Donald Guthrie Wants to Help Pastors Have Resilient Ministry

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We recently sat down with professor Donald Guthrie to discuss his recent book Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving (IVP, 2013), co-authored with Bob Burns and Tasha Chapman. Guthrie is Director of the PhD (Educational Studies), Professor of Educational Ministries, and the Jeanette L. Hsieh Chair of Educational Leadership at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Our conversation focused on common factors in resilient pastoral ministry that he and his fellow researchers uncovered after seven years of sustained conversations with small groups of pastors.

Rory: Tell me about how this book came about.

DG: At the time, I was Academic Dean at Covenant Seminary. We had received Lily Endowment funds for other projects, and while we were at a Lily Endowment gathering in 2003, they explained to us this new program they were going to do called Sustaining Pastoral Excellence. I think they said it was their largest multi-year program they’d done in a while. When we went back home to St. Louis, we did the preliminary research—I wrote most of the grant, and the original money was two million dollars, it was quite a lot—and one of the first things we did was start the Center for Ministry Leadership, in which the various things that we proposed we’d do were housed. So one of the things I did was hire [co-author] Bob Burns from a church in Atlanta to come be the director of that center, and [co-author] Tasha Chapman had already been [at Covenant] as a professor colleague of mine.

The research that went into what became the book was done with pastor cohorts. We partnered with Reformed Theological Seminary-Orlando and Westminster Seminary, and we did several different rounds of cohorts with pastors, usually with ten or so in a cohort. And then a few other cohorts—it ended up being about seventy-three pastors over the course of about seven years.

Rory: How did you gather your research?

DG: These cohorts met over two years six times, three times a year, anywhere from three days to a week at a time, often with their spouses, so they were included [in the research] too. They typically met in St. Louis but occasionally met elsewhere in the US. There were different topics we took up and different guest speakers we had come in to address the group. We went through a lot of varied curriculum about the big question of what sustains pastors in ministry.

It’s interesting that the Lily Endowment named the grant “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence” because they were not trying to rescue pastors who were sinking. They were trying to find pastors who were doing okay, and then learn from them why they were being sustained. That was the broader question that everybody pursued—all the different institutions that got grant money were asking the same question.

Rory: What was the range of participants?

DG: We had associates and seniors, and church planters, and people in established churches—there was a fairly wide spread, just within these seventy-three, of ages and ethnicities.

Rory: Talk about some of your concrete results. What are the things that sustain pastors?

DG: We found five major themes in common from what we heard pastors say over those seven years. What we found out was pretty closely corroborated by other institutions that did the research, in all different denominations and different places around the country. That helped give us confidence not just in our results but also how they fit into the bigger picture.

The five themes are Spiritual Formation, Self Care, Emotional & Cultural Intelligence, Marriage & Family, and Leadership & Management. In other words, the extent to which pastors paid attention to these things in healthy ways was the biggest contributor to sustainability in ministry.

Rory: Explain some of these—start with emotional and cultural intelligence. What do you mean by that?

DG: Emotional and Cultural Intelligence is the ability to both have and practice self-awareness, to the point where your security in Christ frees you up to both move toward others and allow others to be who God has made them, in relationship, in conversation, in working together, through conflict, through resolution, cross-culturally, all of the above—whatever the relationship, whatever the context.

With regard to Spiritual Formation, numbers of them would say things like, “I plan worship, I lead worship, I’m at worship, I participate in worship, and yet I’m not sure how often I actually worship.” It was all around them, but it was an ongoing challenge to actually enjoy undivided worship themselves. They would also tell us about how they were at their healthiest when they were revisiting their callings, in particular their pastoral callings—not questioning it, but just sort of revisiting it, re-upping it, praying over it and talking about it with friends and family. That was very sustaining for them.

Self Care doesn’t mean self-worship or self-focus; it means taking care of yourself so that there is something of you to give away.

A lot of Leadership & Management had to do with the politics of ministry. This one surprised them the most, how much time it took daily and weekly—and every study that’s ever been done on pastors, that’s always the biggest surprise: how much time planning and meetings and follow-up takes—and not just the grind and the work of it, but the politics too. It’s the blindsided, “didn’t see that coming” kinds of things that happen, where, for example, the people in authority positions aren’t always the most powerful people in any given congregational system, and how they have opportunities to redeem that in a healthy way but also how challenging it is to their leadership and how they serve.

Marriage & Family probably gave us the largest amount of data, because the spouses were included, and we listened a lot to them about, for instance, the importance of finding a safe place for friendship outside their ministry systems. It’s a huge challenge but so critical for sustainability.

Rory: It strikes me that there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of formal training in most MDiv programs on these things. Some of this stuff, like emotional intelligence, seems like it just has to be caught. What does it take at the formal level to get pastoral candidates to a place where some of this is anticipated better?

DG: Well, trying to do it without a context, from the student’s perspective, is—I don’t want to say impossible, but really, really hard. Doing it with a context is still hard, but much more possible. Seminaries will need, in the future, to partner more intentionally with local churches in their internships and field education and things like that—that’s going to be helping everybody. That’s something that’s in the system now, it’s not horribly broken at all, but if it could be focused on some of these research foundations and paid greater attention to, we’re thinking that that could really help. As we talk to colleagues we’re finding that they agree.

Rory: What, for you, was something about this research that you found very surprising? Was there anything you didn’t anticipate?

DG: Probably the depth of the loneliness on the part of the pastor and the spouse and the family unit. I knew that—personally, I’d experienced it—but I think I underestimated how deep and widespread it was. These were not floundering pastors that we invited to apply for the program, and yet they’re struggling, their marriages are struggling, and they’re supposedly some of our most able and fruitful. So that really got my attention.

Rory: It seems that pastors don’t typically network around these kinds of things—if they do network it’s usually at huge conferences where everything feels awesome.

DG: That’s a very interesting point, because the cumulative research that Lily funded, as I recall, had something like ten percent of all US pastors involved. So that’s a lot of people. And by far, the single greatest programmatic ingredient to sustainability in ministry was being in a small cohort. Being in a small group regularly for support, prayer, debrief, blowing off steam, networking—if you show me a pastor who’s in a cohort regularly, regionally, locally, whatever, humanly speaking that pastor’s probably doing better and healthier.

Rory: So if there were a single piece of advice you could give to a pastor, would that be it?

DG: From a support standpoint, yes. From a support standpoint, if you’re feeling alone, it’s probably because you are. So look around—who are colleagues with whom you might not share everything in common theologically or ecclesiastically, but from the standpoint of support, to talk shop, to say something to somebody outside of your own system who understands, who can those people be in your community? Find them and get them together, or join them. That’s really important. As well as, obviously, pay attention to these other areas I’ve mentioned, both with that group or with colleagues at a distance but whom you still keep in touch with, whether you vacation with them once a year or something like that. You just can’t shortchange this.

Rory: Did you discern a difference in these issues generationally?

DG: Well, you asked about surprises—the younger the pastor, the less they realized all five of these in general were crucial, because they just had less time to practice, less time to fail and learn. But among the five—it wasn’t to a person—but overall, it was surprising how they hadn’t yet figured out that marriage and family was really important. From a research standpoint it was interesting, but it was alarming as a colleague and as a person trying to help. I think they were just growing into the understanding that establishing themselves in their local church could not mean sacrificing their spouse and children. I think they were still discovering that, trying to figure that out, looking for mentors to figure that out, negotiating with their spouse. We observed, and they told us, that it was still in process. The older, more established veterans didn’t have to be convinced of that whatsoever.

Rory: Have you gotten feedback about the book’s impact?

DG: We’ve gotten, both personally and all three of us, a pretty steady stream of emails and a few calls with stories or confirmations or questions. I would say it’s mostly been from pastors in the field, and it’s mostly been, “Thank you for naming reality.”

Rory: Do you get the sense that difficulty in pastoral sustainability has been an elephant in the room for US pastors?

DG: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s one of the reasons why Lily wanted to fund this research.

Rory: Why do you think it’s gotten to the point where these struggles are so widespread?

DG: I don’t know. It seems that we’ve come to a moment, to the end of ourselves and the way we’ve done this for a while—where the pastor burns out for Jesus and the family just sort of puts up with it and has to take it. Some of the practices we’ve been doing for a long time have run out of gas—I would say, thankfully—and it’s caused us to reconsider these basic things. In one sense it doesn’t look like rocket science, and in other ways it must be, because we’re failing so miserably. So if everybody understands this and knows this and it’s common sense, why aren’t we better, why aren’t our pastors and churches healthier?

Rory: How would you respond to someone who pushed back and said, “Well, the pastoral calling is supposed to be difficult; persons called to the pastorate shouldn’t expect to have it all together”?

DG: Well, I would agree that suffering is part of being a Christian, let alone part of a pastor’s calling. But there’s a big difference between that, and willfully or cluelessly pursuing patterns of life that are unhealthy and depleting and ultimately self-serving, since you’re not taking care of yourself well enough to ultimately serve anybody after a while. Working hard is a good thing; worshipping your work is a bad thing. Rest is part of the system of work, and that applies to pastors too.

Rory: Moving forward, are there any follow-up projects in the works?

DG: One of the other programs we did under the auspices of the Center for Ministry Leadership was gather pastors together with a marketplace leader from their church. A marketplace leader might be a businessperson, a corporate person, an educator, a scientist. We brought them together to talk about the commonalities with respect to their systems. Many of the marketplace people were family business owners; there’s a lot of overlap between a family business and a church, and a family business owner and a pastor. So we explored some of those overlaps with respect to leadership development and systems management and what does it mean to be a Christian in the midst of that. We’re working on a book right now to talk about healthy systems—first healthy pastors, and now healthy systems. We’re hoping for a third book that will zoom in on the politics of ministry piece because we haven’t explored that enough in the literature. But the next book is about helping to develop healthy systems.

Find Resilient Ministry in paperback and Kindle on Amazon

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School trains men and women for sustainable pastoral ministry through our Master of Divinity. Persons interested in an advanced degree at the frontiers of educational and leadership thought may be interested in our PhD in Educational Studies, chaired by Don Guthrie.

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