What is the most important tool in the pastoral toolbox? What ability will strengthen all the other abilities with which one is endowed? And what skill when missing from the ministerial repertoire gets the clergy in hot water over and over again?
In Texas, it’s called savvy. Or reading the landscape. Or pastoral instincts.
But what is this? Does this mean one is driven by opinion polls? Don’t convictions matter? How could this skill be so important for a pastoral leader?
Reading the landscape is the art of seeing where you are—and imagining what it can be for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Frederick Law Olmsted is known as one of the pioneers of American landscape architecture. There is a John Singer Sargent painting of Olmsted that hangs at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. Olmsted co-designed Central Park in New York City and created the master plans for the campuses of Stanford University and University of California, Berkley as well as the grounds of the Biltmore Estate. In the Sargent painting Olmsted is surrounded by rhododendrons and mountain laurel of western North Carolina. Surveying the scene around him Olmsted seems to be taking in the view in order to create a design compatible with that place.
Olmsted’s approach borrows from the American Institute of Architects from Chicago. This school rejected artificial constructs in favor of designing buildings that fit their surroundings. Abandoning the popular two-story Colonial or Queen Anne home, they developed the long forms of a modern or ranch house. The quintessential example of a home created to inhabit the landscape may be the Frank Lloyd Wright home, Falling Water.
Reading the landscape of a church with its people, its place and its unique story is essential as one considers how to lead and how to move forward. Here are some questions you might ask as you survey the place where you lead.
1. What is unique about this place, this people, this church?
Wilshire Baptist Church is a remarkable congregation with a distinctive story. The church has only been led by two pastors, Bruce McIver and George Mason, in the last 58 years. There is a phrase, “the Wilshire Way,” that occasionally is used to try to describe the values of Wilshire. It means different things to different people, of course. But I’ve come to understand it as a willingness to hold on to tradition and at the same time to explore innovation. The implications for music ministry have nudged us toward creativity and collaboration.
Every church has a way about it, a set of customs and habits and preferences. Sure, they may not always make sense but often the creative leader can find ways to lean into these elements instead of rejecting them as without value. Why build yet another cookie-cutter church that looks like every other community of faith in the city? Consider working with the people and programs in that place, renovating what exists instead of razing it to the ground.
2. How can I use language about growth that is organic instead of mechanistic?
I love to grow perennials, plants that often die back in the fall and return in the spring. But when we moved from Charlotte to Dallas almost 12 years ago I tried to keep growing some of my favorite perennials here in Texas. They perished. They just could not survive the Texas summers. Local gardeners helped me discover other wonderful plants that were adapted to this landscape and weather.
An organic approach to growth finds ways to call forth signs of life that are perhaps dormant in a congregation. The pastor does not possess all the truth, but he can identify the “green shoots” in congregational life from a unique perspective. This approach is not a quick-fix to challenges and requires patience, perseverance and imagination. Cultivating new ideas that will thrive in a specific congregation will help a. build trust; b. develop congregational identity; c. re-engage the laity.But this takes time. (Note:I do recognize that there are some churches in such distress that the pastor may function more like an emergency room doctor than a physical trainer.But let’s at least admit that not all churches need the former model to the exclusion of the latter.)
3. Where does vision or mission come from?
Edwin Friedman describes two models of leadership in congregational life:
1. There is the charismatic leader who by force of personality and enthusiasm moves everyone towards a unifying goal. The problem is this is often polarizing, overly focused on the leader and ultimately causes problems with succession.
2. There is a consensus building leadership style that focuses on the will of the followers. A group led by consensus tends to be less imaginative and this approach empowers extremists.
But Friedman advocates for a third way: self-differentiation. This pastoral mode “works to define his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the [body].” The pastor offers a clear word based on the position as leader but she remains connected to people so that their story and their perspectives are heard. Mission and purpose grow from this graft, this organic and creative intersection between leader and people.
If you have a chance to visit Central Park in New York City, pay attention to the ways that Olmsted combined formal elements like Bethesda Terrace at the center of the park with natural areas that are almost like pastures. His ability to imagine what could come from land that was unsuitable for commercial buildings – in places rocky and in others swampy – eventually became a park for all people.