Why would “being a leader” qualify as a significant re-frame? Isn’t it obvious that pastors are leaders of congregations? Why would this re-frame make the list of those shifts in perspective that mattered? For me, this shift in self-understanding made a profound difference in the way I came to practice ministry.
“Being a pastor” was my first compelling identity. The memory is vivid when that possibility fell into place. The setting: an introductory course in Pastoral Care, in the large map room, Norton Hall, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1957. The professor, Wayne E. Oates, was up-front unpacking a typical pastoral incident — as I recall, a pastor’s response to a grieving widow. I leaned forward, intrigued and curious, saying under my breath, “I want to do that!” And I have ever since. For me, the title “pastor” has a depth of resonance not found in other titles often assigned to me, such as “senior minister,” or in early days, “Rev,” “Brother Mahan,” “preacher,” or, on occasion, “troublemaker.
My seminary experience gave me additional identities: preacher, teacher, prophet, manager, and liturgist. So, during my first years in pastoral ministry I juggled these roles, valuing them all, attempting them all, but feeling fragmented most of the time. During those years, if someone would have asked me, “Are you a leader?” I would no doubt have answered, “Yes, I am.” But functionally, that is, the way I functioned during those first years was to regard leadership of the institution as the rent I paid in return for the joy of preaching, teaching, leading worship, and offering pastoral care.
This arrangement didn’t work. For a number of reasons my first five-year chapter as pastor came to an unanticipated, precipitous, humbling end. One reason was that my vocational self-identity was fragmented, not integrated. Being pastor proved to be an insufficient pole around which to wrap the many functions of parish ministry. The fragmentation led to over-functioning; over-functioning led to emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
During the ten years between serving congregations as pastor I learned to see myself as a leader. For most of that time I was director of a department within a medical system that included both hospital and medical school. When I returned to congregational life, picking up once again the mantle of pastor, I had changed. I saw myself as pastoral leader. This re-frame, from pastor to pastoral leader, included these shifts:
- from attempting to define others to defining self and self-expression
- from self-defining and losing connection to self-defining and staying connected, particularly with those who differ and resist
- from attempting to change others to changing self in relationship with others
- from preoccupation with content to attending to emotional, relational processes
- from personality-led leadership to position-led leadership, claiming the position in the system (body/church) as “eyes” over-looking, scanning the congregation (body), seeing connections and patterns that others cannot see (aware that others in different positions in the body/church see what the leader cannot)
- from avoiding resistance to valuing resistance, appreciating the energy of inevitable push-back from the challenge to habits, worldviews, and beliefs
- from reacting to others to responding to others
- from the limits of management, Are we doing things right? to include the challenge of leadership, Are we doing the right things?
- from leading confined to problem-solving with current know-how to leading with challenges without current know-how, requiring engaging questions, difficult choices, experimental actions, risking toward what is not yet clear
- from a place of anxiousness (showing up in the congregation as blaming, herding, re-activity, pushing for quick-fixes), to a disciplined effort in non-anxious leading from a Center, an inner freedom from attachment to specific outcomes
- from seeing only pastor and congregation in relationship to frequent triangling in the church’s purpose/mission under which both pastor and congregation respond with curiosity and faithfulness
- from leading for God to leading from God
You might recognize in these statements a number of my influential teachers about leadership: Edwin Friedman, Larry Matthews, Rod Reineke, Peter Steinke, Ronald Richardson, Margaret Wheatley, Ronald Heifetz, and Marty Linsky. These resources showed up just when I needed them.
I entered my last fifteen-year stint with a congregation having internalized this re-frame. Being a pastoral leader, alongside of lay leaders, became my primary vocational identity. I had found a pole around which to wrap the various functions of ministry.
As preacher and liturgist, I was leading, intervening weekly in the congregational system with challenges to hear and embody God’s movement of shalom in the world.
As pastoral “carer” in crises, I was leading, knowing that change in one personal relationship affects change in the larger network of relationships, however slight.
As manager, I was leading, influencing the ways we work together including the decisions we make.
Through my involvement in community concerns, I was leading the mutual impact of church and world.
In each of these functions I was leading; only the forms of expression changed. For good or ill, the spirit-culture of the congregation was impacted by each ministry action. In all of them I was functioning as pastoral leader.
Looking through the rear-view mirror, this shift is noticeable. It’s a re-frame that mattered.