Pastoral Blind Side

They rarely see it coming. When it does, pastors and church staff are often shocked and bewildered. They thought everything was fine, or at least satisfactory. Then there is the call, or email, or spontaneous painful meeting with the personnel team. Typically pastors feel blind sided when the tension in the relationship between pastor and church rises to the level of “official conversation.” Most of the time, the pastor doesn’t see it coming.

Though we’ve seen this scenario over and over in our clergy coaching and church consulting, we are also aware there is quality research describing this painful leadership experience. As Daniel Goleman and his team of Emotional Intelligence researchers gathered their insights, they discovered what many of us know through observation or intuition. The higher one goes in an organization, the less accurate feedback one receives about leadership effectiveness. In our setting, when one becomes a pastor, accurate mechanisms for assessing the pastor-church working relationship are nearly non-existent. Literally, the pastor or church staff are the last to know there are concerns.

When we think about it, this dynamic is odd, given the tools of ministry are largely relational. Sure church size does influence the necessity of a strong pastor-church working relationship. In Program Size Churches (151-400ASA) the pastor-church working relationship is less pivotal, since program management is such a priority and can involve many leaders. But the Family, Program, and Resource Size Churches require a strong pastor-church working relationship in order to function well given their dynamics. So the vast majority of pastors and churches need an effective, healthy, trusting relationship in place in order to rise toward fulfilling their callings. At the same time, most pastors are working in the dark, receiving no or very little accurate feedback about this pivotal relationship. Then when the shoe drops, they are blind sided. This is when we receive the call for clergy coaching or church consulting. Sometimes this call comes too late to salvage the relationship. Other times, effective strategies can be put in place and practiced, leading to a sufficiently strong working relationship. The following are examples of strategies which can strengthen relationship, leading to more effective progress in ministry and mission.

Creating a cohesive and coherent leadership team
There is a group of people in the church who exercise great influence over the pastor-church working relationship….lay leaders (formal and informal). When the lay leaders are silent in the face of criticism (accurate or inaccurate), then criticism grows and often turns ugly. On the other hand, when lay leaders directly address criticism, it’s often resolved. The response of lay leaders is far more influential than most any other activity. Given this, churches are wise to train their lay leaders in responding effectively when they hear concerns and criticism about the pastor-church relationship (another article). When lay leaders respond in similar ways to multiple people over time, the church learns how tension in this congregation is addressed.

Clearly identify the pastor’s priorities for each season of ministry
Whether for the Fall or Spring “semesters” or for the Summer Season, pastors and lay leadership teams do well to identify the primary leadership activities at hand. This list of priorities, made public in the congregation, equips the pastor and lay leaders to say yes or no to requests with principled intentionality. The result, in addition to higher productivity and mission-congruent activity, is a strengthened pastor-church working relationship.

Develop as set of pulse-taking questions
Assessing the strength of this relationship under discussion is very challenging. Typically, people don’t describe the “pastor-church working relationship” when they express concerns, not having effective wording. Instead they simply say they don’t like the pastor or that the church is treating the pastor poorly. Creating some questions which are even slightly more structured and focused helps. “Rate the strength of the pastor and church working relationship over the last three months on a scale from 0-10. How have you seen this church and its lay leaders supporting the pastor over the last three months? How have you seen the pastor strengthening this church over the last three months? What specific concerns exist in the pastor-church working relationship? What’s your role in strengthening the pastor-church working relationship?”

Engage a coach
Support and accountability are two sides of the return from the coin you will spend to hire a congregational coach. Given the complexity of leadership in congregations as our world shifts toward Postmodern culture, engaging a coach to help the church implement the ideas in this article is highly recommended. Be careful what kind of coach you engage, since some are simply trainers for particular programs and others have no coach training. The coach may use inventories with the pastor to assess personality or leadership style while also recommending ways to assess church dynamics for the congregation.

Keep the conversation going

Pastors and congregations who tend to the pastor-church working relationship are rarely blind-sided. Since they regularly give attention to this vital dimension of church life, they prevent the vast majority of potential problems. When concerns do arise, they use their systems created for the purpose of resolving and moving through concerns. These actions result in a far more effective pastor-church working relationship than those left to chance.

May we exercise the courage and good judgment to proactively engage the leadership dynamics involved in being church together. We are far more likely to make significant contributions to the church’s effort toward joining God’s movement in this world when we do so.

Mark Tidsworth
President, PLA