Thursday, August 12, 2010


Josh Dunham is fond of saying that ministers are the last generalists. You hear constantly about ministerial "burnout" and many speculate about the cause of that. Seminaries boast about training "Whole Leaders for the Whole Church" meaning they will try to teach everything from spiritual development, to pastoral care, to christian education, to biblical studies, to administration etc... In trying to do it all, they do most of it poorly. Churches looking for pastors usually identify about 120 key strengths they want in their new minister, and no matter how much of a renaissance man or woman you may be you are guaranteed to get complaints about the various things you do not do as well as their previous beloved pastors.

Going into ministry we are set up to fail because we are tasked with an impossible variety of tasks - every one of which is CRUCIAL!!!! 100% of ministers out there are inadequate. 100%.

I don't say that just to comfort myself in my own insecurity. Nor to make light of a serious problem or create some kind of universal excuse for why ministers fail, or burnout, or the church is declining or whatever situation needs explaining. Nor do I mean this in some semi-profound theological way to be a message about human brokenness and our need for a gracious savior. Nor, lastly, am I just trying to whine and say that ministry is so much harder than most jobs, when I think it is the opposite.

What I mean is - from a practical perspective we are operating on a failing model for church leadership. We are schizophrenic about what a minister even is, and what they are supposed to do. It isn't that ministers are generalists it's that they are expected to be specialists in 100 different areas. We've no idea what we actually want or need from ministers and as a result we get ministers who only provide useless things.

As an example - here are skills I feel like my congregation, and many others, would like me to have which I do not and which I do not feel ought to be the province of ministers:
  • Website design
  • Installing/Running Audio-Visual Technology
  • Financial Planning/Investment Knowledge
  • Computer Expert
  • Community Organizer
  • Early Childhood Educator
There is nothing wrong with these skills. I would love to have some of these skills and I know there are plenty of people who have them who will use them in their ministry to great effect. Good for them. But are these the kind of things we actually need from ministers? Am I made to feel inadequate for not having these skills for no reason?

Here are some skills that I am expected to have, which I DO have, which are still not what we probably need from ministers:
  • Social Networking
  • Administrative Planning
  • General Knowledge of History, Politics, Religions
  • Life of the party
  • Great memory for names, dates, factoids
  • Office Management
Again, these are skills which I find useful all of the time because they are expected of me, but I wonder how much they have to do with ministry.

Doubtless some who read this will think, "Ministry is all of that!" Sure. That's what we've been saying for the last hundred years or so and I think we have gotten lost. Ministry is now everything and therefore it is nothing.

Someone else will say "Different ministries have different needs," which is also easy to agree with, but then why do we ordain everyone to the one office and expect people ordained to that one office to cover all of the different types of ministry? Ministers of Word and Sacrament are expected to be theologians, orators, counselors, teachers, planners, administrators, chaplains, universal friends, and everything else too.

It's impossibly vague. We're all inadequate at dozens of the roles we are professionally obliged to be competent in. Something has to give.


Doug Hagler said...

This is my experience so far. For the past few weeks, actually, I've turned into Information Technologies consultant and webmaster as well as we've ordered new computers and have gotten our website up and kind-of-running.

One way I tend to deal with this is by being open about not promising I'll do a good job at things that aren't 'core' to pastoral ministry. Worship, visitation, sacraments, funerals, weddings, etc. I understand need to go well, or at the very least steadily improve.

The sound system, computers, website, publicity and so on, though, I do only because/when no one else does.

Craig said...


I agree, my experience is that people expect the pastor to do things that many laypeople in the church could do better. It is a guarantee of some sort of burnout. The best advice I have heard is to pick good people, equip them and turn them loose. Good luck

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

What would you suggest are the essentials of ministry?

Also, why blame the people for expecting these things? I'm betting you met at least as many people in seminary as I did who were there to "sort things out" or "figure out what God wants me to do." If a candidate for ministry doesn't know what it is they're being called to do, why should the calling congregation?

Doug Hagler said...

I dunno. Seminary takes a LONG time, and there are a number of different things you can do, even if all you're getting is an MDiv (not to mention going into a MATS program or whatever). So I don't think going to seminary to sharpen your focus is a bad idea at all. I do think, though, that our lack of definition can't really be helping. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out you want to do something that isn't even defined very well.

Aric Clark said...


I didn't blame anyone in particular over anyone else. I spread it around. It's not just people in the pew, it's the seminaries, our presbyteries (or dioceses), committees, and sure candidates for ministry. Everyone has been misled into treating ministry like it is a bottomless pit which anything at all can be thrown into. So even if a candidate had a clear and strong sense of call it would be hard to escape the pressure of being everything to everyone.

As for what is core - it is ministry of the Word and Sacrament - so worship, preaching, & sacraments are core. I would put teaching and visitation there as well because they are functions tied to the word and the sacrament. What about you? What would you say is core?

Fr. Chris Larimer said...

Doug, As someone who has had to serve in a tent-making capacity, I'm a little dubious of the usefulness of an MDiv outside of the pastorate. I can tell you that I've been passed over for jobs because - seeing it - they assumed that I was just stringing them along until I could get a placement.

Aric, Word & Sacrament (especially as they come together in the mysteries of the Divine Liturgy) do it for me. The necessary implications that grow out of the 5 so-called sacraments seem to flesh out the rest of the work. Confirmation requires catechesis. Matrimony (and baptism) require counseling and formation beforehand and afterwards. Ordination requires an especially high level of teaching and formation to be available, as well as appropriate structures for ensuring accountability and universal acceptance. Reconciliation commits us to a particular form of regular communal life. And Unction demands that we bear one another's burdens in real ways.

For me, the sacramental world view has revolutionized my approach to ministry and helped me bridge many of the noetic gaps that pervaded my thinking regarding transcendence and immanence. (Have you ever read that book by Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics?)

Doug Hagler said...

@ Chris: Well, no, it won't get you a job at a car dealership or restaurant - I was thinking of being a hospital, police, prison, school or military chaplain; working somewhere in the hierarchy of your chosen denomination; teaching; working as a missionary; etc. along with the different kinds of pastoral ministry one might do.