The “Must” Questions

While working for the General Board of Discipleship, I developed a resource that was never published called “Your New Appointment: The First Hundred Days.”  Not a flashy title, but very descriptive.  It was rejected because “it wasn’t practical.”  I will outline it here and let you decide.  It was predicated upon a very simple process and plan, and its core thesis was a guiding question:  “What must I learn/know to be effective in my ministry in this place at this time?”  I did not offer a prescriptive list of answers to such a question — context and chemistry are powerful variables that rule out a “one-size-fits-all-answer” — but I did offer suggestions and tools for pursuing worthwhile answers.

I used a simple contextual frame for pastoral ministry — pastors-in-charge equip, empower and enable congregational participants to engage in ministries of nurture, outreach and witness (the foster disciples of Jesus Christ who transform the world).  Thus, a finer focus emerged:

  1. what must I learn/know to effectively equip, empower and enable people to engage in nurture ministries?
  2. what must I learn/know to effectively equip, empower and enable people to engage in outreach ministries?
  3. what must I learn/know to effectively equip, empower and enable people to engage in witness ministries?

I developed the following two graphics to identify a healthy, balanced model contrasted with the “lived reality” of the average United Methodist pastor I discovered when doing research for my book, Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness.

Pastoral Time

The basic premise is that a balance of inward and outward focus is preferred, and that the pastoral leader will spend approximately equal time in the following pursuits:

  • Congregational Leadership — preaching, teaching, equipping, training, providing spiritual guidance and direction, visioning, strategic thinking, prioritization and goal setting, personal development and continuing education
  • Congregational Care — leading worship, fellowship events, social events, visitation, counseling, attending meetings, confirmation, baptisms, presiding at the Lord’s Supper, newsletter/email/written communications, ministry of presence
  • Community Engagement — ecumenical & interfaith relationships, community development, social services partnerships, community events, rallies, service projects, missional outreach, funerals/weddings/baptisms, teaching, networking

Our healthiest and most effective pastors establish and maintain a 1/3-1/3-1/3 balance between these three areas.  Sadly, these are few and far between.  Surveys and interviews of over 1,100 United Methodist clergy revealed that the chart on the right is a more accurate reflection of the day-to-day lived reality, with over 2/3 of the time given to inward focused nurture and care functions, about 1/4 given to forward-focused, future-oriented equipping/empowering/enabling leadership, and a meager 5% left over for community involvement and engagement.  This is the profile of most declining and struggling congregations.

Moving into a new appointment is an ideal time to “reboot” and work toward balance in the three spheres, but it is not impossible to reestablish healthy balance even in a long-term appointment.  I suggest pushing the “must” questions — for each of the three sections, the same core questions apply:

  • who must I talk to in the congregation, the community, the church to be more effective in my ministry?
  • where must I go to learn/know what is most important in the congregation, community, and larger church?
  • what must I do to establish key connections in the congregation, community and church?

When I last pastored in the local church, I charted a course for my first 100 days, and three years in repeated the 100 day plan.  In three months I made appointments with every other clergy leader in a ten-mile radius.  I invited them out to lunch, asked them to give me ninety minutes, and I asked the following five questions:

  1. what is the most important work you do as a pastor?
  2. what is the most important your church does as a congregation?
  3. what do you find most challenging in your ministry and the ministry of your congregation?
  4. what are you attempting to do that is currently a struggle, but with more resources (human or material) you would be able to do better?
  5. where do you see your own ministry in five years?  where do you see the ministry of your congregation?  do you see yourself still in ministry with the same congregation?

I also made appointments to speak with someone in each of the following areas, and to have one or two lay people accompany me:

  • police force
  • rescue workers/EMT/fire brigade
  • area hospital
  • social services
  • school board
  • chamber of commerce
  • welfare/human services agency
  • assisted living/retirement home
  • funeral directors
  • community theater/performing arts
  • substance abuse centers

and I made it known that I was available to come speak to Kiwanis, Elks, Rotary, business associations, women’s groups, youth groups, etc., and made a list of topics I could address.  Wherever I was invited, I took one or two lay people with me.

With each group, I asked three basic questions:

  1. what are you focused on?
  2. why is it important?
  3. what’s working well and what isn’t?

The twofold impact was simple, but significant.  First, people got to know me and they got to know the ministry of the church I served.  They got to know people from the church, and the people from the church got to know community leaders better.  Second, I got a picture of the church in relation to the community mission field.  I was able to connect the gifts, knowledge, experience, skills, talents, and passions of the congregation to the needs, desires and priorities of the community.  Two or three critical partnerships formed that allowed the church to engage in ministries impossible in its own.  On a regular basis, we invited people we met into the church to preach, teach or share information and invitations to serve.  This focus on community engagement helped the church maintain a healthy balance of inward and outward focus.  It also benefited the church in terms of membership and money.  The win-win was powerful.

In my experience, this is a valid model, and it is a much clearer metric of vitality than how many people come to church and how many people attend a small group.  I have yet to find a congregation that maintains such a healthy balance if the pastoral leader does not model a healthy balance.  But where pastor and congregation blend nurture, outreach and witness, amazing things happen (regardless of the size of the membership).


6 replies

  1. I absolutely agree with you regarding the time disbursement. I haven’t been able to get there yet in my current appointment but I have been working that way from the beginning. Keep spreading the good news

  2. I will definitely be saving this article. It is a sad commentary on lack of leadership education. I notice that the professors that expect. ….and therefore get the most work and the best work. …are those who not only teach me their area of expertise, but expect me to leave their classroom able to teach, lead, equip and mentor others in the future.
    Thank you!

  3. Your list for the community is all programs and events … some of the congregational care items – such as “fellowship events, social events, visitation, counseling, attending meetings … ministry of presence” – could take place with persons who are unchurched and thereby become “community engagement” activities. Pastors and laity of all size churches have these skills, but could just look outside the walls and find plenty of people to interact with; for the really small church, however, this might be the opportunity for them. .

  4. I am a retired military pilot. In aviation, we would call a 40-plus year track record of steady decline in membership a “death spiral.” In my opinion, Dan’s illustration of the real division of pastoral time depicts exactly how we have gotten there. I deal in the area of disaster preparedness, in which there is a growing realization that congregations that are not connected in their community are becoming increasingly irrelevant in that community. We call our renewed emphasis in establishing or renewing community engagement “connecting neighbors.” I believe congregations and pastors that are not shifting to the “Ideal Division” model, and engaging laity in those efforts, most-likely will no longer exist in the next 10-15 years.

  5. Sadly, the “Real” division of time – which reflects the “you are paid to take care of us” mindset – is what many members want and most pastors give. Surely this is a significant factor in the 40+ year decline of many denominations. How refreshing it would be to arrive in a new appointment and have the members say “We can take care of ourselves pastor, you go get to know the community and help us find new places to be in ministry. See you on Sunday.” Add “and a couple of us would be glad to go with you if needed” and you can be sure you have landed just this side of heaven. Imagine! Though in fairness to the laity, there are just as many clergy who would never get out of the office and actually do it. Thanks Dan – a truly vital bit of wisdom.

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