Relocating the Clergy Ego

“Narcissus Gazing at His Reflection” by Dirck van Baburen

As a young minister, I often wondered, “How am I doing?” It was a good question! But at midlife I began to ask, “How am I helping others to succeed?” It was a crucial shift—a relocation of the ego. I still fret sometimes about my own performance, but I’ve learned to get more satisfaction out of helping others grow as leaders. Clergy who don’t make this shift can limit both the growth of congregations and the progress of their own careers.

I learned early on that my success or failure in the ministry was mostly about me and my performance. To some extent, that’s true. But focusing on yourself leads quickly to the brink of your incompetence. At some point—because of congregational growth, a shift to a denominational staff role, or simply because people expect something different from an older person—our most important contribution is in helping other people grow as leaders.

What Gives You Satisfaction?

When I am coaching ministers, I often ask them to recall a recent moment when they got deep satisfaction out of their work. The answers generally split three ways: some mention helping someone privately in pastoral care. Another group remembers public moments when a sermon or worship service was rewarded with applause. The third kind of response is about someone else’s growth into a teacher, preacher, organizer, activist, or planner.

We will always need to perform solo sometimes—but cultivating the success of others leads to some of the deepest, longest-lasting contributions we can make in life and ministry.

Many of us begin our ministry careers in smallish places full of people wiser than ourselves. It was certainly that way for me: my first church was in Boca Raton, Florida, where I was six years younger than the youngest other person—and probably fifty years younger than the average. I marvel, looking back, at how that older congregation put up with my inept posturing and anxious worry about whether I was doing well or poorly. Some of them were patient, others not, but as a group they mostly steered me out of trouble while they took advantage of the motivated energy of a young man with fresh ideas and a lot to prove.

Expecting Projection

I had been trained in seminary to expect that people would project their “parent issues” onto the “authority figure”—me! But in Boca, most of my parishioners saw me as a stand-in child or grandchild. Their praise only encouraged me to prolong a youthful focus on my own performance.

That congregation suffered from a ministerial combination punch—the ambition of a rookie and the anxious ego of a young adult. Career-switching clergy may spare congregations some of this, but in small congregations, especially pastoral-size churches (attendance 100–200, counting kids), the main focus tends to be on how the pastor is performing. When that is the pastor’s focus also, as it often is with newly-minted ones of any age, it can be hard to escape the limitations of that way of thinking.

As a consultant, the surest way I know to be sure what size-category a congregation falls into is simply to ask a group of leaders “How’s it going?” Members of a family-sized congregation (attendance under 100) talk about how much they love each other (or how much they don’t). In program- or corporate-sized congregations (250 and up) they brag about new ministries or programs they’ve started (or complain about the ones that have bogged down).

But leaders of a pastoral-sized congregation—where most clergy begin—say how well (or poorly) the main clergy leader is performing. The clergyperson gives a similar response: “I think I’m doing okay.” It is a closed-loop system of feedback: if the minister excels as a solo performer, the congregation responds with praise. Both feel justified and both expect good outcomes.

New Means to Different Ends

There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as the desired outcomes do not include growth, wide sharing of lay leadership, effective staff teamwork, a great increase in the congregation’s influence on the community, or building a strong institution that will stay strong even as it weathers the expected ups and downs of its successive clergy leaders. Nor is it likely that a congregation focused on the single contributions of its leader will achieve great increases in its ability to give, spend, or accumulate resources.

To lead a congregation to that kind of strength (or to be effective as a bishop, denominational executive, consultant, or member of a larger congregation’s staff team) requires a shift in the location of the clergy ego. The self-focus of the young adult or struggling novice can be helpful in its time and place, but at a certain point—signaled by the coming of midlife, or by a call to wider ministry at any age—the heart of a soloist must transform into the heart of a mentor, coach, and leader.

The transformation is a letting go: clergy who succeed spend less time worrying about their own performance and more time coaching, encouraging, directing, and applauding others. At the same time it is an expansion of one’s own power to do ministry. There is a human limit to how much and how well an individual can perform, but there is no known limit to how many others a sufficiently devoted soul can ultimately influence.

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