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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?

As it turns out, not Greek and Hebrew.

Or at least not only Greek and Hebrew.

And even if the list of things to be good at were to include all the other usual subjects taught in seminary—Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, liturgy, preaching, teaching, pastoral care, all the spiritual disciplines, and 2000 years of church history—not even these would be all that a minister should be good at, because none of these will have taught the minister how to manage an organization. 

Actually my father the historian would tell me that an attentive student of church history will have encountered every example anyone could ever need of how to manage (mismanage) an organization!  History aside, however, a good minister needs skills, and most management skills can be learned, even if not always in seminary. So, what are the management skills a minister should be good at?

1. Framing the Vision

Every congregation believes that it is called to do something vitally important – to share what it believes or to be a caring community or to put its faith into action – and it believes that this call will endure across time.  But every congregation’s call should also be shaped by the needs of its particular community at a particular moment in time.  A skilled minister assists the congregation in perceiving its call by:

  • Monitoring emerging trends in congregational life locally and nationally
  • Tracking the changing demographics of the community
  • Helping the board and the congregation to regularly recalibrate their vision in light of their changing context.

2. Engaging the Board and Congregation in Planning

Many congregations have had the experience of putting a great deal of time and effort into a planning process, including having captured it in notebooks or on the website or even in needlepoint on the wall, only to leave it gathering dust while the congregation remains unchanged.  A skilled minister helps the congregation realize its vision by:

  • initiating and supporting a planning process
  • changing its staffing pattern, job descriptions, committee structure, physical space, communication methods, and use of resources in order to achieve something new

3. Leading the Staff

Most ministers did not go to seminary so that they could supervise staff.  However, most ministers have a staff of some kind, even if the “staff” is made up of volunteers.  A skilled minister knows how to:

  • create a job description
  • recruit volunteers
  • hire paid employees
  • ensure up-to-date personnel policies
  • create a staffing pattern that supports the congregation’s vision
  • supervise paid staff and volunteers in such a way that the congregation’s vision is able to be realized

4. Managing the Finances

Just as most ministers didn’t go to seminary in order to supervise staff, most didn’t go to seminary in order to manage money.  However, a skilled minister is responsible for the spiritual well-being of a congregation which cannot be detached from its financial well-being.  Consequently, while no minister needs to be a CPA, a skilled minister should be able to, at a minimum:

  • create and explain the organization’s budget
  • interpret its financial statements
  • understand its cash flow
  • ensure the use of internal control procedures as recommended by independent auditors
  • make sure that the congregation has adequate insurance protection and risk management policies

5. Developing Future Lay Leadership

For generations, the standard congregational way of developing leaders has been through a slow process of education into membership, time spent on committees, and eventual “elevation” to a governing board.  This process no longer works, in part because newer members don’t have the time or the desire to serve on committees and in part because long-time members are becoming increasingly tired and frustrated as no one “steps up” to take their place.  A skilled minister is able to assist a congregation in renegotiating its internal decision-making by creating room for members to self-organize using whatever works for them, including:

  • Email, Facebook, and text
  • A short flurry of meetings rather than one/month
  • Meetings over coffee at the bakery or over beer at the brewery rather than in the building

6. Creating Space for New Ministerial Leadership

Congregations and ministers have a complex relationship in which ministers are expected to be both strong leaders and beloved members of the “family.”  This addictive combination of authority and intimacy makes it difficult for both ministers and congregations to talk about the fact that every ministerial relationship must end.  A skilled minister prepares a congregation for the inevitability of leadership change by:

  • writing down or collecting in one place things like schedules of regular visits, policies and procedures, external partners, and important contacts (e.g., lawyers, accountants, investment advisers) in case an unexpected transition occurs
  • creating a clear transition/succession plan, including denominational requirements, that is updated periodically and publicly so that no one feels the need to whisper about when the minister might leave

7. Being the Chief Communicator

Ministers are almost always expected to be gifted preachers and teachers, but the congregation’s ability to communicate now requires more than just the oratorical skills of the minister.  These days, a skilled minister needs to be able to blog and participate in social media in addition to preaching and teaching, but he or she also needs to ensure that the congregation understands and is intentional about all the ways in which it communicates, including

  • the interior and exterior appearance of its built space
  • signage
  • the website
  • social media
  • members who speak frequently and  happily about their congregation and its work

8. Supporting the Board

Most congregations have some sort of board with which a minister needs to work.  A skilled minister will do all he or she can to support the work of the board, including

  • working with the chair to plan effective meetings
  • fostering an atmosphere of trust and respect for the opinions and beliefs of board members
  • providing useful and timely information
  • helping the board to stay focused on its appropriate role
  • helping the board to envision change

If you’re a minister, think of this as a checklist of tasks and skills you may not have realized were part of the job.  None of us knows how to do all of them perfectly, but if you’d like to do some of them better, look around your community or contact one of us to start learning.

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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