Clergy Formation—Preparing for Ministry in Today’s World, or Yesterday’s? (Part 4)

Churches’ Expectations of Clergy Are Changing, Very Slowly

The findings of the Clergy Into Action Study suggest that, in spite of significant changes to the realities of congregational life in the past few decades, the skills in which new clergy are thoroughly trained and feel most confident have remained fairly static. (See our overview article for more on this general pattern.)

We wondered how much the congregations or other organizations in which new clergy work adhere to a traditional model of ordained ministry, with the roles of preacher, worship leader, role model, and pastoral care-giver overshadowing all other functions and priorities.

For answers, we turned to the individuals whom the Transition into Ministry (TiM) alumni in our study had nominated to participate in 360-style assessments of their abilities. Each of the main survey subjects was asked to identify one supervisor or mentor, one colleague in ordained ministry, one lay congregation leader, and one employee or key volunteer.

More than 500 people in this 360-style assessment group responded to our question about which areas of ministry were most important to their church, school, or organization.

The results were generally consistent with the pattern that has appeared in other parts of the study. The expected religious functions of pastoral care, preaching, and sacramental and liturgical ministries were the highest rated areas; between 79% and 86% of respondents identified these areas as “very important” or “critically important.”


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Among the lowest-rated were areas of ministry that have only recently started to be recognized as having importance for congregations, such as setting objectives and program plans, and self-development and self-management. Respondents gave the lowest rating to supervision of others and work; 15% identified it as “somewhat important” and 2% as “not important at all.”

It’s in the middle of the rankings that some interesting reversals can be seen. Communications and community outreach typically receive moderate coverage in seminaries and little attention in TiM programs, but this group of survey respondents recognized them as having relatively high importance for their churches.

Also, serving as a role model and providing Christian education have often been considered core role-functions of priests and pastors. Yet these respondents rated them as slightly less important than two skill areas related to building up and empowering the congregational community: developing lay ministry and leadership, and congregational/group development.

We found minimal differences between the response of clergy (the supervisors, mentors, and colleagues of our main study subjects) and lay people (lay leaders, employees, and volunteers). The latter group gave higher ratings to areas of ministry that they or their families may have personally benefitted from—pastoral care and Christian education, and also congregational development. The supervisors, mentors, and colleagues put a higher value on developing lay ministry and leadership but, surprisingly, a relatively lower value on supervisory skills.

The overall pattern that emerges is one that includes change, but it is slow and minor change. The Church as a system and a culture is wired to select, train, and deploy for what it values most. For the most part, it still prioritizes traditional areas of ministry: preaching, organizing and leading worship services, providing pastoral care, and being a positive role model.

Thus, pastors and priests who are effective transformational change-agents are not the norm. Indeed, they may find themselves swimming against the tide in denominational systems and cultures that communicate mixed messages about what they want from their leaders. Only 15–20 years ago, many seminary faculty members considered “leadership” a concept unbefitting Christian ministry.

Dr. David Gortner, principal investigator of the Clergy Into Action Study, summarizes some of the conclusions he has drawn from 15 years of research by describing a picture of two cycles—a vicious cycle and a virtuous cycle.

The vicious cycle emerges when clergy have not developed or been trained in capacities linked to effective leadership. As a result, they have not developed the confidence to act, the decisiveness to choose a path of action, or the assertiveness sufficient to be comfortable with being an agent of influence. Because of their low confidence and assertiveness, such clergy then do not seek out the training and development of capacities that would help them become more effective.

A virtuous cycle emerges when clergy learn, practice, and develop capacities for effective leadership. Confidence grows. A natural assertiveness emerges. It can be observed happening when clergy learn some basic techniques of pastoral care and counseling, like how to listen effectively … in liturgical skills, as clergy learn how to plan and help direct worship … and as they practice public speaking in preaching. These strengthen confidence and assertiveness—in specific areas of ministry—and encourage clergy to seek and develop more capacity and skill in those areas. And, like other people, clergy will devote more time to those areas of their work in which they have the most confidence.

To help future clergy develop their capacities for effective leadership, seminaries and divinity schools may need to reconsider what is emphasized by their overall curriculum, field education programs, and co-curricular activities. Denominational offices and church governing bodies in charge of clergy formation may want to build on the lessons learned from the existing Transition into Ministry programs in developing residency, peer group, or mentoring programs. Not only will those headed for ordination need to rethink what it means to be a pastor or a priest, but the churches that send them to seminary and that hire them out of seminary may need to revise their expectations and priorities as well.


For Your Consideration

  • How strong an emphasis does your church or denomination put on clergy being good preachers? Effective leaders? Providers of pastoral care?
  • What does your church, denomination, or seminary do to strengthen capacities in clergy in ways that will help them move beyond maintenance of a congregation into deeper and broader leadership for transformational change in the Church?

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