Getting To Know You: How Well Do Clergy Know the Gifts and Strengths of Others?

The heart of effective church development and community ministry is building relationships. Discerning the assets, strengths, capacities, and gifts of people and groups is a foundational practice for a faith community’s development of strong lay leadership and broader community connection. But clergy’s ability to do this effectively depends on their time and effort in getting to know different groups of people – and, as we have shown in other articles, recently ordained pastors and priests tend to allocate less time to matters of lay leadership development and broader community connection. This results in a natural tendency to learn more about the people who work most closely with them, simply because of higher frequency and proximity of contact.

In ministry, just like in any work, people know the most about the individuals, groups, and organizations with which they spend the most time. So, how well do clergy know different groups of people and organizations in their ministry settings? Whose gifts and strengths do they know quite well, and whose gifts and strengths do they know little about, if anything?

We asked recently ordained pastors and priests—both those who had participated in Transition into Ministry (TiM) programs and those who had not—how much they know about the gifts and strengths of people in their geographic area, as well as people in their church or other place of ministry.

Not unexpectedly, respondents report the most familiarity with the gifts and strengths of fellow staff—the “professionals” with whom they spend the most time in leading and facilitating ministries of the church. Nearly three-quarters of newer clergy say they know “a lot” about their fellow staff members’ assets and strengths.

Chart - Awareness of Assets within church 2

Fewer recently ordained clergy also know “a lot” about the capacities and gifts of key lay leaders (60%) and church council members (50%)—the voluntary leaders in their congregations upon whom they depend most, with whom they spend the most time devoted to ministry planning and review.

They are less familiar with the gifts and strengths of church volunteers and regular church members: only 25% know “a lot” about volunteers, and only 15% know “a lot” about regular members and attenders, while over 25% know “only a little” or “hardly anything” about regular members. Finally, not surprisingly, newer clergy know the least (and very little) about the strengths and gifts of less frequent attenders.

This pattern reveals much about the ways in which clergy structure and allocate their time, as they respond to the patterned expectations of activity in the local church. It is not a surprising pattern, but it reveals the challenge of relational connection that haunts ministry, and the temptation of sticking with closest work with people most involved and those employed as “professionals.”

Some of this is natural and can be helpful. The Rev. John Cusick, the young adult ministry director for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, describes this approach as the “Jesus method of organizing,” in which a religious leader expends the most effort building a core team of “apostles” while still seeking to involve and invite those who are “disciples” and “followers.”1

But, unchecked, such a pattern can lure clergy into spending more time with the most connected and investing less effort in connecting with and getting to know people with less immediate connection. Unchecked, this pattern works against the efforts of evangelism and lay leadership development.

When clergy devote time to connecting with people and learning about their passions, interests, and obvious and hidden capacities, they naturally begin to expand the network of active ministers and leaders in their congregations. They begin to build bridges between people. They begin to imagine fresh possibilities that emerge from their sense of what a community is capable of doing and being. One cannot expand lay leadership and ministry without devoting time to moving outside one’s familiar circles to discover what is “out there,” ready and waiting for invitation.

Because of the intensity of time demands within most congregations or religious organizations, clergy’s knowledge of the gifts and strengths of people and organizations beyond the church or organization for which they work is often far less well-developed. As can be seen in the chart, newer pastors and priests report knowing less across the board about people and organizations outside their immediate faith community or religious organization. Newer clergy (like their senior colleagues) are most familiar with the world “inside” the church—and reveal a preference for staying within their own denominations. Beyond the walls and gathered community of the local congregation, they are moderately familiar with their own denominational regional networks and organizations—more familiar than with other churches and religious organizations in their own neighborhoods!

Chart - Awareness of Assets wider community 2

Fewer than 10% of recently ordained clergy know “a lot” about the capacities of local groups, associations, businesses, non-profits, and other organizations – and only 4% know “a lot” about the strengths and gifts of residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

To state the obvious: clergy do not have particularly strong knowledge of the people, groups, and organizations in their church’s neighborhood that are outside the “church world.” Clergy do not even have very strong knowledge of local churches around their own congregations. There is a tendency of clergy to live “inside the bubble” of their own congregational, denominational, and religious world.

What is quite evident in these charts is the natural outcomes of proximity. People know more about those with whom they most closely work and with whom they are most closely allied in identity and purpose. However, these charts also point to the potential consequences of not attending more intentionally to people in the broader surrounding environment outside central leadership circles and outside the local congregation or organization for which one works. Mission and ministry can be unintentionally restricted when leaders do not take the time to learn about the gifts, capacities, and assets of other people and organizations immediately around them in the congregation and surrounding community.

When clergy and congregations devote some of their efforts to building relationships with the people, groups, and organizations of their neighborhoods, new opportunities surface and new partnerships develop as people discover more about each other’s passions, strengths, and gifts. This is what changes neighborhoods—and churches. It is what makes high-impact missional churches.


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1 John C. Cusick and Katherine F. DeVries, The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).