Congregational Leadership - A Spiritual Reflection

Duane Kelderman is interim pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. He asks the question, “Whose job it is to provide congregational leadership? That’s a question many pastors and congregations are struggling with these days. The struggles vary depending upon the congregation and pastor, but in many cases, each thinks that the other is responsible – at least in part. Kelderman points to three phenomena that has been seen concerning this issue over the past several decades.

First, the greatest shift in the North American church over the last 50 years has been moving from a “clerical orientation” to an “ecclesial orientation.” A congregation used to describe its ministry primarily in terms of what the pastor did. A shift is being seen where the focus is not on clerical functions—worship, sacraments, weddings, funerals, catechesis all primary and thus critical, but also on the gifts and ministries of the body as a whole.


Look at the following scripture passage from Ephesians 4:11-14 - “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”


Also, examine 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 - “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”

Church Teaching also echoes the Scriptures. The Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, Chapter IV), as well as Pope John Paul II’s Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People (Christifideles Laici, #32) mention that - in order for a parish to be a healthy body - priests are called to “recognize, uncover, acknowledge, foster, discern, coordinate, support, nurture and put to good use the gifts and charisms of parishioners. Kelderman says that, “Often congregations over-rely on pastors, only to be frustrated by their pastor’s poor performance because he is probably trying to serve outside of his area of giftedness. In the process the gifts of others in the congregation are most likely underused.”

The second issue is that parishes often blame the pastor for not giving strong-enough leadership - when the issue isn’t primarily his pastoral leadership at all. This is a sign of a dysfunctional congregational culture and it is extremely difficult to change. Congregations have a way of refusing to confront dysfunctional behaviors, especially in powerful, influential, wealthy or active members or avoid dealing with long-standing personnel problems or crucial decisions. Staying in old dysfunctional ruts is easier as a parish simply refuses to take responsibility for its own future.

Rural road through an enchanted forest
Rural road through an enchanted forest

The third issue is the tendency of some to quickly link a congregation’s health - or lack thereof - to the pastor. Leading Catholic and non-Catholic Pastors, leaders, organizations, consultants, church initiatives and writers (Catholic Leadership Institute, The Amazing Parish, The Table Group’s Patrick Lencioni, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Bishop Robert Barron, Catherine of Siena Institute) all say, “Now, let’s be clear – LEADERSHIP MATTERS!” Without strong leadership at the top, and without vision and direction, a congregation or parish fails (Confer Proverbs 29:18 – “Where there is no vision, the people perish”). Mature parishes realize that, of course, their pastor has strengths and weaknesses, but those are distinct from the strengths and weaknesses of the congregation. Mature congregations focus more on things the congregation must work on than on things the pastor has to work on.

In his book Rebuilt, Father Michael White from Nativity Parish in Maryland writes about a significant experience he had while attending a conference at Saddleback Church in California. He recounts, “After sitting through a tough and challenging talk about what it takes to become a healthy, growing church, I stormed out in self-righteous rage. Eventually, though, I came to realize I had just been personally called out by Saddleback’s Pastor, Rick Warren. I went back in, though, took my seat, and decided to listen. He changed my mind and heart about what being a pastor is all about. I learned a lot that trip, about myself as a pastor and about the way we do church. And I learned that despite the differences when it comes to our Catholic and Evangelical traditions, we are really on the same team. We are all called to make disciples. Rick talks about what he calls the five purposes of the Church (not in any particular order): Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, Ministry, Mission. This takes a unique shape in our Catholic tradition, especially in our celebration of the sacraments, but the basic idea remains the same across the Christian family – we do what Jesus taught his disciples to do.

The bottom line, I think, is that it is possible God wants to use his whole Church, all of us, to advance the Kingdom in our generation. Maybe, we can be the first generation since the Reformation, 500 years ago next year, to serve the Lord together.

As Pastor Kelderman says, “Blessed is the congregation that can talk a long time about its strengths and weaknesses without referring to its pastor.”





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