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Flourishing Congregations Are Well Managed and Effectively Governed

It is not uncommon for pastors to bemoan administrative work as a necessary evil that no doubt has to be done, but which if they had their druthers would not take up any time or energy. Sometimes what is typically called “administration” is viewed as a problem – an obstacle to true religious leadership and pastoral care. And, consequently, many pastors have never developed their organizational or institutional capacities. The most influential pastoral theologian of our generation – Eugene Petersen – is just one example, but an influential example, of this way of thinking. Peterson does not at any point in his key contributions to the vocation of pastoral ministry consider or speak to what it means to work with the board, the denominational bodies, the finances and the budget and the other institutional aspects of congregational life.

Disparaging administration and governance is almost viewed to be a badge of honour, reflecting that a pastor is slightly more spiritual, more true to calling and thus somehow above it all.

And yet for so many pastors the biggest challenges and greatest source of stress will come precisely at this point: the institutional character of congregations. Yes, of course, a congregation is not only an institution. And yet, could it be that a congregation – a local church – will never thrive without attention to the institutional dimension of the church? And could it be that this is not a distraction or necessary evil but actually integral to true pastoral ministry – just like the attention to personal well-being necessarily means attention to the health of our bodies? And could it be that a pastor’s best efforts in other dimensions of ministry will be for naught if the congregation is not effectively managed and governed?

Could it be that Petersen’s discounting of administration reflects a one-sided view of congregational life and ministry? Could it be that administration and thus administrative capacities are essential if our theological vision for the church will find concrete and tangible expression in the practices that make it possible for a congregation to flourish? That, indeed, many congregations never do flourish for the very simple reason that the fundamental administrative structures and procedures have not been put in place and followed.

The authors of The Trellis and the Vine, Collin Marshall and Tony Payne (Matthias Midia, 2009), in speaking of pastoral ministry make a distinction between the basic work of the ministry – the proclamation of the Gospel and the care for people – and what they speak of as the “framework” that is so crucial if the ministry is to grow. They put it this way: “as the ministry grows, the trellis also needs attention. Management, finances, infrastructure, organization, governance – these all become more important and more complex as the vine grows.”

I would go further and stress that in actual fact attending to the institutional character of congregational life is “basic work” and vital to the ministry of the church. Pastors long to make a difference – to be catalysts for substantive change in their congregations – not merely in numbers, but also in the emotional, spiritual vitality of their faith communities and their missional impact within their neighborhoods and communities. And my point is that long term, substantive impact requires the “basic work” of attending to what Payne and Marshall call the framework: questions of good governance, effective personnel policies and practices, financial resilience and strategic initiatives and partnerships. Effective pastors get this.

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