Decision Leadership: Clergy Strengths

We asked recently ordained pastors and priests how strong they believe they are in different components of leading people through decisions. Among the 283 TiM clergy and 477 non-TiM clergy who responded to our questions, a clear and consistent pattern of strengths and weaknesses emerged in relation to how they engage decision processes. This pattern echoes some of the pattern found ten years ago in the Higher Quality of Ministry Study of seasoned Episcopal priests serving and leading in congregations.1

Newer pastors and priests feel most adept at the pastoral and interpersonal dimensions in decision leadership, as well as in their capacity to communicate goals clearly. They see themselves as less adept and needing more development in areas of decision leadership having to do with strategic goal adjustment and assessment of work in process, interpersonal networks and power influences, conflict navigation, and personal anxiety management.

In the table below are the items that the most clergy saw as their strengths—areas of decision leadership in which they were strong enough to help train others. For each question, Transition into Ministry alumni (clergy who benefited from unique post-seminary development programs) and non-TiM clergy are compared side by side with longer-term Episcopal priests in the Higher Quality study.

Click image for larger view

Click image for larger view


Recently ordained pastors and priests resemble seasoned Episcopal priests in how strongly they assess their own capacities to listen accurately, attend to people’s feelings, and understand their own patterns of thinking and responding when working with others on a decision. Anywhere between 40% and 57% of newer clergy indicate these as “expert” capacities.

These capacities are typical—one might even say basic—“pastoral” and “reflective” capacities that are expected of clergy. They are fundamental, important, bread-and-butter strengths in serving and leading people. And they are trained and developed through Clinical Pastoral Education, field education, and courses in pastoral care and group work.

But compared to seasoned Episcopal priests, newer clergy across denominations less frequently see themselves as adept in leading the work itself. While a healthy percentage—about one-third—of both TiM and non-TiM clergy see themselves as “experts” in matters related to thinking about and communicating desired outcomes, deeper issues shaping problems, alternative solutions, and relation of decisions to overall mission, this is a lower percentage than among longer-term clergy. The lower percentage is not surprising, given the infrequency of training and education in these ways of thinking and engaging the work of ministry.


For Your Consideration

  • In what ways does effective decision leadership involve a mixed focus on the people, the project, and oneself?
  • What happens when one’s focus is on the people but not the project?
  • What happens when one’s focus is on the project but not the people?


It is worth noting that recently ordained clergy also lag behind more seasoned clergy in their ability to accept and understand their responsibility in decision leadership. Part of this difference is of course related to position: assistant and associate clergy do not sit in the “hot seat” of primary responsibility.2 Solo and senior pastors have a different experience to which they must adapt. So how can we better prepare clergy as leaders to understand and make the best use of the authority, responsibility, and leadership that are part of their specific positions?


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1 John Dreibelbis and David Gortner, Talented but Tenuous: A Profile of Clergy Temperaments and Leadership Skills, research report submitted to the Lilly Endowment (Evanston, IL: Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 2002).

2 For information on the selection, training, and assessment of individuals who are required to take the command role in an emergency, see the book Sitting in the Hot Seat: Leaders and Teams for Critical Incident Management by Rhona Flin (Wiley, 1996).