Context

One surreal experience of ministry is listening to others talk about ministry.  Particularly, hearing two sides of a shared experience.  As a pastor in a connectional system, I get to hear different versions of a church’s story.  Often I hear a pastor’s perspective and also the congregation’s perspective.

I have often heard congregations blame their pastors for their current situation.  The conference sent them “bad” pastors.  Things were going great with Pastor A, but then the conference moved Pastor A.  Pastor A’s replacement, Pastor B, was no Pastor A.  Pastor B might have been a good person, but Pastor B “killed” the church.

Pastor B has a different perspective.  Congregation Z would not support Pastor B’s ministry.  The pastor tried to move them in a healthier directions, but the congregation fought Pastor B at every turn.  There might be a few good eggs in Congregation Z, but their goodness is outweighed by the caustic nature of others and systemic unhealth.

When I only hear one side of the story, I generally take the side of the person whose side I hear first.  I vicariously feel their hurt and pain.  How could the conference send the congregation Pastor B?  Or if I am talking to Pastor B, why did they send you there?

Time and time again though, when I hear both sides of a shared experience, I wonder how there could be such different perspectives.  I have come to a few tentative conclusions:

  • A “bad” pastor can ruin any congregation
  • A thriving congregation can make a mediocre pastor look good
  • Congregations that have a series of “bad” pastors should look at the common denominator in those experiences
  • Ministry is contextual

The contextual nature of ministry is difficult to deal with.  It is a scary thought that ministry has to be contextualized.  Ministry would be much easier if there was a rubric of how to lead a church to vitality that worked in every situation.  Even worse, the context changes over time.

Every community is different.  The history of every congregation is different.  Each church has a different spirit or personality.  Gifts and graces are different in each congregation.  We live in a rapidly changing world.

No pastor will be effective in every context.  No church will be able to benefit from the gifts and graces of every pastor.  A pastor or congregation’s effectiveness might diminish overtime if they are not able to adapt to their ever changing context.  What works today may not work tomorrow.

Given the contextual nature of ministry, I would contend that the United Methodist Church needs to find better ways of matching gifts and graces of pastors and congregations.  From my limited perspective, it often seems haphazard.  The way I hear discussion about effectiveness framed, I get the impression we don’t appreciate the contextual nature of ministry.  An effective pastor will be an effective pastor.  Congregations are often discussed in binary terms.

Instead, we need to take seriously that an effective pastor will be most effective in the right context.  Congregations will not thrive if they do not have the pastoral ministry they need to be effective in their contexts.  More analysis and testing of the gifts and graces of pastors needs to be done.  Congregations need guidance in really discerning their gifts, graces, needs, opportunities, passions, and possibilities.

More than once, I have heard a district superintendent dismiss something a congregation put on their profile, because it seemed trivial to the DS.  It was important to the congregation, but no one took time to figure out what they were trying to say in a way that would make sense to the DS.  Perhaps more guidace with creating congregational profiles could be a start.

Before an appointment is made though, I think an assessment of a congregation must be made.  Do they have a defined mission/purpose?  If not, does the defined purpose of the United Methodist Church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world resonate?  Once a defined mission/purpose is put forth, do they have a vision of how to live that out?  Do they have goals to hold themselves accountable to the mission and vision?

If a congregation could name their mission/purpose, vision, and goals, the DS could then work with the congregation to find a pastor who could help them live out their vision and goals.  Expectations of both the pastor and the congregation could be named.  A strategy could be formed.  Ultimately effectiveness could be evaluated in this context.  Did the pastor live up to the agreed upon expectations?  Did the congregation?  When the context changed, how did the pastor and the congregation respond?

Discussing effectiveness without considering context is deeply problematic.  Pastors are not interchangeable cogs in some great machine.  Every congregation has flaws, but also strengths.  Effectiveness in ministry is a partnership between God, the congregation, and the leaders of the congregation (including pastoral leadership).  If the church discerns God’s will and is growing in her relationship with God, I believe God will always work with the church.  The issue is how do we create contextually appropriate partnerships between pastors and congregations?  Taking context seriously is a first step.

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