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A Reflection on the State of Pastoral Leadership

When Jackson Carroll began “Pulpit & Pew,” his large research project on pastoral leadership, he considered pastors a “troubled profession,” and braced himself for what his investigation might reveal. But five years of study, including a major national telephone survey and 23 focus groups across the country, convinced Carroll his gloomy forecast didn’t stand up.

“I came away with a much more positive picture than I expected, particularly when it came to clergy satisfaction and a commitment to their calling,” said Carroll. His book, God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations, summarizes his research.

In it, Carroll cites a telling statistic: Six out of 10 pastors said they had never doubted their call in the last five years, and seven out of 10 said they had never considered leaving ordained ministry for a secular job — hardly the picture of a troubled profession.

That doesn’t mean the profession is without problems, as Carroll reports in the book. First, there are the cultural challenges — a decline in the authority traditionally granted pastors and the rise of a consumer mentality that views church as just one of many options on a Sunday morning.Good pastors handle these challenges by making the gospel as compelling as possible, Carroll said.

But then there are structural challenges within the profession, perhaps foremost a lack of adequate compensation. While senior pastors of large congregations earn competitive salaries, those working in small congregations do not. Ordained Protestant pastors working in congregations of 100 or fewer people received a median salary and housing package of $31,234; the average Roman Catholic priest even less. For Protestants, that means spouses must work too, eliminating the traditional role in which the pastor’s wife served as an unpaid assistant.

Then there are health issues — 78 percent of all clergy are either overweight or obese. Others don’t manage well the boundary between work and play, or don’t have the kind of close friendships that allow pastors to stay connected and to avoid feelings of isolation.

Carroll, whose conclusions have appeared previously in Pulpit & Pew research reports, brings it all together in this new book. He examines a host of issues including women clergy and bi-vocational clergy, but he focuses on senior and solo pastors, looking at how they spend their time, the number of hours they work, the books they read, the leadership style they prefer.

“There are clergy who are sadly ordinary,” he said in an interview recently. “They don’t rise above the level of mediocrity, but there are those who exhibit excellence.”  While God’s Potters does not include in-depth case studies of excellence, it does raise the key issues Carroll, a retired sociologist of religion from Duke Divinity School, sees as important.

Lastly, Carroll, whose research was funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc., devotes two chapters to exploring excellence in ministry.

He points out that excellence in ministry should not be measured with the same yardsticks businesses use — profitability and growth. But the corporate world does provide some valuable measures that church leaders could use — whether an organization has a clear vision, whether it instills that vision in others and provides them with the training to do their jobs well. Beyond those secular measures, Carroll identifies a number of attributes that characterize excellent pastoral leadership.

Among them is resiliency, the ability to stand behind moral and theological convictions when the larger society does not; agility, the ability to creatively respond to different challenges; and a commitment to meaningful friendships, what Carroll calls “holy friendships,” that keep pastors connected.

As important, Carroll writes, pastors need to be lifelong learners. In this respect, pastors don’t do too well. Asked what they read most often, most Protestant pastors cited books with a pragmatic emphasis on the practice of ministry rather than theological works, literature or poetry.

But finally, Carroll writes, excellent pastors are those who learn the old-fashioned way through mentors and colleagues they look up to.

“Excellence is best developed through apprenticeship,” he said, “both during seminary and in the early years of ministry, though the guidance of wise mentors and colleagues.”

Duke Divinity School's online magazine, Faith & Leadership continues Carroll's work with insightful articles, resources and reflections on pastoral leadership.



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