In describing the work of appointment making in his book Bishop, Will Willimon frames the big picture this way: “The task of the bishop and the DSs in the appointive process is to send clergy who can lead the mission of the congregation.”
The first thing I notice is that the role of clergy as leader is highlighted. We are in the age of the pastoral leader. Other roles have been lifted up at other time: pastor, counselor, teacher, preacher, prophet. Now the key job is leader. Leaders make things happen. Leaders use their influence to bring vision to reality.
I notice, secondly, a bit of ambiguity. In the context of the book as a whole and of Willimon’s ministry as a whole, the ambiguity is lessened, almost to the vanishing point. The ambiguity I see is, just which congregational mission is the pastor supposed to be leading? The mission as perceived by the congregation? For many that mission is mere survival. The young people are staying away in droves and the old faithful keep dying. Bring in the young folks and we can pass on in peace. Then there will be someone to maintain the building and the traditions we’ve guarded so carefully.
Or maybe the pastor’s job is leading the mission of the congregation as that mission is conceived by the conference leadership. Pastors hear these days that congregational leaders who stick to the old ways are less likely to gain a hearing for their complaints about pastors leading change. If a pastor crosses the congregational leaders in their pursuit of the status quo, of mere maintenance, so much the better. Pastors need to heed and seek to improve the particular metrics that come from the conference leadership. That’s the evaluation that counts.
This second model requires not only leading the congregational mission but changing the congregation’s understanding of its mission. Anyone who’s tried leading change in a long established organization (a church founded over a hundred years ago can surely be counted as long established) knows the difficulty. Organizations become highly resistant to change in much less time than that.
What about the other roles of the pastor: are these just subsumed under the role of leader now? I’m going to get personal for a moment. I have a strong calling to leadership. Since my calling to lead outweighs my skills in leadership, I have to depend on Holy Spirit intervention and empowering all the time. Every time I’ve served in a leadership role I’ve seen the need. I think back to visiting the junior high in a town where I used to pastor. I don’t remember why I happened to be there that time – I think it was to pray for the students. School had just let out and the students were milling around, making for their buses or looking for their parents. God opened my eyes and I saw more than rowdy junior high kids. I saw “sheep who were harassed and helpless, sheep without a shepherd.” They were lost, wandering helplessly in the dark. I was awakened afresh to the impossibility of quietly letting my congregation do what it wanted to do. We had to do something.
I spent the next couple of years – the rest of my time at that appointment – banging my head against a brick wall. The leadership eventually called in the DS: I was bad for the church. Too many neighborhood kids were coming to the church. If the kids came, their parents might start coming – and they were the wrong kind of people.
They managed to get rid of me. It broke my heart. First, my heart was broken for the kids. I could preach Jesus all day long, see them get excited – and then what? Experience a church that didn’t want them? My heart was also broken for the people of the church. I loved those people and they were missing out on the adventure of joining Jesus. And for what? Nothing as good as a mess of pottage. All they got was a temporary continuance of the status quo.
I reject the notion that seems so popular today, that leadership is the most important role of the pastor. I just don’t have the confidence that even the best of us have the ability to make the right thing happen the right way with any great regularity. But leadership is essential. Praying our way into our congregational mission, joining a Jesus always on the move, cannot be left off.