The fully formed pastor

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Archie Poulos
No one expects to be perfect this side of heaven, yet do we expect too much of our clergy as their skills develop, asks Archie Poulos in this blog post.

Our expectation is that our pastors and clergy will be at the top of their game from the moment they begin serving us: we want them competent in everything they do, we hope they have the character that exemplifies the life of faith and is worthy of imitation, and we expect them to have the conviction that befits the renewed mind of people bought by Jesus.

I can understand this expectation. After all, they are our leaders. The New Testament calls on shepherds to be blameless, to watch their life and doctrine closely so that others may imitate their lives and none be caused to stumble. Added to that is the cost of clergy. With rents in Sydney the way they are, it is a considerable cost to churches to have ministry staff and so we need them to have high-functioning competency immediately.

But is the expectation reasonable?

As individuals, don’t we rejoice that while God calls us to change, and change immediately, he also gives us time to develop? The Scriptures tell us this is true of our leaders as well. Paul’s command to Timothy is to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching so that others may see his progress (1 Tim 4:13-15). Timothy is given time to develop.

We must differentiate between competency that develops over time and those characteristics that should mark a person from even before they commence pastoral ministry. Godliness, gentleness and humility are obvious things we can all grow in but they must be substantially in place before ordination. We should not lay hands upon anyone unless they are godly, gentle with people and humble. However, we should be willing to do so for someone who is making progress in their preaching or other ministry skills but not quite yet at their peak. The virtuous character and conviction are not negotiable. But people require time to grow in competency.

It is against this background that we sometimes hear the complaint that Moore College graduates are not “fully formed” in conviction, character and competency. It is true that everyone is a work in progress, but we need to consider the validity of the statement and think about ways to better prepare people in ministry.  

The validity of the suggestion

“One bad apple ruins the crop” describes any group: politicians, real estate agents, police, the military, social services. A bad apple also shapes our perception of the group. This occurs  with ministers too. Over the years our churches have had the blessing of many ministers and a negative experience of one minister easily tarnishes all. So let’s look at some statistics.

Through the National Church Life Survey, surveys of churchwardens, and 360 degree reports on assistant ministers, we have access to both wide and deep reflections on clergy.

Without exception, every survey overwhelmingly endorses all clergy as “inspiring Christians” of deep Christian conviction and character, who seek to align their lives to the gospel. That’s great news as it confirms our prayers for clergy of character and conviction are being answered.

It’s also great news that in every one of more than 100 categories concerning competency, the average is above 60 per cent. But we are also aware that there exists a positive bias (the desire to be nice) and that averages also mask some poor results. So let’s dig deeper.

The weakest results cluster around relational and operational capability. In the relational area it is issues such as conflict resolution, understanding another’s viewpoint and seeking other’s opinions – while still highly rated – that were the poorest performers. Operational capability limitations were focused on controlling the diary, tracking goals and adjusting as necessary, and helpfully assisting those who work beside them in ministry.

Why these limitations?

Given that God has blessed us with many godly, capable young people preparing for ministry, why do we observe relational and operational abilities as the ones requiring most work?

We must begin by repeating that clergy of poor character and conviction are rare. We need to admit though, that occasionally character flaws are the problem, but survey results constantly confirm this is uncommon. But the impact of these pastors lingers. The experience of relationship with them is long remembered and may shape our perception of all clergy. It could cause us to wrongly identify competency shortcomings as character faults. A person may well improve in competency but character is much more difficult to change and poor character is much more dangerous.

But, we still need to think about relational and operational shortcomings.

Here are some of my suggestions about why we have clergy who are sometimes described as arrogant or disengaged (character flaw), when it may actually be a failure in competency:

1. Before clergy begin their studies they are often highly competent in their ministry activities – that’s why they enter vocational ministry. When they begin leading congregations they continue to do those same good things. They become the workers, rather than the recruiters, supporters, encouragers of saints in their ministry. This can look like they are not engaged with, or concerned for developing others. A change in how you function in church is required and this often takes time to develop.

2. The years of theological study require focus to deeply plumb biblical studies and theology, as the goal of this knowledge is that it will seep down deeply into character and conviction and equip pastors for the uncertainties of ministry. This deep penetration is best achieved by living in community with other students without unhelpful distractions. Graduates need time to relearn normal engagement in churches and society. This is not a sign of settled disengagement.

3. It is impossible to learn everything at once. Everyone is in the process of maturing. Young clergy have often not yet had the breadth and experience of life that shapes people, which can make them seem distant when it is really just inexperience. Tim Keller calls young preachers “boney”, in that they have the skeleton of what to say but do not yet have the flesh and muscle that is produced by life’s experiences.

4. Expectations can hinder ministry. The pastor has expectations of themselves and the congregation has expectations of the pastor. When expectations are unmet it is common for the pastor to withdraw in order to protect themselves. This can again look like disengagement when it is just a means of self-protection. As with all people, it takes time to develop the maturity to be vulnerable. The minister also often has expectations of the impact for God’s kingdom they must have, and so set about achieving that impact without thinking about engaging others or considering their own resources to achieve this. Couple this with the congregation’s expectation that their clergy will immediately lead God’s people to the promised land of gospel growth! These expectations can cause relational tensions.

Ministry preparation problems?

If theological education and shaping does not resolve these problems, should we think about jettisoning the current model? Should we follow the example of some and do theological education part-time while students spend most of their time “on the job”?

Taking into your being the word of God, which is God’s authorised means of directing our lives, and the understanding of God that results from rigorous theological reflection, permits us to deeply understand ourselves and our world. If clergy lose this intensive opportunity of education we do the current generation – and all future generations – no service. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that sets the foundation stones for blessing congregations for decades.

Biblical studies (including the original languages) and theology are the key foundations for a life of ministry, and so we should do all we can to ensure that it is enacted as well as possible.

My belief is that what we currently do in our theological college development is to create the gospel equivalent of stem cells. Stem cells are cells that can become anything – for example, a kidney cell, a skin cell, a heart cell. Moore College graduates know their Bible and theology. However, they need time to develop in the specific area of service in which they will be deployed.

At Moore we teach the basics of pastoral ministry such as that we minister with people rather than to people; that all believers are at the same time to be a trainer and a trainee (so listen well); that our goal is transformation of people but this occurs not merely from the pulpit but also as we work shoulder to shoulder in our ministry; and that process further forms and develops our Christian character.

Sure, ministry preparation like this has its downside, but to radically change what we do will lose so much that is valuable and lasting. That needs to be said because we usually notice only what is lacking, not what we have. Moore College though, has recognised the need to help pastors in their lifelong development and so has established the Centre for Ministry Development to do this.

Ways forward

Of first importance is to remember that God is at work in his people leading them to maturity, so we should thank him for calling folk to ministry and then equipping them for the task. Our part – everyone’s part – is to work together to best facilitate this.

Here are some quick suggestions of what might be done and what is being done.

1. Make the most of the student ministry days. A change in our thinking is occurring but it needs to go further: a change from thinking “I go to college to be trained for ministry” to “I am part of college as I continue to minister”. This means our students will need to be actively involved in church life (This is a requirement of college membership and quite rare in the theological college world). We will need to work as a college to help our students reflect on their ministry experiences and what it teaches about God, themselves and the world. We will need to equip supervising clergy to make the most of training student ministers; and congregations should continue to adopt their students recognising that the resources they give to the students will grow the gospel through these folk into all the world.

2. The Centre for Ministry Development (CMD) was established to offer reflective, theologically shaped, evidence-based best practice in ministry to pastors at the appropriate stage of their development for the whole of their lives. Recognising that it is impossible and unhelpful to give all input in the ministry preparation phase, CMD currently works with young graduates to develop their self-understanding and competency in ministry, with “seasoned” rectors to assist them and their congregations to be as effective as possible. CMD is currently developing a program for new rectors to assist in the perilous transition from assistant to senior minister. It has engaged the best practitioners in ministry, psychometric analysis and ministry partners to aid in its task.

3. We all need to give time and space for clergy to develop well. We need to stay calm and not demand immediate results. Most of us find this difficult but God has given us great people and a great church that will help us in our anxiety!

4. Finally, we should all look at ways in which we might work to delete as many impediments to growth for the fully formed pastor. Sometimes the impediments are unexpected. For example the need for appropriate accountability and coaching is often lacking and we should put these in place because not to have it is an impediment to ministry growth.

The fully formed pastor, like the fully formed person and the fully formed church, will be seen in all its glory in heaven. In the meantime, we work under God to keep moving to what he is shaping us all into. 

*This blog post considers the issue from a Moore College perspective. I note the significant contribution of Ministry Training and Development and the menotring of assistant ministers by their parish rector.

Archie Poulos

Archie Poulos is the Head of Moore's Department of Ministry, director of the Centre for Ministry Development and lectures in Ministry.