Reaching Out Toward the Future: What a Highly Effective Minister Looked For in His Next Church

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


The Rev. Tim Pearson was excited by what he discovered during his interview visit to All Saints Episcopal Church, a large parish with a dwindling congregation where he soon came to be rector. Recalling his interview, he said, “[The church] had begun a process of forward-looking and imaging what the future is going to be like in a pretty realistic way…. They had hired a futurist to come. [He] talked to them about what the Episcopal Church is going to be like in the future, and they realized that [their own] current … situation was not fully sustainable.”

In response, the church leadership had taken a close look at possible scenarios for not only their parish but three other Episcopal churches in the area. A conversation emerged between these four congregations, exploring how they might confront their future together.

St Peters Lutheran Church

Pearson explained, “At least some of the people were talking about all of the four churches in the conversation getting rid of their buildings and starting something new. That struck me as missionally centered, as being intentional about reaching out to the future with open arms rather than in fear. That was very exciting.”

This was one of the most important things about All Saints that led Pearson to accept the congregation’s call to become its new rector. In our interview with him seven months later, he said that this and other qualities of the members of the congregation were important factors in his decision to come.

Unlike his previous congregation, in which many people had seemed depressed and uncertain of themselves, All Saints was a congregation with confidence: “Here we have a community of leaders who just are leaders in their lives, and they’re used to running projects and being able to take the ball and run with it. [They] don’t need to be encouraged to be able to do that work … they’re already there.”

Our previous research indicates that more effective clergy tend to be drawn to congregations by intrinsic interests, such as opportunities for growth, and challenges that match their skills.1 More effective clergy also form more positive initial impressions about the qualities of the people in the congregations they are called to serve.

In contrast, less effective or struggling clergy focus more on extrinsic interests: geographical location, for example, or financial stability. They also form more negative initial impressions about the qualities of the people in the congregations they currently serve.

Of course, little in ministry goes exactly as expected or planned. On assuming the role of rector at All Saints, Pearson quickly launched an ambitious plan to obtain an accurate assessment of the congregation’s sense of itself:

“I called the vestry to do a vestry retreat within a month of my arriving … and I taught them the community organizing technique of one-on-one’s. [I] organized them to do one-on-one’s with each member of the congregation—each active member of the congregation—with the thought that they would … bring back to the vestry the passions, the interests, the concerns of the congregation. And based on that, we would have clear understanding of where issues were and also where we’re called to go moving forward.”

Pearson was the first to admit that this effort was only a “middling success”; apparently the vestry (the church’s governing body of elected lay members) was not as committed to the plan as he was, and many of the members did not complete their assigned interviews.

Still, he didn’t seem overly discouraged by this, or by his discovery that the church was in worse financial shape than he was originally told. By the end of his first seven months, he had initiated the first serious stewardship campaign at All Saints that anyone could remember, and he was nurturing the budding relationships that had already begun with the three neighboring churches.

“We started making the conversation between the four churches a living, breathing reality rather than just a dialogue … at the highest levels of leadership,” he said. “We’ve been talking with all the parishes and we’ve been publicizing each other’s events, but [All Saints and one other church] have actually been doing things together. We held two joint services … where both congregations came together on a Sunday at the beginning of the summer and then one at the end of the summer. We are doing a confirmation program together with [them] that’s going to be a … two-year confirmation program. We just got back from a retreat last weekend with kids from the two churches.”

Pearson demonstrates the value of positive initial impressions—and how, even after some initial disappointment, a continuing positive outlook and high expectations regarding a congregation makes a difference in the trajectory of ministry, leadership, and mission.



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1 John Dreibelbis and David Gortner, “Markers of Strong and Effective Clergy Leadership: Preliminary Findings” (research report presented at the 2002 Conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, New Orleans, LA, February–March 2002). Effective clergy mentioned twice as many positive initial impressions about their congregations as negative, while struggling clergy mentioned nearly twice as many negative initial impressions about their congregations as positive.