The Pastoral Tie 1: Why Formation is Important for Pastoral Leaders

Ministry work is said to be like no other job; goals are abstract and difficult to quantify. 
And changing social patterns means pastors can feel demoralised and depleted.

One answer for pastors is personal and professional development.

Ministry leaders contribute to society in specialised but hard-to-define ways. The closest parallel is running a family restaurant or farm, though the role of a school principal also has some common features. Church leadership falls into the category of knowledge work, "thinking for a living". According to Daniel Pink (1), these are heuristic tasks that involve experimenting with possibilities and finding a novel solution, while algorithmic jobs require a set of instructions to be followed. Heuristic workers – sometimes known as knowledge workers – must be motivated by autonomy, responsibility and readiness to direct behaviour towards the organisational goals. 

However goals in ministry work are abstract and difficult to quantify, and often there is no clear job description. The minister has some discretion over their role but most congregations still expect them to preach and teach, celebrate sacraments, oversee congregational life and offer pastoral care (2). In the theological tasks of ministry, says Gil Rendle, ministers act as custodians and communicators of meaning, in texts and traditions, in spiritual practices and the language of metaphor. (3) Much of this work is discretionary, and there are many interruptions. Surveys suggest full-time ministers average 50 - 55 hours a week but church members are often unaware of how their leaders spend their time. They 
overlook the fact that a minister away from the office may be on a pastoral visit, engaging in continuing education, meeting with denominational colleagues, or taking time for renewal. This high degree of discretion means ministers need to be self-managers and learn to use their time creatively; otherwise the irregularity and invisibility of some work can lead to laziness, disorganisation, or deceit.

The expectations are changing. Pastors originally trained to minister ‘Word and Sacrament’ must now manage paid staff and volunteers, comply with charities legislation and take responsibility for health and safety, necessitating a new repertoire of administrative skills. Tasks like dismissing unproductive workers and managing chronic complainers can have a demoralising and depleting effect on pastors who feel they have been called by God to a sacred vocation. One answer to the needs of clergy is to enhance their personal and professional development. 

In the 2015 study I identified a key feature of clergy work as Formation. These excerpts from the clergy interviews are typical:
  • I understand most of my own weaknesses.
  • When I was younger I had fallouts with people, now my strength is working through conflict…looking at how we tick, how we relate... helps you function better.
  • I say to myself not to feel guilty if I take some time out…be assertive.
  • I had enough on my plate. I learnt the meaning of the little word N-O.
  • It was interesting to review two ministers who were in the last few years before retirement, as well as two who were in their first couple of years of ministry. And to see how comfortable in their own skin the older two were, and how tentative the others were. It made me think about how you actually do get some sense of who you are through the experience of ministry 
  • I wanted to do it for myself and not just be vetted. 
The ministry review process can sharpen up self-awareness and the expectation that ministers attend to their professional development. I had originally used terms like growth, self-awareness and emotional intelligence to categorise the stories pastors told me about their personal growth, but these concepts did not reflect the spiritual dimension integral to ministry work. The word Formation, which came into use in the 1960’s Catholic Renewal and is now used widely in churches and in other spiritualities, was a better fit. It refers to the shaping and growth that occurs in a person over their life journey, allowing them to develop awareness of, and responsiveness to, themselves and others. Christians understand that transformation to be a function of a person’s relationship with Christ, and with the faith community. Churches today aim to foster a culture of formation for all believers, not just the clergy. Eith clergy the focus has changed from ‘education’ and academic learning, to ‘formation,’ which means the growth of the whole person in dimensions which shape a leader’s performance. Probing questions around competencies, detailed feedback from elders, and the self-reflection entailed in a review process all fed into a minister’s awareness of where they might profitably invest in personal growth.

Themes relevant to formation that the participants reported from their review experiences are:
  • spirituality
  • self-awareness
  • stress
  • study 
  • supervision. 
I hope to present these themes in future posts, but one was important enough for me to make a separate recommendation.  That was the lack of support for ministers experiencing mental ill-health. Participants (or ministers they knew) were accused of being sinful, demon possessed or gutless, and often found they had no one safe to talk to. Supervision is, of course, an important protective practice, but it cannot prevent the occurrence of depression which is experienced by a quarter of New Zealanders. I recommended that churches explore more effective ways of supporting ministers experiencing burnout and depression, and challenge inadequate theologies of pastor mental health and illness. I’m pleased to see that in the last month I have been invited to three events for church leaders to learn about mental health.

The overall finding was that issues of formation helped ministers understand themselves, connect more effectively with others, shape new mental models of church and mission, and regain hope and joy when faced with long days and little encouragement. The most effective reviews reported to me were focused on the formative dimension, while inadequate reviews often lacked this important emphasis. That finding is reflected in changing practices in the business sector too; performance management of high value knowledge-workers is moving from a top-down critique of past mistakes to an appreciative and future-focussed review conversation. In addition to formation, the study demonstrated that collaborative leadership, missional imagination and vocational management are other key dimensions that need to be taken into account in clergy review conversations. 

To Think About: How do you respond to the idea of formation? Who is forming you? How? Why?

1. Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Edinburgh, UK: Canongate.
2. Carroll, J. W. (2006). God's potters: pastoral leadership and the shaping of congregations. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans.
3. Rendle, G. (2002). Reclaiming professional jurisdiction: the re-emergence of the theological task of ministry. Theology Today, 59(3), 408-420.

This post is part of a series introducing in more detail the findings of my 2015 Master of Business (AUT Auckland) where the thesis topic was performance management of clergy in NZ Presbyterian and Baptist churches. I looked at the changing business sector practices of Performance Management in knowledge work, examined the polity and processes of the nationally-mandated Presbyterian Ministry Development Reviews, and mined Baptist documents for evaluative practices applied in locally-governed congregations. Then I interviewed 15 senior ministers with a mixture of age, gender, ministry years and the two denominations, who had all experienced at least two reviews.
An introduction the thesis findings "Realistic and Hopeful" can be found at