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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

What Should a Minister Be Good At, Post-Pandemic?

In 2014, I wrote a post outlining eight managerial skills ministers should be good at. Today, I want to add another skill in light of the pandemic—ministers need to know how to receive criticism appropriately. Skilled ministers need to remember that it’s not always the minister or the church that people are upset with.

First, let’s revisit the original skills. All are all still fundamental to ministerial leadership as understood in small and mid-sized congregations, and they are still not adequately taught in seminary. Ministers can’t all be great at everything, but these are at least a basic list.  I’ve tweaked them to reflect eight years of additional experience! A minister skilled in management will be able to:

1. Frame the Vision.

Every congregation should believe that it has a purpose—that God is calling it to something particular to its time and place. A skilled minister should be able to:

  • assist the board in monitoring national, denominational, and local trends that might prompt changes to the vision
  • lead the board and congregation in regularly recalibrating the congregation’s work in view of changing circumstances

2. Engage the Board and Congregation in Planning.

Planning horizons change over time—it’s been a while since any of us thought we could predict the next ten years—but a skilled minister assists the board in regular planning of some kind. A skilled minister should be able to:

  • initiate and support planning processes
  • lead the board in making needed changes to staffing patterns, job descriptions, governance structures, space use, use of financial resources, and communication methods as a result of their work

3. Lead the Staff.

It is still true that most ministers did not go to seminary in the hope that one day they would be able to supervise a staff. However, most ministers have a staff of some kind. A skilled minister should be able to:

  • evaluate congregational staff needs relative to budget
  • create job descriptions
  • recruit applicants
  • hire employees
  • communicate the congregation’s vision as staff are brought onboard
  • lead the staff team
  • supervise, evaluate, and terminate staff
  • work with personnel committees
  • ensure up-to-date personnel policies

4. Manage the Finances.

Ministers don’t need to be CPAs, but a skilled minister should be able to:

  • understand and assist in creating the congregation’s budget
  • interpret its financial statements
  • oversee its cashflow
  • work with accountants to ensure the use of appropriate internal controls
  • engage the board in determining appropriate insurance coverage

5. Develop Lay Leadership.

It was already clear eight years ago that the church’s traditional leadership development routine—new member classes, service on committees, and eventual elevation to governing boards—wasn’t working anymore. Younger members rarely have time for multiple three-year committee terms, while older members are tired and ready for someone new to “step up.” A skilled minister should be able to lead the way in creating alternative workflows, including:

  • heavier reliance on staff for routine work
  • fewer meetings
  • fewer committees
  • meetings via Zoom or at locations other than the church
  • shorter committee terms
  • short-term project teams instead of or in addition to committee opportunities
  • development of leaders through spiritual formation in addition to governance experience

6. Be the Chief Communicator.

Ministers have always been expected to be gifted preachers and teachers, but as the number of people who are spiritual but not religious continues to rise while the number of folks in pews declines, the role of chief communicator has come to mean more than being a good speaker inside the church building. A skilled minister should be able to:

  • be a visible leader in the community
  • be an innovator in other forms of communication such as podcasts and social media
  • ensure that the congregation invests in up-to-date websites and social media
  • encourage creative uses of the buildings and signage
  • promote member storytelling

7. Support the Board.

Congregations have a variety of names for their governing group—board, council, session, consistory, vestry—but most have some form of primary decision-making group. A skilled minister should be able to:

  • work with the chair of this group to plan effective meetings
  • foster an atmosphere of trust and respect for all opinions and beliefs
  • provide useful and timely information
  • help the board to stay focused on its appropriate role as outlined in its denominational polity and bylaws
  • ensure that their own performance is evaluated annually
  • help the board to prepare for and implement changes

8. Create Space for New Ministerial Leadership.

Most congregations hope that their minister will make a long-term commitment, but even the longest ministerial relationship must end. A skilled minister should be able to:

  • ensure that good paper and digital records are kept
  • promote the adoption of up-to-date policies and procedures
  • keep a record of important contacts (lawyers, accountants, etc.
  • ensure the existence of a transparent transition/succession process

That’s where I ended eight years ago. Over the last couple of years, though, as I’ve continued to consult with congregations during the pandemic and even led one as an interim senior minister, I’ve become concerned about the extent to which reactions to the culture have influenced behavior at church.

The church has always been a safe place to express misdirected anger whenever someone feels unsafe being angry in the workplace or at home. But during the pandemic, amplified as it has been by ongoing climate disaster, gun violence, war, and partisan politics, even daily details of life have become unmanageable. Most people, ministers included, have reached new levels of fear and anger. And, to the extent that members have continued to be involved, the church has continued to be a safe place for fearful and unhappy people to find their voice. 

In light of all this trauma, then, I want to name an additional managerial skill:

9. Receive Criticism Appropriately.

\When members are critical of the minister or of decisions of the board, a skilled minister should be able to:

  • separate legitimate issues, such as concerns about email response time or unnecessary expenses, from issues which seem to be generating more heat than helpfulness
  • welcome warranted criticisms and do something about them
  • acknowledge heated criticisms and invite lay leaders into a listening process to determine the most helpful way forward for the member(s) as well as the church
  • underreact to criticism by containing their own anxiety, avoiding name-calling, staying focused on shared goals, and watching out for triangles

As we have always known but may now need to remember, angry members are not always upset with the minister or the church. Sometimes, they’re upset with a world out of control, and they need someone who is willing to stay in the room with them and listen.    

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.

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