Summer/Fall 2002
Volume 7 Number 1














Recently I listened to a seasoned pastor give a convocation address to beginning seminarians at another seminary. He said that a Protestant seminary education ought to provide at least three things: a thorough acquaintance with and deep respect for the Christian tradition rooted and critiqued in the biblical witness; an informed participation in the classical practices of pastoral ministry—preaching, teaching, and counseling; and, finally, ample opportunities to establish lifelong friendships. Friends, he said eloquently, nourish our humanity and help keep us accountable. It was an inspiring speech. I left resolving to do better.

But I also left grousing to myself about his second grand goal. Is preaching, teaching, and counseling the sum of pastoring in a modern congregation? What about a pastor’s call to lead a congregation? I also wondered whether he sensed the seismic changes coming for American congregations and what those changes entail for pastoral leadership?

Especially sobering is Wade Clark Roof’s The Spiritual Marketplace (Princeton University Press, 1999). This well-known sociologist argues that a convergence of powerful social and cultural forces—modernity and its discontents, a pyscho-cultural interpretation of religion, the rise of the expansive self, and the role of media, to name a few—has created a new kind of Protestant congregation. He supplied ample evidence for what most contemporary pastors already know: most mainline Protestants now participate in congregations on their own terms. They believe, act, and contribute as their privatized agendas dictate. In such a bewildering, rootless, and relativistic milieu, how is the contemporary pastor to lead?

  John W. Stewart   Photo: Krystin Granberg

John W. Stewart is Princeton Seminary’s Ralph B. and Helen S. Ashenfelter Associate Professor of Ministry and Evangelism. He has led conferences for congregational leaders and pastors across the nation and abroad, and before coming to Princeton he served for 16 years as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I know a pastor’s portfolio is already full with preaching, teaching, and caring for souls. Yet her or his leadership role will not disappear. I suggest two ways to help illumine and energize pastors as they take on leadership responsibilities. Both are theological and practical.

First, we Presbyterians need a summit-like assembly of pastors and theologians to create a fresh and informed ecclesiology focused on the local church. The venerable guru of American organizations, Peter Drucker, once commented that most nonprofit organizations in America cannot answer two questions: “What business are you in?” and “How is business?” I’ve been intrigued by that comment. What is a congregation’s “business”? I often come away from my own involvement with congregations and ecclesial governing bodies with the same question: What are the bedrock, indispensable, uniquely Christian purposes for a contemporary Protestant church? And why do contemporary Protestants stutter and strain to answer that question?

We need to generate a theological manifesto for congregational life. Such an affirmation would include: a clarification about the gospel of Jesus Christ and its claims on contemporary congregational life; an understanding of the biblical witness about the people of God as the covenantal community and about the missio dei that governs that community; a critical appreciation of the church’s wisdom regarding those ecclesial “marks” that define and critique a congregation’s ordinary practices; and a model for discerning the Holy Spirit’s leading and prodding in particular local contexts.

Of course, Christian congregations are not entrepreneurial enterprises free to concoct their own mandates and agendas. I do contend, however, that the front-rank task of the professional and lay leadership of a congregation is to align and focus these classical theological perspectives into a congregation’s vision-driven ministry. As one pastor friend put it succinctly, “My job is to keep the herd headed in one general direction.”

Second, we Protestants need to find a better way to display exemplary models of creative congregation-based ministries and practices. Those of us who visit in many congregations and read about American congregational life know there are outstanding examples of Christian witness and mission taking place across this nation. For the most part, however, they are rarely shared. Yet when students, parishioners, and pastors carve out time to encounter effective ministries in other vibrant congregations, they usually become more open to self-assessment and reimagining. “Show and tell” ought not to be a monopoly of kindergartners. The distinguished Lutheran historian Martin Marty put it this way in The Christian Century:

It is time to study congregations that work. One more explanation of What Went Wrong will induce only a thousand more yawns. [We need religious leaders] who neither rehash what has already been said nor reach for postmodern cleverness [that] does not touch where most people live. We need to locate such places and listen to their people.

The pastor’s portfolio, in short, needs to be expanded if mainline congregations are to step up to their 21st-century vocations. The wisest scholars I know who write about pastoral leadership skills believe those skills can be learned by imitating good models, can be honed by further theoretical reflection, and can mature through practice and evaluation. If this is so, those skills are worthy pursuits in a pastor’s continuing education and for a governing body’s frontline agenda. They might even be appropriate for a seminary’s curriculum.