Leadership matters. More specifically, pastoral leadership matters.

In every setting of congregational life, talk of leadership abounds. In the United Church of Christ, the vision plan of the national setting includes the goal of having “a wealth of prepared, excellent leaders that reflect the diversity of God’s beloved community.”

But what kind of leadership matters? Too often, our training and our traditions have fooled us into believing that being an ordained or authorized minister automatically provides us with all of the qualities, skills, and abilities necessary for the work of leading congregations and denominations. And while seminaries and various theological education programs may have prepared us ministers to think theologically, interpret scripture, preach, provide pastoral care, and lead worship and ritual, systems of formal training are just now beginning to move outside of these realms into consciously preparing clergy with the general skills necessary to lead any organization, including congregations. It’s no secret that the field of organizational leadership and change has blossomed in the last few decades; and many pastors, professors, and denominational leaders are looking to the wealth of knowledge and understanding that Stephen Covey, Margaret WheatleyPeter Senge, and countless others have contributed to the field that can aid in the cultivation of excellent pastoral leadership. In addition, the increase in knowledgeable and practical writings from those within organized religion such as Peter Steinke and Edwin Friedman also seek to provide needed abilities and training in this area.

Research conducted by our office confirms the continuing need for these general organizational leadership qualities, skills, and abilities in religious leadership and also solidifies the relationship between pastoral leadership and a congregation’s vitality. In 2014, we conducted a survey with members of United Church of Christ congregations through a convenience sample of online followers of the denomination’s weekly e-newsletter. We asked individuals to rate how well they felt their congregations engaged in certain aspects of congregational vitality, as well as how often their primary pastor demonstrated a variety of pastoral qualities, skills, and abilities in their setting. The pastoral leadership survey items were directly adapted from the UCC’s Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers, the document which outlines what is required to be granted (and to maintain) authorized leadership in the denomination. In total, we received 865 valid responses to the survey.

Through this study, which was an aggregate analysis of overarching trends (not an evaluation of ministers), the following themes emerged regarding pastoral leadership:

  1. Congregants love their pastors. On the whole, individuals who participated in the survey rated their pastors highly with regard to their qualities, skills and abilities.
  2. Pastors excel in ministry-specific areas. Congregants tended to rate their pastors highest in ministry-specific areas such as preaching, biblical knowledge and interpretation, moral maturity and faith, and pastoral care.
  3. Pastors excel less in general leadership areas. Congregants tended to rate their pastors less highly on survey items such as communicating appropriately, taking initiative in leadership, framing and testing a vision in community, and equipping and motivating others, which are all skills necessary for leadership in any organization. Overall, however, it is important to note that individuals rated pastors highly on all items (most average ratings were above 4 on a 5-point scale) except for the skill of framing and testing a vision in community (which was below 4).

We then conducted additional analyses and compared the pastoral leadership items with survey items on congregational vitality. The following conclusions were determined:

  1. There is a relationship between vitality and pastoral leadership. Almost all leadership qualities, skills, or abilities in the survey related significantly with at least one congregational vitality measure.
  2. Most vitality measures are associated with general leadership skills in pastors. Characteristics that were not isolated to ministry were more commonly associated with congregational vitality items. For example, the ability to mutually equip and motivate a community was related to 8 congregational vitality measures (at a statistically significant level).
  3. Ministry-specific skills are associated with some aspects of vitality. In general, ministry-specific leadership areas were associated with fewer vitality items, and some qualities such as biblical knowledge and interpretation were not associated with any vitality measures. However, a few measures–such as the ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship, and social transformation–were related with several vitality measures.

While additional research is necessary in order to further validate findings, these conclusions visibly emphasize the importance of pastoral training and continuing education in general leadership areas. These skills and abilities do, and will continue to, impact congregational vitality (though we can’t ever really prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship). With the rapid changes that U.S. congregations are experiencing at this point in our religious history, both ministry-specific and general organizational leadership skills and abilities will be necessary to help navigate people and structures through the rough seas in which we find ourselves. Several decades ago, pastors may have been able to effectively lead their congregations solely with the ministry-related education and training they received; that is no longer a viable option for congregational leadership in the 21st century. How will we respond to these findings within our respective traditions, our theological schools and seminaries, and our own congregations? Indeed, pastoral leadership matters a great deal; but the nature of what is required for effective and transformative pastoral leadership continues to evolve within congregations.

The full report of this research will be published by the United Church of Christ in 2015. A special note of thanks goes to Ashleigh Hope, the UCC’s 2014 Research Intern and a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University, for taking on this research project and providing the UCC with this vital information.