Myth of The Pastoral Hero

Everyone carries a leadership archetype. Every Christ-follower carries a mental model of the ideal pastor. It’s formed by so many influences, typically early in life. For example, remember the kinds of leaders depicted in the movies and novels of your childhood. For we Christ-follower types who were raised by families who regularly engaged church, remember the kinds of pastors you admired as a child. These are some of the influences which shape our mental models of effective pastoral leaders.

When it comes to church life, everyone carries a leadership archetype (classic model) with them as they participate. Lay leaders, pastor search teams, denominational placement people, and everyone in worship….we all connect the terms “pastor” and “leader” in some way to form this image of the effective pastoral leader. This is a natural and normal process, given we human beings are sense-making creatures. This is part of how we function as humans and people of faith.

The problem comes when our pastoral leader archetype or preferred mental model is out of sink with the needs of God’s church. Allow me to explain. The Builder Generation, and many of the Baby Boomers, were nurtured with the view that a strong person (typically male) rises up at just the right time to lead God’s people to great ends. This is called the Great Man theory of leadership. Larger than life heroes like John Wayne on the big screen, Dwight Eisenhower in the oval office, and General Patton commanding the troops inspired these generations to look for the leadership hero to appear at just the right time. Naturally, they brought and bring this well-formed leadership archetype with them to church, expecting pastors to lead similarly.

During a certain period in the recent past, a culture was in place which accommodated, confirmed, and largely embraced this Great Man Leadership Theory. The Modern period of our history looked for the hero type to occupy the corner office of the corporation or the big chair behind the pastor’s desk. This is the way leadership was done.

Certain qualities were admired in these pastoral heroes: independence, sacrifice (even sacrificing their families for the sake of the church), heroic, low need for support from others, stoic, denying personal needs, able to handle anything on their own, etc. We loved these larger than life figures, turning them into pastoral statesmen in our communities.

But alas, time moves onward.
In our work with clergy and congregations, we observe the Great Man Pastoral Hero Myth in two ways. On the one hand, it persists, even though the needs of the church no longer call for this kind of leader. On the other hand, newer images for pastoral leadership are rising.

First, we observe the pastoral hero archetype persisting as we listen to conversations in congregations.
“If we just called a really good preacher, then our church would flourish.”
“If we could get a young pastor, with young children, then our church would flourish.”
“If we could find a pastor like (fill in the blank with the beloved pastoral hero from the 1970s) then we would be on track again.”
These congregations heap great expectations onto their pastors and pastoral candidates. Not surprisingly, there are clergy who also carry the pastoral hero leadership model. These clergy resonate with these typically unspoken expectations, sensing a call to this kind of church. Sometimes things can go really well, given the complimentary pastoral leadership perspective of the congregation and pastor….for a while. Then when the expected results are not achieved, our phone rings.

Second, we see the images of pastoral leadership shifting. One very specific example is the personality types of effective pastoral leaders now (2000+). We use the Peoplemap Personality Inventory with clergy and church staff in many ways, identifying them as Leader, People, Free Spirit, or Task types. The Leader Type description contains many of the characteristics or qualities of the traditional Great Man or Woman leader. As noted before, this type flourished as pastor in the recent past. Now we are seeing the Free Spirit and People Types rising to the top in terms of frequency among pastors in leadership positions. A different skill set, partly based on personality, is needed in this Post-Modern world to help a congregation live out its mission well.

So the Great Man or Woman Pastoral Hero Myth is declining, as do all leadership archetypes over time. Every leadership model rises up for a time, then devolves into history. When clergy and congregations recognize and accept this, they find new freedom to discover fresh ways to lead God’s people. We are very hopeful for the future of the church as new pastoral leadership models are rising. May we let go when our leadership archetypes grow less germane, and may we take hold as the Spirit leads us into new realities, even when it involves forming new understandings of effective pastoral leadership.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA

Watch for Mark’s book in 2015 on a new pastoral archetype, as well as future articles with hints about effective pastoral leadership.