number of times someone told me that the reason they chose a church home was because the pastor remembered their name. Great sermons, a visible faith in God, compassionate pastoral presence and strong leadership are often skills pastors practice tirelessly… but all of that can maddeningly be undone if you call Bob the wrong name. At times, I have bought into the cop-out that “I am not good at names,” but such memory is a discipline that can be learned. Unlike many organizations, churches often have glossy pictorial directories that can serve as study material. Most churches have a “hand-shake ritual” at the end of every service where the pressure is on to remember the name and the pertinent details of someone’s present situation. It’s easy to say, “Hey you! There you are!”

But, the best pastors I know don’t trust their memory as much as they do ink. So, they write down names and things that were shared immediately following any pastoral encounter, from the receiving line to community meetings. God has “called us by name.” We use people’s full names in their baptism to signify their engrafting into the community of faith. Names matter.

2 – Silencing their devices. What is pastoral etiquette with the use of Ipads and smartphones? I am glad that most pastors I know do not have a bluetooth device blinking on their ear like God’s secret-service agent. But, it is often hard to discern which needs are more important: the ding from an email that might be from someone who has been rushed to the hospital (though it is more likely an ad from a Christian publishing house) or the people in a meeting around us? Is that call coming in from an unknown number notification that the church building is on fire? Or is it someone wanting to talk through summer Sunday school – in five months? It’s hard to put down the device, especially in meetings when “the motion before us ” seems to be moving forward…. in very …. slow… motion.

The most impressive pastors I know pay attention. They are present. They equip people to care for others in their absence and know how to be reached in an emergency. They are humble enough to know emergencies requiring their presence are not everyday occurrences, and they are healthy enough not to stir up a culture of emergencies around them. If they are expecting a call from someone, they let folks around them know ahead of time, which is a way of saying, “I respect the time we have together greatly.” There is a phrase, “You may not remember what a person said, but you remember how they made you feel.” These pastors are disciplined about “away messages” when they are unable to respond to emails or phone calls. And when another person is talking, they offer the gift of undivided attention. This is the new terrain, even wilderness, of ministry in the digital age: learning how to be present with those who are physically present, and learning how to be present through tools like smartphones, email and Facebook.

3 – Not waiting to be asked. That was part of the refrain from the NEXT Church conference in Minneapolis held in early April. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Step up. Step out. Have a creative idea for worship? Try it. If it is a flop, there is learning. If it is a hit, great! Don’t get wedded to it. If you are called to a community, ordained or not, spend time there. Cultivate relationships there. As Jeremiah said, “Seek the welfare of the city [where you are,] for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The pastors who are thriving are seeking out ways to serve their communities without waiting for the perfect call to materialize on the Church Leadership Connection website or for a call from a presbytery nominating committee. They are setting up individual meetings with people in the church and the community around them to find out where holy movement is taking place, rather than waiting by the phone for an emergency (see #2) or checking the mail for a printed invitation. They don’t shy away from writing op-eds or weighing in when key conversations are happening outside the narthex, on Twitter or at the town council meeting. They know the police chief and the funeral home director before the crisis strikes. They no longer assume that they deserve authority by virtue of their position, but rather engage the contested space that is our culture with creativity, energy, imagination, and lots of love.

The phrase “highly effective” rings a little corporate, and Stephen Covey had seven in his list of habits of highly effective people, and this is only three. But ministry is about making a meaningful difference in the lives of people and being faithful to the God we serve. What habits would you add to this list?

Becca Messman

Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia.  She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers.  Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting.  She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.