When I started out as a young associate pastor, I was deeply aware of how little I knew about ministry. I wasn’t sure how to lead a congregation. I didn’t know what my relationship should be with pastors and lay leaders who had been at the work far longer than me. I didn’t have the slightest idea about how to meet the deep needs of Oakland, CA, the city in which I then served.
Being aware of my own naivete turned out to be a great gift in those early years. It led me to be open to learning from other people. It kept me curious about the spiritual gifts I had and how they could best be deployed in ministry. I wanted to be a sponge, soaking up as much wisdom and expertise as possible and from every available source.
Most of us started out in ministry with a similar self-awareness. But over time, a lot of us bought into someone’s (our parents’? the culture’s? the denomination’s?) expectation that we would become experts at what we do. We would have ready answers for any question thrown at us and would grow to a place where we no longer needed to learn from others.
What an alluring path, but what a mistaken one.
The healthiest pastors I know continue to understand that they need others – their friendship, their wisdom, and their gifts that differ from ours – in order to lead well. This has been especially obvious as we have journeyed through this time of pandemic and the uncharted seas of ministry into which it has hurled us.
If I were asked to name the characteristic that most helps these healthy pastors stay open to collaborating with and learning from other leaders, it would be an honest humility. Honest humility is the kind of humility that acknowledges what we do know and can do. But it also reminds us that we don’t know everything we need to know. There are others out there who can show us things we need to see. There are issues too big and too complex for any one person to figure out on her/his own.
Luckily for me, my first head of staff modeled just that sort of humility to which I still aspire. He had been in ministry for 25 years when I was ordained. He was acknowledged as one of the key leaders in our presbytery. He could have (as is too often the case with heads of staff) kept me pushed down, garnering all the accolades for our church’s ministry to himself.
But he didn’t.
I was talking with him one day, sitting across the desk from him in his study. I started telling him how much I admired his skills when he brought me up short. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I bring some gifts to our ministry, and you bring some gifts to our ministry. It is when we each bring our gifts to the table and use them collaboratively that the church really thrives.” I recall immediately thinking, “I’m going to remember this moment when I’m sitting on the other side of this desk.”
That was the beginning of my learning about three types of collaboration that mark a fruitful ministry: collaboration with your colleagues (both staff and lay leaders), collaboration with other congregations around you, and collaboration with the wider community in which you are called to serve.
We are called to collaborate with our colleagues. A healthy leadership team is one in which you acknowledge you have some gifts that others don’t but readily acknowledge that they also have gifts that you don’t. Having a church leadership team sit together as equals around a table with everyone contributing to the congregation’s vision is far more fruitful than a table at which one pastor or board chair comes up with a plan for ministry and simply tells everyone else what to do.
We are called to collaborate with the larger body of Christ in the community around us. Yours is not the only congregation trying to reach people with a word of grace and hope. Yours is not the only one wanting to serve the marginalized, the homeless, or the abused. The hurt and need in our communities is so great that we have to break down the silos we build around our own church’s ministry and reach out to other Christians who share our vision of the Beloved Community. Each congregation has its own charisma – its own embodied gift/approach to mission – to bring to bear on the common issues we need to address.
But it doesn’t stop there. We also need to collaborate with other “people of good will” to address the complex issues we face today in America. There are other groups of people in the wider community who care about issues of racism and poverty, for example: social movements, other non-profits, governmental bodies, and business interests with whom we need to talk and develop strategies in common if we want to make significant, live-giving change.
This raises a final issue for me as a straight, White, male, middle class pastor in America. I – and people like me – should not typically be the point persons for these desperately needed conversations. We need to be in the conversation, but we should listen to and follow the lead of people not like us: women, people of color, LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, the poor – learning from all of them and following where they lead.
The way forward for the American church may be messy, and it probably needs to be. The saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go with others,” is more applicable than ever.
The author of Acts tells us that the flame of the Spirt was distributed onto the heads of all the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. The Spirit still distributes its flame wildly and widely. We need to listen to the voices speaking in other tongues, from other perspectives. We’re likely to be surprised by what we will hear and learn.