Leadership that Fits Your Church -- A Review

LEADERSHIP THAT FITS YOUR CHURCH: What Kind of Pastor for What Kind of Congregation (The Columbia Partnership). By Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce.   St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2012.  Xv + 160 pages.

            It should be abundantly clear to both clergy and
congregation members that not every match is made in heaven.   Even with the best of intentions and tools, matching a pastor with a congregation is complicated.  I suppose E-Harmony and Match.com can bring couples together with their patented computer models, but matching pastor to church seems a lot more complicated.  As a pastor whose first pastorate ended with a less than happy resignation, I look back now and can see how this was not a good fit from the beginning – at least not as a first call as a solo pastor.  Hopefully now that I’m in my third call, I’m a bit wiser and better able to discern proper fit, but even now it’s not always easy to know for sure how the match is working. Of course, a match needn’t be perfect to work, but the two parties need to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and expectations.    

            When it comes to matching congregations to pastors, there are no fixed methods.  In some traditions, such as the United Methodists or the Roman Catholics, Bishops assign pastors to congregations.  Hopefully they have a good sense of fit, but both church and pastor must trust the judgment of a third party.  Other traditions, such as mine, require congregations to discern who to call, while pastors must decide whether to accept the wooing of a particular congregation.  The denomination will assist, but the final decision is between pastor and congregation.   Whatever the method, there are factors that will determine success or failure.  Going into conversations with wisdom and insight may preclude the formation of unhealthy and unhappy pastor-congregation relationships.

            One possible tool that could assist this process, or help pastor and congregation better understand each other if the relationship is already in place, is Leadership that Fits Your Church.  Authored by Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce, the book offers an interpretation of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, which was first taken in 2001 and then again in 2008-2009.  The authors of this book both served on the staff that produced this survey that involved over 500,000 worshipers in 5,000 congregations from across the country and theological spectrum.  Therefore, Woolever, the Research Director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, and Bruce, who prior to her death in 2012 served as research manager for the research services office  of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and project manager of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey were well suited (matched) to interpret the findings for both churches and clergy.  The authors suggest that pastors, congregational leaders, and denominational leaders, consultants, seminary faculty and students, and academics might benefit from reading the book.  The authors note that their “ultimate goal is to help pastors see themselves and their ministry more clearly,” as well as help church leaders better understand clergy so that when they engage in pastoral searches they can “discern the type of clergyperson that best fits the needs and values of their congregation” (p. xv).

            The survey covers a wide variety of points, from identifying the kind of pastor one is to the identity of congregations, what makes for a satisfied pastor to the roles pastors play in congregations, including their contributions to the growth of congregations in numbers as well as vitality.  Reading the interpretation of the data, you discover very quickly that this is a rather complex issue.   In part theology/tradition plays an important role, but so does experience and temperament.  Often we discover that what one might think leads to success doesn’t, and areas one might ignore as inconsequential might have great value.  So, longevity in the pastorate tends to contribute to growth, but if a pastor stays too long longevity could prove damaging.  I found it interesting – perhaps because I’m now in my mid-50s that the majority of growing congregations are led by pastors in their 50s, but conversely churches led by pastors in their 60s lead the decliners.  Or consider the question of self-care.  Often pastors who don’t take a day off, and work long hours, will find great success, but they can also burn out quickly.  Words of wisdom are offered near the close of the book, when the authors note that “the road to effective ministry is paved when pastor and worshiper opinions about how things are going coincide, “so it’s important to take the church’s temperature from time to time   (p. 119).

             If you’re looking for a book that offers prescriptions for successful fits, this is not the book for you.  That’s not the purpose of the book.  But, if you’re interested in looking at the congregational/pastoral relationship and looking for questions and data to facilitate that self-analysis, then this book will be of great assistance.   From my perspective, I think this book will be especially helpful for congregations in the process of looking, as well as pastors seeking a new call.  It can help alleviate some pitfalls that often plague the process.  Denominational officials involved in placement will also find this helpful.  For congregations and pastors already in relationship with each other, the findings of the book can be helpful to the process of understanding where each comes from.  Understanding where the other comes from, what his or her gifts might be, and the congregation’s own sense of purpose can help alleviate potential conflict.  Perhaps the most important contribution the book makes to this conversation is the way in which it counters the idea that the key to success is getting the “right leader,” and ignoring the importance of lay leadership. 

            I don’t think there are any perfect matches, but understanding expectations and needs can go a long way to keeping relationships from souring and enabling congregations to flourish, even as pastors are better able to enjoy satisfaction and success in their ministries.  Having data like this can open up the channels of communication so that this can be achieved.  The authors are to be commended for their work at interpreting the data and making it available in an understandable way, pointing out how the data can assist the process of becoming vital and growing communities of faith.


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