Gary Charles’ perspective: Leaders reformed by God according to the Word of God
Leadership theory is a popular topic on seminary campuses and in church workshops. Seminar students, pastors and educators are taught certain leadership theory and offered techniques that will result in a thriving church and a successful ministry. While there are valuable lessons in studying “leadership theory,” this study should come with a word of caution.
A favorite phrase of the Protestant Reformation was “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi dei.” This is surely the most mistranslated phrase in the Protestant Church. It’s typically translated: “The church reformed, always reforming according to the word of God.” Not exactly. The Latin phrase is passive. The subject of the church’s reformation is not “effective church leaders educated in the best current leadership theory who then reform the church.” The subject of all leadership theory in the church is always God. As much as our egos fight to accept this Reformed truth, we ordained church leaders are not the authors of the church’s reformation. The church is being reformed by God and according to the Word of God — always.
It is easy for church leaders — perhaps especially new church leaders — to mistake the charge to lead with possessing an overabundance of wisdom. Church leaders who understand the passive voice of the classic Reformed motto understand that the source of their leadership is God, and so then trust in the God who empowers them to lead. Getting our theology straight is key to getting our leadership straight.
I was a freshly minted seminary graduate in the summer of 1980 when I was called to serve a congregation in Wilmington, North Carolina. I had completed my theological education (or so I thought), had passed all my ordination exams and I was ready to lead.
What I lacked in 1980 (and no fault of the seminary) were the practical tools of leadership. It is one thing to know that God is the source of the church’s re-formation, it is quite another to know how to lead others in pursuit of God’s lead and in discipleship of God’s son, and how to grow daily in one’s own spiritual practice and leadership acumen.
My deficiencies in pastoral ministry were legion. I could not read a financial spreadsheet or help a finance committee understand the irregular flow of income versus the regular outflow of monthly expenses. I could moderate a session meeting according to the theory I had learned — and mostly by the seat of my pants. I had no clue how to motivate people to respond as generous stewards to the overabundance of God’s grace.
I sat in my office at the end of my first month of preaching and thought: “I don’t have anything left to say! How am I possibly going to preach next Sunday much less for the next 40 years?” When there was an attempt on the pope’s life, I spoke stridently against gun violence in a congregation filled with gun owners and hunters. Little did I know that people actually listen to what I say in the pulpit. I sure found out the next few days!
Thanks to wise mentors in the presbytery, and even more wise mentors in the congregations I served, I grew in my ability to lead. One wise session clerk observed, “Gary, did you know that you have a cutoff valve that switches on at 8 p.m. and after 9 you are a lousy session moderator?” It was not a welcome word, but a truer word has not been spoken. After that, I strove to end all session meetings before 8 p.m.
I offer just a few examples of learning how to lead post-seminary because it has never been more critical in the church. I began my ordained ministry nearly 40 years ago when there was still a remnant of state-supported Christian practice alive, especially in the American South. Social mores dictated that few activities should occur on Sunday morning so as not to compete with Sunday school and church worship. Most stores were closed until Sunday afternoon in deference to the church. Many members had grown up attending church, whether they wanted to or not. They were “churched.”
That boat of church and culture has long since sailed in the United States and even in the so-called “Bible Belt.” Church leaders today are increasingly engaged with a population of people who are not antagonistic toward the church — they simply do not notice the church. Religious faith and religious practice are alien to most, and church leaders now must function within the church and increasingly beyond the church. As most seminary professors will tell you, those engaged in theological education today are often ardent about the faith, but have come to theological education out of this secular societal reality and come from a rather thin church ecology.
So, skilled and faithful church leaders today are as important, or more so, than when Martin Luther led a revolution of church thought 500 years ago. Seminaries are charged with equipping potential church leaders with skills in biblical study, theological reflection, ethical discernment, pastoral care and counseling, Christian education, church history and administrative skills. Many pastors begin church leadership with energy, intelligence, imagination and love, and within the first five years realize that they would be wise to pursue another vocation.
Concerned about the substantial “drop-out rate” of young pastors, the religion department of the Lilly Endowment has engaged in a variety of trial programs to empower recent seminary graduates for a long vocation of church ministry. While pastor of the Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, we received a Lilly grant and for a decade provided a mentoring program for recent seminary graduates to enhance their ability to practice ministry and to develop healthy practices of ministry. In return, these Lilly resident pastors gave our congregation and leaders gifts of wisdom, insight and energy for which I will forever be grateful.
Mentoring is not older pastors telling younger pastors how to lead. I will confess to suffering, at least partially, from that delusion when the residency program began. I quickly learned that wisdom flows in both directions and that having a mentor in church leadership at any point of your ministry can be a valuable gift for both parties.
In our residency program, we reviewed worship weekly, evaluated sermons and shared personal struggles. But our resident pastors were not junior pastors or soon-to-be-pastors. They were ordained pastors with specific responsibilities from finance to youth, from mission to maintenance. After I moderated a session meeting, resident pastors would reflect on how my moderating advanced the work of session and when it prevented session from doing good work. This was in preparation for the third year as a resident pastor when the resident would moderate a meeting and then debrief after that experience.
The church makes a dangerous mistake when we conclude that even the finest seminary education is sufficient to fuel good church leadership for decades. A seminary education is a critical step along a lifelong of theological education, but it is still one step. If we want new seminary graduates to develop the ability to listen attentively, to read Scripture critically and creatively, attend to the voice of God and to the cries of God’s people and participate effectively in church councils/judicatories/governing bodies, then we must commit major resources to mentoring pastors at every stage of pastoral ministry, especially those in their early post-seminary life.
I speak to you as one nearing the close of his pastoral ministry. I invite you now to read to the wisdom of Jill Duffield, who has spent considerable time in the pulpit and the pew overlooking the larger church.
Jill Duffield’s perspective: Always learning, always mentoring
Stepping behind the pulpit of my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Mt. Gilead, North Carolina, at some point during my first year of seminary, I found my knees quaking and my lip on the verge of quivering. There could not have been a more supportive or encouraging gathering of people, and yet, I was terrified. My task that morning was to read the New Testament lesson. I know the text was from 1 John. I remember because my pastor called me back after giving me the passage the first time saying, “The reading is from First John, not the Gospel of John, just to be clear.” I needed the clarity. That Sunday morning, having found 1 John near the back of what I knew to be the New Testament, my nerves took over and I did not read the entire passage, leaving off the verses my pastor preached on that day.
I preached my first sermon in that same pulpit a year or so later, on April 1. The hope I cling to is that I have been a fool for Christ ever since.
Truth be told, even 20 years after my ordination, I still quake at the reality of proclaiming God’s word and having been called to leadership in Christ’s church. When the nurse handed my firstborn to me moments after his birth, I remember thinking, “They are actually going to let me take him home.” I knew how little I knew. Parenting is like that, even now, 20 years and a few more children later. Ministry is, too.
The assurance that God does not call the equipped but equips the called only goes so far. While Gary is right that God is the one doing the reforming, those of us in leadership roles must take responsibility for our ongoing learning and contribute to that of our colleagues. Medical professionals are required to keep their certifications current, earn a certain number of continuing education credits and meet each state’s requirements to practice. I served on a state board that oversaw professional counselors and the number of hours of supervision required to be a licensed therapist made my summer of clinical pastoral education (CPE) look like a walk in the park.
My seminary education, I believe, was excellent. My presbytery’s committee on ministry was diligent and patient. (I think I set a record for the number of years I was under care as a candidate. I will leave that story for another article.) Nevertheless, when Charlotte Presbytery certified me as ready to receive a call, I felt like I did the morning that nurse placed my son in my arms. I knew how little I knew.
Thanks be to God, the first church I served was healthy. I became part of a gifted staff — with a head of staff, parish associate and direct of Christian education — all of whom valued my gifts, allowed me to venture into new avenues and compassionately taught, guided and corrected. That experience provided me with a solid foundation that has enabled me to keep at this humbling, invigorating, perplexing work ever since.
I have, however, known many who did not have the gift of such positive formational experiences in ministry and I believe such mentoring is too important to be left to chance. Given the changing landscape of the church, culture and candidates for ministry, the time is now to intentionally seek ways of working with the Spirit to equip the called.
The Company of New Pastors, the Lilly residency program and the Trent Symposium serve as models to emulate, but they are not enough. Each presbytery needs to consider how our connectional system can best mentor, support and equip church leaders, pastors, educators, elders, and commissioned ruling elders. The landscape of culture and church is always changing. Ministry, like any craft, requires ongoing commitment to honing skills, learning how to employ new tools, honest evaluation and communities of practice, support and encouragement.
While I want to be a fool for Christ, I do not want to foolishly believe I have nothing left to learn because God is always doing a new thing and I need the communion of the saints to help me perceive it.
Gary Charles and Jill Duffield: A new mentoring community
Thanks to the vision of leaders in the Presbytery of the James (Carson Rhyne, Rebekah Johns, Beverly Zink Sawyer and Steve Eason) and the support of Brian Blount, the president of Union Presbyterian Theological Seminary, a new community of ministry and worship will be launched in February. The intention of this “community” will be to provide mentoring, coaching and pastoral support to ordained pastors who are recent graduates from seminary (less than seven years out of seminary). We will serve as mentors and leaders of the first cohort.
We will identify areas with them that need continued development — from moderating session meetings to reading financial spreadsheets to how to lead congregations in public advocacy to leading worship and preaching sermons. Each participant has agreed to meet for a four-hour monthly seminar followed by a community lunch and an all-day retreat in August. We are impressed with the gifts that each participant brings to this new opportunity and look forward to sharing our (and their) observations about the value of such an intensive post-seminary graduate endeavor.
Our prayer is that this new “community” effort will soon expand to include mentoring/coaching with pastors who have served in parish ministry for a longer period and who still have many areas in which to grow and develop.
We hope that this particular project of the Presbytery of the James will expand to presbyteries across the country and will become a vital partnership between presbyteries and seminaries as presbyteries help build upon the outstanding theological education of its member pastors.
GARY CHARLES the pastor of Cove Presbyterian Church in Covesville, Virginia. He is co-author with Brian Blount of “Preaching Mark in Two Voices.” JILL DUFFIELD is the editor of the Presbyterian Outlook and regularly worships at Cove Presbyterian Church.