The Integration of Preaching & Transformational Leadership

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1 The Integration of Preaching & Transformational Leadership by Mariann Edgar Budde St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church, Minneapolis, MN In the fall of 2002, I received a Sabbatical Grant for Pastoral Leaders from the Louisville Institute. I proposed to use my three-month sabbatical to reflect upon the role of preaching in congregational development. In particular, I wanted to focus on how preaching reflects the relationship between the congregation and preacher, and how preaching can help set a tone for spiritual exploration and adventure within the community. To do this, I would examine my own experience as rector of a congregation that has undergone significant growth in the last decade, both in membership and programmatic life. I would also interview other priests and pastors who also understood their ministry in congregational development terms as a conscious, intentional process of leading a congregation through change, overcoming obstacles to growth, and moving forward in an life of communal faithfulness to Christ. I came to this study with my own convictions. Preaching has always been a critical dimension of my life as a Christian leader. It has been the place in which my own spiritual journey and life struggles, my knowledge of the congregation and its struggles, my engagement with the arts and popular culture, and my public life of ministry converge. It is also a leap of faith each week, as I stare at the empty page and ponder the mystery of inspiration. Most importantly, it flows from my relationship to the congregation and my commitment to its life. While I am certain that intelligent, spiritually grounded preaching is essential in a vibrant faith community, I have learned that preaching alone, no matter how inspired, will not transform a congregation. For a congregation to change preaching must reflect a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation and the pastor s whole-hearted commitment to the process of congregational development, which is the essence of leadership. Page 1 of 7

2 I hoped that my sabbatical project would help clarify my understanding of what is required of a spiritual leader in order to successfully guide a congregation through systemic change. I had originally intended to interview other clergy who shared my experience of spiritual leadership through the transition from what Arlin Routhage describes as pastoral size to program size, that is, churches that have grown from a worshipping community of less than 100 to more than 250. I felt some urgency to explore the field of congregational development through the lens of preaching, given certain trends in my own denomination. Most Episcopal congregations have less than 100 people in attendance on Sunday mornings. Their very survival depends upon facing and overcoming obstacles to growth with limited means. My hope was to identify the spiritual and leadership disciplines parish leaders need in order to navigate the waters of change and demonstrate how our work in the pulpit promotes the spiritual maturity of an entire community. My sabbatical began in February 2004, over a year after I had received the Louisville Institute grant. The delay was intentional, as 2003 was our congregation s centennial, a year filled with special events and new initiatives. In 2003 my vocational focus shifted in ways that influenced my approach to a sabbatical. When I wrote the original proposal my focus was retrospective, looking back over ten years of pastoral leadership with an intent to describe what I had learned, in dialogue with others who had walked a similar path of congregational leadership. By the time my sabbatical began, however, my focus was on the future and what I needed to learn to equip myself for ministry for the next stage of my life and that of the congregation I serve. I learned something about the fluid, evolving nature of a sabbatical project before my sabbatical officially began. Indeed, as Melissa Bane Sevier writes in her book, Journeying Toward Renewal: a Spiritual Companion for Pastoral Sabbatical, the process of sabbatical begins in the time of preparation. 1 I was fortunate to receive encouragement from the Louisville Institute for changing my focus, which freed me to use the sabbatical time in ways that best served what I wanted to explore and to learn. On sabbatical I had now before me two distinct projects. The first was to write from the heart about preaching, the greatest love and challenge of my vocation, expressing all I had learned about the craft of preaching and its spiritual significance for preacher and congregation. I wanted to write about preaching as a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline of leadership. The second project pointed me toward the future, as I sought to learn how to lead a congregation of worshippers on a Sunday morning to that of 500 or more. St. John s, the church I serve, had never expressed the goal to double in size, but I knew that if we were to continue on our trajectory of both spiritual maturity and numerical 1 Melissa Bane Sevier, Journeying Toward Renewal: A Spiritual Companion for Pastoral Sabbaticals. (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2002), pp Page 2 of 7

3 growth, we needed to overcome significant structural obstacles that hindered growth. Like most Episcopal churches, St. John s has a structural and community bias in favor of smallness. Most of our members prefer to be part of a small congregation. The bias toward smallness is not limited, however, to the membership. As an Episcopal priest I had been trained to function as the leader of a small congregation, taking on most of the responsibility for leadership myself. I enjoy the pastoral authority given to me by members who value my presence. I feel the responsibility to care for each member individually and personally. There is great integrity in such personal ministry, but it cannot advance the congregation s development, given the obvious limitations of one person s time and energy. I knew that if I were to help St. John s move into its future potential as a strong, growing congregation, I needed to learn how to change my own leadership assumptions and adapt our structure in the service of openness and growth. I wanted to learn from those who had successfully led their congregations through such a transition. Thus I began a three-month process, dividing my time between these two distinct spiritual endeavors. During the week I stayed at home and wrote on the spiritual discipline of preaching. On the weekends, I visited congregations, both near my home in Minneapolis and in other cities. My criteria for selecting churches was that they have a worshipping community of 500 or more, and that they came to their present size in a relatively short period of time (5 to 10 years) without the benefit of endowments. I read a great deal, on the nature of preaching and about congregational development. I also interviewed several leaders of congregations I admired. It was an extraordinary time of rest and renewal. Most days were devoted to writing, a process that proved more demanding than I had anticipated. Being accustomed to writing on a weekly deadline, I didn t realize how difficult it would be to sustain the same level of productivity without the same pressure. My initial writing goals thus proved unrealistic. I had hoped to complete the full draft of an extended essay or short book entitled, Gathering Up the Fragments: Preaching as a Spiritual Discipline of Leadership. I made good progress, but when my sabbatical ended, I had at least four major sections left to complete. My thesis is that preaching is the primary spiritual discipline for parish leaders, which if embraced fully can help integrate our lives, embolden our sense of vocation, and give authority and power to the words we preach. Sermon preparation is, first and foremost, prayer, the means through which we struggle with the most important questions of life and faith. It is a vehicle of grace, in which preachers regularly experience the mercy and blessing of God. I tell parishioners that preaching is what keeps me believing in miracles. Can Jesus transform a few loaves of bread into a feast? Absolutely. For preachers, it is a weekly event. Preaching is also the gift we give back to God and the communities we serve. When we rise before our congregations, we stand at the center of several relationships. We Page 3 of 7

4 ourselves are in relationship to God and to our sacred texts, as is each person listening and the community as a whole. We are all in relationship to our larger communities and culture. We are affected by world events, sometimes dramatically. If we, as preachers, can give voice to the emotional undercurrent of these relationships and speak truth from that place, what others is experience is grace. They get the feeling that we ve been following them around all week and speaking the truth the most need to hear. What we are actually doing is speaking the truth they already know. They hear in our words the voices of their own souls, or even the voice of God. But preaching is not merely a spiritual discipline for the preacher s sake or even that of the individuals gathered on a Sunday morning. It must also serve to inspire and challenge a given Christian community to be transformed and empowered by the presence of Christ in their midst. For preaching to serve this crucial leadership function, it must be connected to all other dimensions of leadership, as the head is to the body. Preaching is therefore related to how we facilitate meetings, counsel in emergencies, and organize for justice. Words alone do not proclaim the Gospel. The authenticity and transparency of our lives and relationships and the effectiveness of our leadership inform preaching, quite apart from how many hours we spend preparing an actual sermon. It was in the interest of effective leadership that I engaged the second project of my sabbatical: studying how large congregations are structured for ministry. I knew that good preaching alone would not transform St. John s. I wanted to learn how leaders of congregations twice the size of St. John s functioned; how their ministries were organized; and how they understood the role of lay leadership. I realized that if I am to lead St. John s further on the path of growth and spiritual maturity, I couldn t simply work harder; instead, I needed to learn new ways of working, a new way of functioning as spiritual leader. I also knew that St. John s couldn t continue with its current structure and expect growth to continue. Thus, each weekend I visited a congregation of 500 or more in attendance, looking for those who had reached their current size in a relatively short period of time. I ignored differences in theology, politics, or denomination. My interest was only in structure and how the leadership functioned. The congregational leaders that particularly intrigued me, I interviewed. And I attended two workshops hosted by congregations that had experienced significant systemic transformation. In my visits I began to notice certain trends and characteristics of large congregations, common priorities that guided their ministries, and qualities in their leaders. I paid particular attention to my experience as a visitor on Sunday morning. What did these churches do to welcome a visitor into their worshipping community? The most striking qualities of the larger congregations I studied were: 1. Obvious Hospitality Page 4 of 7

5 Hospitality was a clear and obvious priority throughout the congregations. The Sunday morning ministry of hospitality involved dozens of people, of all ages. Examples included: Greeters at every door where people enter the church Children handing out bulletins Television screens throughout the building with a running list of announcements of the morning s schedule and upcoming activities Good signage A hospitality station, or booth, where two people stood or sat prepared to greet people and answer questions An invitation from the person doing announcements offering to meet people at the door and escort them into coffee hour 2. Strong Emphasis on Community A common refrain I heard was, The Church must grow smaller and larger at the same time. Small group ministries throughout the church A recognition that community and relational needs cannot be met in Sunday morning worship Conviction that pastoral care and Christian formation take place best in small groups. In growing churches, clergy cannot and do not attempt to provide that function. One minister said, I had to decide if I would be a pastor to 108 people or be a pastor to 108 leaders who would then pastor others. Small groups focused on specific life/pastoral needs, such as recovery, grief, parenting, being single. New member ministries with a small group emphasis. 3. Membership Initiation Process: High Bar for Membership Hospitality and welcome on Sunday worship contrasted with a more rigorous and clear membership process A typical new member process lasted 4/5 weeks, consisting of Sunday morning sessions with lay leadership and a lengthier time with clergy leadership, on a Sunday afternoon or Saturday morning. Process included all one would need to know to be confirmed or received into denomination, a clear ministry purpose statement of congregation, expectations of membership (a membership covenant ), gifts discernment, and small group matching Page 5 of 7

6 4. Rigorous Adult Spiritual Formation The Integration of Preaching & Transformational Leadership The emphasis on adult faith development assumed the need for basic knowledge in spiritual practice and disciplines. In several churches, the life of faith was outlined as follows: 101 classes: Intro/membership/what it means to be a member 201 classes: how to live the spiritual life personal prayer, finances and stewardship, one s place in Christian community, claiming spiritual gifts 301 classes: discernment of spiritual gifts for ministry (gifts, talents, personality, experiences) 401 classes: living one s faith in the world and leading others 5. Children and Youth Ministry a High Priority Professional nursery (one of the main reasons people give for not attending church is the lack of quality childcare) Active ministry with young people, with particular emphasis on faith formation, faith experiences Lots of retreats, mission trips, etc Combination of paid and volunteer staff 6. Uplifting Music Particular attention to younger generations, with musicians from the congregations leading music Mostly Christian bands but a variety of styles. Common theme was the commitment to excellence 7. Commitment to Technology Websites as the point of entry for half those beginning a spiritual search Great sound systems, technology use throughout building Point of engagement for young people 8. Ministry in the Hands of Lay People In one church that grew from 800 to 1200, the staff became smaller as the church grew Emphasis on gifts/interests/passions for ministry Widely shared lay ministries of pastoral care, teaching, oversight of ministry initiatives Clergy roles were to teach, equip, vision, oversight, preach and preside Page 6 of 7

7 When I returned to St. John s, I presented my findings to the vestry and at our Sunday morning forum, focusing on the positive attributes of the congregations I visited that seemed to pave the way for a congregation like ours. I have since focused on several of these areas of structural transformation, particularly related to my own functioning. As one example, I no longer teach small group classes or Bible studies; instead, I look for curriculum that can be taught by lay leaders in multiple settings, thereby multiplying our Christian Formation efforts. I have helped to organize a team of lay ministers to help care for the pastoral needs of the community, rather than continue to assume such ministry to be exclusively the purview of clergy. I have worked to expand the new member ministry to a clergy/lay leader team and to markedly raise expectations for membership. These are but a few ways that my study of larger congregations has affected my ministry post-sabbatical. I have a different focus now, as I feel called to help adapt and transform the structures of our church to meet twenty-first century challenges and opportunities. I have noticed a change in my preaching since returning from sabbatical. The preparation process is more enjoyable, as I consciously practice the means of prayer and discernment that I articulated in my writing. I feel my connection to the congregation is stronger in the pulpit and more authoritative, perhaps because of my long tenure. I m grateful for that connection, for the past year has been marked by the turbulence of change in the community, and the pulpit is one place where I feel free to bring all the strength of our Scriptures, tradition, and the living presence of Christ to bear on all that we are experiencing. I began my sabbatical not knowing how I would integrate the two distinctive projects I had identified. In the year since I returned, I have attempted to live into that integration, bringing my best effort and prayer to the pulpit and to work of transformational leadership. I believe that transparency, humility, resolve, and a willingness to learn are the attributes clergy need most, both in preaching and in the countless, daily tasks of leadership if we are to equip the churches we love into ones that can communicate and embody Christ s love in a rapidly changing world. Page 7 of 7

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