Pathways to Leadership that Lasts
by Paul E. Hopkins
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, historian Debby Applegate tells the story of how Beecher became, during the middle of the nineteenth century, deserving of Abraham Lincoln's claim that he was "the most influential man in America." His passionate preaching against slavery made him a champion of the abolition movement, and in the fight for racial justice, he was a forerunner to an even more famous clergyman of recent times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beecher, the son of a "fire-and-brimstone" preacher who early in life appeared unpromising compared to his more talented siblings, spent most of his career as a parish pastor preaching a gospel of unconditional love. His most enduring pastoral labors built Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church into one of the country's most dynamic congregations. And although his later years were tainted by allegations of infidelity with a parishioner, his leadership was undeniably a powerful ecclesiastical and cultural force that changed people's lives and paved the way for modern American Christianity.
[In his recent book Pursuing Pastoral Excellence: Pathways to Fruitful Leadership (Alban Institute, 2011) Paul E. Hopkins makes the point] that Pastoral leaders, whether saintly or even deeply flawed, have transformed the world in sometimes visible, and much more often quiet ways for two thousand years. Pastoral leadership can and should be nothing less than a fundamental resource in healing and establishing God’s Kingdom in the world.
How to carry out that important leadership, however, is not so clear. Human diversity and the wide range of theological and ecclesiastical expressions of the ministry of Jesus foster an incredibly rich spectrum of strategies and tactics for the exercise of pastoral leadership. Effective pastoral leaders today will likely draw upon a wealth of leadership theories and tools, but the fundamental focus of their work—their fruit—must be transforming the lives of people, churches, and the world.
Fruitful leaders are not only faithful stewards of the talents they have been given; their leadership will also have lasting impact in the lives of people, congregations, and communities. No one leader provides a universal model for effective ministry, of course. All carry out their diverse ministries in ways congruent with their own personalities, their skills, and the distinctive situations in which they have been called to serve. Fruit is always grown and harvested locally, after all, and the leadership pastor’s offer and the results of their work are no exception.
Excellent pastors inevitably have specific skills in ministry that contribute to their effectiveness. Being an engaging preacher, providing sensitive pastoral care to members, running effective meetings, conducting lively worship services, teaching interesting classes—skills like these are central to pastoral success. Beneath these skills, however, are the more important qualities of personality and practice of leadership that foster enduring transformation. Such leadership may take different forms in each situation, of course, but the pattern of pastoral leadership that characterises excellent pastors always seems to include at least the following seven elements:
It is certainly possible to be an effective leader and exhibit only some of these characteristics, but these seven paths offer the best hope for practicing pastoral leadership that produces enduring results. Such excellence, like all sound ministry, begins with a vision for the future coupled with clarity about the minister’s own role in leading people toward that future. These practices are seldom included in a seminary curriculum; rather, they are charisms, gifts of God. But that does not mean they cannot be taught or strengthened or intentionally expanded and sustained. Equipping pastors to travel these paths is an urgent task of the church.
Published by Chris Vermeulen with permission of Alban Institute