What is a “good” pastor? What is pastoral leadership about?

Here’s a short, short, story. In the later 1980’s I was a small cog in a big corporation. I was a District Manager for the inventory-financing arm of an insurance corporation. Though customer happiness was an aim, the job was to maintain the corporation’s financial security. We (three) twenty-somethings were watchmen, and had credit authority at a non-dangerous level.

At Branch Manager level and up – beyond us – one got ahead by paying attention to routines of management and by influencing others. A manager could rely on numbers to assess good and weak employees. To assess the value of our branch, head office used financial statements. Eventually, head office decided that functions except risk management could be done best from the central office. The local processing staff, whose work did not pay the company well enough, was let go.

A single executive can manage a huge corporation easily because all employees follow a shared culture.  Managers watch employee performances on any number of criteria – daily, weekly, yearly as appropriate. They alter performances by interventions based on numbers. But don’t miss this: Employees know that they must “produce.” All corporate for-profit cultures demand it. Good people produce. Performance is being tracked. The corporate theory of human nature supports it. The results can be sweet V.P. or higher, or they can be dire. The key factor in managing a company is the utilitarian code.

Shared culture is how capitalism works. Capitalism depends on assumed infinite resources, processed by most efficient methods, for output of maximum goods and services. The global reach of capitalism has carried the “modern” mindset – especially utilitarianism applied to people – to the ends of the earth. Any person who shares the utility-maximizing mindset has the primary qualification to work in the office of a multinational in Mumbai, India, or in Canada, or wherever. Capitalism, one of the two major ideologies of human material progress (socialism being the other one; see e.g. author Goudzwaard), is a time- and money-maximizing system.

In a church, however, producing criteria do not apply. Production criteria would be ungodly. No human being can accept personal responsibility for the faith of another person. You cannot program spiritual growth in others as a computer is programmed.

But producing criteria can be made to apply.

Story Two: An executive pastor of a large (“mega”) church talks about how to manage a church staff. Pastors on staff were to be managed by mutually agreed external, verifiable, goals. Staff pastors were accountable to agreed external goals at the risk of their jobs (my typo was goads).

Story Three: A pastor went on the staff of a church-growth minded local church. His performance targets were set at a special meeting, not with the senior pastor but with the senior administrator. The administrator lacked theological background. The question was no longer whether the assistant pastor prompts faith – no longer his role!

Theology is marginal in the now-routinized churches of Stories Two and Three – as, it seems, is faith.  In utility church thinking, current adherents have become the means to production of a larger congregation. If you step forward to lead a small group, you are helping the cause; you have become a means to the end. What is wrong with that? Nothing, except that members can begin to feel that they are valued not as persons but as (unpaid) employees. You might have been manipulated into serving. No matter. The end is being served and the end is justified as overwhelmingly valuable.

If some members begin to feel that the thing is a machine, they would be correct.

Is church growth other than a way of rationalizing the life of a body of believers? Is it more than application of utilitarian principles to church life?

This method of operation is Leadership Magazine incarnated. Leadership Magazine knows nothing of special theological commitments. A leader in any church can read Leadership Magazine, as can leaders in a synagogue, a mosque, or Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Possibly even a Buddhist sangha might benefit. (Why not.)

The insight of this piece is this: In assessing any pastor, the nature of the church becomes the crucial question.

What is valued as good pastoral leadership depends on a church’s self-understanding and her context – at least to some extent.

For examples:

  • For a utility-maximizing church, seeking a pastor means seeking a rationalizer, an effective manager.
  • The pastor in some South American settings would be expected to have planted six or more sister churches. In a setting of relatively easy evangelism – of fields white to harvest – this is a reasonable requirement. Mandatory evangelism applied to North American church leaders after four centuries of Christianity – less reasonable. A pastor who plants one church in a lifetime has an achievement worth noting.
  • Under persecution such as in Pakistan, insisting that the pastor generate church growth is laughable. Merely maintaining a witness in such conditions is paramount.
  • Maintaining the faith is paramount also in France, where the secular landscape renders historically-orthodox Christianity nearly invisible.
  • In a mainstream church dominated by the progressive-liberal mindset, a pastor active in social redemption ministries or initiatives might be highly prized.
  • In Catholic circles, anyone qualified to administer sacraments is sought after.
  • In Anglican circles with inactive homes in a majority, an ability to activate passive members and families by parish missions would be appealing. Alternatively, for liberal-progressive minded congregations again, a social worker, might be appealing.

Does “good” pastoral leadership depend on the church’s self-understanding and context?

Can there be a middle ground between making sure the nursery is well-staffed, and building up the faith of the faithful? Open to hear.