All congregations know what kind of leader they want—the perfect one, the singular leader who, like Moses or Jesus, talks with God, inspires our confidence, tells us what to do, scolds us when necessary, reassures us when we’re scared, teaches us how to be faithful, devotes his/her entire life to our needs, and, depending on the situation, parts water, walks on it, or turns it into wine.
But when you think about it, even though we like to focus all our attention on the pastor or rabbi as the singular “leader” of a congregation, congregational leadership is actually always collective, not singular. In a continual process of discernment, decision-making, praying, studying, and shared living, the faith leader and members together create the congregation. Sometimes they do a good job together and other times not so much, but each brings something to the table and each is responsible for the congregation’s faithfulness.
We already know how to name the responsibilities of the pastor, whether with straightforward job descriptions or with tortuous denominational profiles of some sort. We know how to list essential functions—preaching, teaching, pastoral care, visitation, staff supervision, financial management. And we can all name core competencies, too, those almost indefinable human qualities like compassion, conviction, initiative, integrity, tact, and spiritual centeredness that breathe life into the essential functions and clearly identify this person as a faithful leader.
If we’re clear about the kind of faith leader we want, though, we’re not nearly as clear about the kind of congregation we are or want to be. What is our deepest identity? What would we have to be, for example, if our expectations for ourselves as a congregation were as high as our expectations for our leader? What are the core congregational competencies that a stranger, looking at us for the first time, would instinctively recognize as the marks of a mature group of believers?
I’m sure a few core competencies instantly come to mind, perhaps shaped by our experience of times when these competencies were clearly lacking in some faith community of which we were a part. Based in my own experience, both positive and negative, I would start the list with the following, but I encourage you to add your own competencies to the list!
In a congregation that has well-developed decision-making skills, members will recognize those times when reflection and discernment are needed, but they will also recognize when it is time to make decisions. They will be able to define problems and issues clearly, they will know how to use both analytical and intuitive skills, and they will be able to make decisions in a way that invites the perspectives of a variety of members. They will be able to make difficult decisions without becoming overly anxious or combative, and they will respect each other in the process.
In a self-aware congregation, members will be clear about both the congregation’s deepest identity and God’s call to it in its current context. They will call/hire a staff and create volunteer opportunities that express their identity and their call. They will understand that, while deep identity may stay constant, God’s particular call to them may change over time, necessitating the creation of new programs and the elimination of existing staff positions and volunteer opportunities. They will be fine with all of this because they understand the changing nature of God’s call.
In a congregation with good organizational skills, members will communicate openly and often with each other and will routinely operate with clarity and transparency. They will understand the importance of good policies and procedures and they will make sure that the policies they’ve adopted are followed.
In a resilient congregation, members will be willing to take risks and try new things in order to answer God’s call, and they will be committed to learning from their failures as well as their successes. They will be comfortable with the ambiguities and uncertainties that accompany any life of faith. They will openly encourage and be comfortable with both positive and negative feedback. Above all, they will pursue the spiritual centeredness that grounds believers in the midst of change.
Congregation members will encourage each other, not just their staff, to witness to the power of God at work in their lives. In the same way that they already sing in choirs or teach children, members will embrace preaching, praying, painting, dancing, and every other activity that reveals God. They will understand that this is part of their work, not just their faith leader’s work.
Because congregation members understand the congregation’s deep identity and God’s call, and because they are excited about it, they will happily give their time and their resources to the work of the congregation and will share their excitement with family, friends and neighbors.
A strategic congregation will stay in touch with changing demographics in its community and will be thoughtful and prayerful about the changing shape of God’s call within its current context. In order to be able to hear God’s call clearly, they will regularly practice the kind of careful listening to every member that is necessary if the congregation is to hear both consensus on an issue and the single small voice through which God’s spirit may be speaking at this moment.
The congregation will be good at establishing clear expectations for themselves and for their staff. They will also be good at communicating these expectations early and often, so that no one will ever be surprised to discover that they’ve been “doing it wrong” for years and have, by now, created a groundswell of deep but heretofore unexpressed discontent.
- Congregationally oriented
The congregation will enthusiastically identify, invite, and incorporate people who wish to affiliate with it. They will understand the importance of successfully negotiating congregational difficulties, including conflicts, if they are to move forward together in faith. They will work to create the spirit of forgiveness and belonging that is the essence of a group that has chosen to be faithful together.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.