Category Archives: Leadership

The Importance of Culture in a Pastoral Fit

Last week I wrote a blog post on when cultures collide. I’ve continued to think about the topic of culture, but want to address a more specific aspect as it relates to a church calling a pastoral leader. In this congregational process, which we American Baptists honor as part of our polity, culture can be a determining factor as to whether the call is productive or not.

In working alongside pastoral search committees I have often said that there are two aspects of the cultural fit which a committee, congregation, and prospective pastor must pay attention. One is what I will call the “theological cultural fit”. The second is what I call the “social cultural fit”. Let me explain.

A theologically conservative congregation does not usually want to call a pastor who is not theologically conservative. Similarly a theologically moderate church will probably not do well with a far-right theologically conservative pastor. This may seem like a given, however it’s a conversation that needs to be explored in the search process. Too often persons assume agreement on the basics of Christian doctrine and do not explore the nuances of a topic. For example, I can be a theologically conservative pastor who has a high view of Scripture, sound understanding of soteriology (salvation), traditional views of Christology, missiology and ecclesiology. And I may also affirm the role of women in leadership and ministry, as a conservative pastor or congregation. Yet if I am matched with a pastor, or church, who also espouses a conservative identification, but does not also agree with the view of women in ministry and leadership; there will be tension and strife within this match from day one.

Another arena within the theological cultural fit has to do with one’s understanding of congregational polity and leadership. As an American Baptist I affirm the autonomy of the local church, including it’s right to call whom it discerns God has led to be pastor. I also affirm that the pastor, while called to an office or role within the church, is not to function as as an autocrat but a leader among leaders, working alongside staff and lay leadership (male and female) for the good of the whole. This collaborative style of leadership is one that will not function well within a congregational system that looks to the pastor for authoritative leadership; nor will the authoritative pastoral leader function well in the midst of true congregational polity.

These are but two examples where due consideration of the theological match in the search and call process is critical, and worth more than one conversation. In a time when longer tenured pastoral calls show congregations with greater stability and health, let’s not get in such a hurry that we short-circuit the process and end up repeating it in a couple of years, leaving both a weakened clergyperson and congregation in the wake!

The other cultural fit I identified above is what I termed a “social cultural fit”. By this I mean that the pastor and congregation would do well to come from a shared social understanding or background. The most common example I have used is that a rural congregation is likely to fare better with a pastor who has some understanding of rural life, verses one who’s only life and ministry experience has been urban. The reverse of this is true as well. Of course there will be exceptions to the rule, and we never want to deny someone the capacity to grow and stretch in their appreciation of a different context. Nonetheless, more often than not when we assume the social cultural fit is not that important, in the end it usually proves to have been.

The additional caveat I would include in this post is a combination of the above “fits” as it concerns denominational affiliation. We are clearly living in a day when denominational labels and traditions are not given as much weight as they once were. Congregants choose affiliation with congregations today for a wide host of reasons, with denominational affinity being down the list, especially for younger generations. Pastoral candidates are tempted to do the same. Afterall Baptist is Baptist, right? Well, maybe not!

As a regional judicatory minster who has more than once been called on to mitigate the differences that surfaced between a long established denominational church, and it’s recently called non-denominational, or other denominational pastor; I can promise you that this “fit” is also important. Search committee, pastoral candidate, and congregation take heed. God does work in mysterious ways, but God also works among those who’s streams of spirituality and ministry are most similarly aligned.

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When Culture Collides

The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines “culture” as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”. We are all part of culture, or more than likely a part of several different “sub-cultures”. For example, your cultures might include your family of origin, your family of formation, your work culture, church culture, social culture, educational culture, social media culture, and others.

What cultures or cultural groups do you share an affinity with? These may be variously defined by the kind of music you listen to, how you vote, spend your free time, your choices in media consumption, exercise, worship, what you read, and who you cheer for. But culture runs deeper than surface labels or associations. Culture is felt. It is a core representation of one’s person, the heartbeat we walk to, the song we carry in our heart.

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The Ways We Say “Hello”

It’s been a while since I was faced with saying a general “hello” to a new group of people. I did it 15 years ago when I assumed a new pastoral ministry role with a congregation. I’ve done it since, of course, in meeting new people or small groups. But how do you go about saying “hello” to a group of congregations, pastors and congregants as their regional ministry partner – what we call in our American Baptist tradition – their Executive Minister? That’s the question I’ve been pondering over the past six weeks as I transitioned from the pastorate into a regional judicatory role once again.

Of course I do know some of the “how”. There will be phone calls, zoom calls, emails, texts and messages – maybe even a hand written letter or two. This blog is also a medium I plan to utilize in my hello. But experience tells me that nothing will take the place of, nor be as effective as, a face to face hello. Investing in getting to know someone, or a group/congregation, face to face and person to person(s) is invaluable in the work of ministry. Such encounters teach and show us so much more than the other “stand-ins” can possibly offer. For example, some of the most important ways we communicate are through our facial expression, body language, tone of voice and other non-verbal presentations. You cannot possibly cover all of that by email, text or phone. Even video has its limitations. Some things are simply old school – “hello” is one of those things, in my opinion.

Which means “hello” if done well, requires an investment of time and attention, effort and participation much of today’s culture has found inconvenient and too time consuming. In a day and age when communication is counted in tweets (limited to just so many characters), posts, likes and links; a quality interpersonal “hello” is endangered. Yet the old adage holds, doesn’t it? “You only get one opportunity to make a first impression.”

I spent the past six weeks of “good-byes” in order to be on a good footing for the coming “hellos”. Yet it occurs to me that many (maybe most?) of the people I’m anxious to say hello to, may not feel anywhere nearly as excited about the introduction. That’s the hurdle, sometimes, in regional judicatory ministry. I represent a regional denominational partner, in an interdependent system of congregational polity that is variously valued in today’s world. Some value the connections greatly, and I know I will be warmly welcomed by them as a representative of the greater church, and partner in ministry. Others may be indifferent, lacking understanding of the history, or otherwise occupied with busy lives. I get it. But I’m also praying for the opportunities to make some meaningful initial contacts and introductions that will lead to significant ministry relationships.

I would be remiss to say that these “hellos” are from ground zero. I do already know some of the partners and faces I hope to deepen connection with. The members of the Executive Minister search committee and other staff have already been welcoming from a distance. Now that distance has been bridged and it’s time to roll up our sleeves and serve side by side. What a great opportunity awaits.

I’m sure my “hello” will be different from others. I’ll perhaps not do it quite like the last person, or the one before that. I’m just going to be me and not try to be someone I’m not. So, “hello” ABC of the Dakotas, this Midwestern Indiana grandson of a farmer and small business owner, son of a self-employed hard working dad, husband to a dedicated elementary teacher, father of three and grandad of the three more, looks forward to making your acquaintance. I’m eager to learn what God is up to in your lives, your congregation or ministry, and your community. And I’m hopeful as I learn more about our Dakota Mission, including how we can serve together to advance the Kingdom of God throughout this region and beyond.

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The Ways We Say “Thanks”

Expressing thanks can and does take many forms in the diversity of the human population. There is a part of our inner being that causes us to want to express gratitude toward those who have done something for us, meant something to us, impacted our life, or helped us along life’s way. Yet, the ways we give expression to this need for thanks giving are as unique as our personalities and DNA.

Let’s consider some of the ways the sharing of thanks takes form:
Gift giving is a common means employed. The gift is symbolic of whatever gratitude needs to be acknowledged. People can spend vast amounts of time pondering just what the right gift should be. There’s a bit of risk here, because the spirit in which gifts are given and received are not always aligned. Gifts given with all sincerity can be overlooked or under appreciated, making the gesture fall short. As a rule, I think all gifts (even those that perplex the recipient) should be received with graciousness.
Cards can be a frequent expression of gratitude. In cleaning out some files recently I discovered a whole group of cards and notes I’d received. Reading back through them was a trip down memory lane. I not only relived the event, but did so in connection with those with whom it was shared – those who sent the cards.
Hand Written Notes might companion a card, giving it an even more personalized stature. Or such notes might be in place of a card. This medium is rare in today’s world where texts and instant messages have taken over. A hand written note conveys an investment of time and self that warms the heart. The notes that are homemade have carried special meaning for me – whether sent from a grandson or a friend.
Verbal expressions are another means of thanks. These can be informal, as in “I want to tell you what that meant to me”, or formal – in the context of a speech or public acknowledgement. When shared interpersonally, face to face, such efforts span the chasm between people in a way I assume makes God smile.
Acts of Kindness or Service make the list. Have you ever been taken out to eat as an expression of thanks? Had someone step in to take care of a chore or task that is usually yours? This type of thanks giving is a primary language for some.
Bonuses or Monetary gestures are often employed in the business world. The intent is to show someone that their worth is valued, and their service acknowledged. These are practical, bottom line kinds of gestures which can be greatly appreciated and helpful. One hopes they are companioned by some of the softer expressions referenced above.
Receptions, Parties, and Gatherings are also often used for such thankful sharing. We are social beings and find reasons for coming together around food and fellowship, to commemorate friendship and relationships that have built into our lives.

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The Ways We Say Goodbye

I have long been a student of human behavior. Even as a kid I can remember thinking about how people said goodbye in such different ways. Whenever Dad called the house from work and one of us kids answered, he was pretty cut and dry. He stated the purpose of his call, asked his questions and hung up. I hardly ever remember my dad formally saying goodbye. Even when I watched him at work, taking orders over the phone, he would conclude the call with something like, “Well, Ok then” and drop the receiver.

My mother made much more of a production of saying goodbye. She would insist on a hug and kiss on the cheek, and demand reciprocation. She lingered over the goodbyes she gave her children and grandchildren. You could not in good conscience depart her home without participating in the goodbye ritual.

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