Theologies of Pastoral Leadership

by Libby Davis Manning & Derek Nelson


There is a difference between an interruption and a disruption. A person putting together a jigsaw puzzle is interrupted when she gets up to answer the door, but disrupted when her dog knocks over the table on which she was working. The outbreak of Covid-19 was hoped by some to be merely an interruption—that soon after “this is all over” we could go back to our daily rhythms and begin the hopefully very-speedy process of forgetting all about it. But it is no interruption. It is a disruption. It calls into question the wisdom of returning to our longed-for recent past, and in fact makes doing so impossible. Rather than wave our hands in defeat, however, the truly wise among us begin immediately to imagine new possibilities, even as researchers and medical professionals aim at finding scientific ways to cope.

The disestablishment of mainline Protestantism has been hoped by some to be merely an interruption. Many pastors, who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, remember the “good ol’ days” when there was a baby boom, when the post-war economy left Sundays free for worship, when institutions were strong, morale high, and the influence of clergy relatively unquestioned. The lingering effects of that model are strong enough for many who did not live through that period, as we authors did not, to assume that it is still an operative way to think about being a pastor. Under those imagined conditions, the pastor is influential by drawing a large crowd, by speaking directly and from a posture of authority on social issues, and by acting as chaplain to console and comfort those victims of upheaval and suffering back to relative strength. Pastors as different as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jerry Falwell are, despite their vastly different worldviews, exemplary of this model of pastoral leadership. There is a dizzying array of attempts, par- ticularly but not only in Lutheran circles, to champion some version of “public theology” or “public church” as a response to disestablishment. It is not hard to sense behind this impulse the grief that goes with having been passed by. Clamoring for supposed relevance by posturing as “public theologians,” (as though there had ever been private theologians) views disestablishment as an interruption to be ended by taking direct action.

But suppose the disestablishment of protestant Christianity in the United States and elsewhere as the default religiosity were not viewed as interruption to be overcome by resuming it, but rather as a disruption that knocks the puzzle pieces to the floor? What might we see if we looked for a theology of pastoral leadership that did not assume that a pastor should seek to wield direct influence on social issues? Or did not prioritize gathering a large crowd? Or imagined her role not as chaplain to the victims of social systems, but a conspira- tor in developing resilient systems less prone to churning out victims?
These questions animate the present issue of Dialog. “The- ologies of Pastoral Leadership” constitutes a step, or two or three, in the direction of starting an ongoing conversation about what it is to be a faithful pastoral leader in a time of disruption, whether that disruption is epidemiological, politi- cal, or even related to the church’s establishment understand- ing of itself. Our theme articles touch on these questions in a variety of ways. After a brief articulation of why it should be a theology of pastoral leadership that we undertake, rather than a theory of pastoral leadership, or an application of some other theory of leadership which is then transferred or applied to pastoral ministry, we will briefly note the approaches taken by our various authors.


Everyone knows the church and its ministry are changing, but we think it is necessary to think in a different way about not just the practice/tactics of pastoral leadership, but also the theology related to such leadership, in the present context. “Would you like to do something beautiful for God?” Mother Teresa of Calcutta, leader of the Catholic Missionaries of Charity, would ask this question of civic leaders and business owners in her community when seeking donations for her growing mission amongst the poor and dying. It was a stunning question given her context, and it revealed much about her theology. The majority of healthy people in Calcutta, for example, did not conceive God to be among the sick and dying in Calcutta’s streets. However, Mother Teresa believed the face of Christ was visible in every single person. Few would have characterized anything related to leprosy and dying as worthy of having beauty or “being beautiful.” Mother Teresa however, insisted that beauty is a characteristic of the reign of God, and thus a “beautiful death” is an expression of the reign and promise of God. For many health and cultural reasons, few in the early 20th century developing world thought they could or “should do something” about the poor and dying in the streets of Calcutta. Mother Teresa in contrast, believed her community already held the necessary resources within it to better address caring for the poor and dying. She thought in a different way about the practice of pastoral ministry in her context, and her theology, witnessed and expressed through her life and actions, changed the world and offered a public, visible in-breaking of the Kingdom of God to her community, and ultimately to the world.

Fast forward 100 years. The 21st century context in North America is characterized not by extreme poverty and death as in early 20th century Calcutta. Rapid change, sophisticated artificial intelligence, global interconnectedness that impacts public health and economic stability, growing economic divides in our communities, and growing deaths of despair and isolation in our communities, just to name a few, characterize our life together. All of these current 21st century North American realities invite us to think in a different way not just about the practice of pastoral leadership in our current context, but more importantly, the theology related to such leadership. What new questions must we invite in our current context in light of our understanding of God? What new questions might invite healing, unity, flourishing of life in this world God loves so deeply and completely and in the communities in which pastors have been called to minister? How might the theological questions we pose within our local communities shape our shared life together to be more in alignment with God’s preferred future? The articles that follow are an attempt to explore our 21st century context and begin to think differently about the theology related to our pastoral leadership in our current context.


For the majority of the last 2,000 years, the church and its leaders, along with physicians and lawyers, were the most educated, literate in a community. The community then, would look to the church and clergy for insight and wisdom on all manner of topics surfacing in their communities, and the church occupied and influenced from that position of privilege. In the 20th century, however, access to information, literacy, and education exploded. Highly skilled, sophisticated thinkers and leaders emerged across all civic sectors, and the technology revolution raced across the globe by the early 21st century with stunning speed and pace of change. By the mid-20th century, pastors were no longer the most educated, local experts in their communities, and by the late 20th century, few doubted that either clergy or the church were best positioned to provide answers to the interconnected social, eco- nomic, demographic complexities in their communities. They were right.

It is ridiculous now to imagine clergy alone are equipped to provide wise adaptive local solutions to the complex issues facing us in our 21st century context. However, clergy in conversations with gifted, committed, expert civic leaders across the sectors in a local community, who are all committed to the flourishing of that local context, and all contributing their collective expertise to seek new imaginative solutions for the flourishing of that place, where the church’s moral voice is one important expert voice among other important expert voices, is not only more hopeful and robust, but it points to a more faithful contemporary theology of pastoral leadership for the 21st century.

By that we mean that the practice and tactics of pastoral ministry essentially reflect our understanding of God. When pastors lead their faith community void of conversation with/influence of civic colleagues from local education, healthcare, government, economics, demography; when a pastor presumes “if I don’t do it, it won’t get done” an unfaithful presumption of God is made—that God functions through scarcity and anxiety. In contrast, to convene conversations with local civic leaders, to honor their expertise, wisdom, collaboration, and imagination, presumes abundance in a God who is at work in and through many people and places in a community. Then, by pastors and civic leaders collaborating, dialoguing together, sharing information, and developing next steps influenced by the expertise of many local expert voices, new God-preferred futures may be forged within a community for its adaptive health and well-being. What a game changer an abundant “God-with-us” lived theology would be to a community and its leadership, over the default scarcity “God-with-me” operating theology. The truth is, to work for peace and justice in all the earth, as clergy are ordained to do, will take more than the people in our pews. It will take partnership with the expert leaders of our community.

Within this vision of a contemporary theology for pastoral leadership is a sense that the local context matters significantly, and that no two communities are identical in issues, resources, local expertise, or future paths toward which to move. At the grotto within the Church of the Nativity in Beth- lehem, over the place where Jesus is said to have been born, it reads not “Jesus was born.” But “Here Jesus Christ was born.” This particular place matters. Which is to say, the particularities that shape this place are different than another place. How might pastors best come to understand their communities, the specific here, and the resources and challenges present here, and the local civic experts here with whom to collaborate and imaginatively lead?

Questions remain, needless to say, as we offer formation to this contemporary theology. How best can relationships form and develop between pastors and civic leaders? How can civic leaders and pastors with this updated theology “find each other” in their community? How can civic leaders trust the pastor’s intentions are for the flourishing of the community, not for a more self-serving end? We trust the answers to these presenting questions will emerge through engagement with thoughtful readers. We have directed the Early Career Pas- toral Leadership Development Initiative, funded by the Lilly Endowment, for the last 7 years. This initiative spans 15 institutions who are equipping highly talented early career pastors to become more engaged and effective leaders of their communities, not just of their congregations. The insights gained through this network are rich, and much of the content of the articles has been developed in the context of annual gatherings of those various programs in the last 3 years.


Cynthia Lindner’s article focuses on the multiple dimensions each pastor brings to his or her work. Dr. Lindner directs the M.Div. curriculum at the University of Chicago Divinity School, a program that attracts prospective leaders of a variety of faiths into the crucible of the research university, in the middle of a vibrantly diverse city. Difference is the name of the game. Yet while one might expect such pastoral leaders to be overwhelmed by encountering otherness, otherness everywhere, Lindner shows how this precisely is the opportunity to find connections and make social progress. Because our moment in modernity is liquid, each self in the self–self encounter is infinitely many dimensioned. Thus, if a pastor is able to embrace multiplicity, he or she can find common cause with all manner of other selves and groups in the public sphere. What is more, Lindner, who is a licensed psychotherapist, has found in her research with pastors that embracing multiplicity is healthier for the pastors’ senses of themselves. It is not just a “clergy persona” that is needed, but a full self, with hobbies, side hustles, diverse friend groups, and a love for the arts thrown in the mix. A line from the popular hymn “The Summons” speaks to this wholeness of the pastor. “Will you love the ‘you’ you hide/If I but call your name?/Will you quell the fear inside/And never be the same?” This multiplicity is not just generic “manyness,” but in fact is reflective of the many-named Holy Multiplicity that is the object of (not only) Christian devotion.

Andrew Root, professor of theology and youth ministry at Luther Seminary, finds Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be a worth- while interlocutor on the matter of pastors functioning as community leaders. In his 2014 book Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, Root focused on a little-discussed aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life and work, namely his life-long dedication to teach- ing and working with young people in churches and the var- ious expressions of the German youth movement. Applying insights from that study to the present American and global political situation, Root finds fascinating parallels in the resentments that boiled over in 1930s Germany. A generation or more of young men at the turn of the 20th century had been told to love their country and to bond together in a new movement of burgeoning middle-class youth.

When that patriotism devolved to nationalism in the first world war, shame attempted to suppress that innate desire to give oneself to one’s fatherland. Bonhoeffer’s reflections in a famous radio address from just after Hitler’s election point to “the younger generation’s altered concept of the Führer.” The healing of the community ruptured by these resentments is the responsibility of all, even if not all are equally to blame for the disease. But who can lead the healing? Only the one who lis- tens into speech the deep, sometimes suppressed yearnings of young people, hearing the pain but insisting that blame plac- ing and finding a strong man to smear your imagined enemies is inappropriate. This is pastoral and theological work, Root argues, perhaps the most needful kind we can imagine today.
In past decades, when institutions were stronger and the mainline protestant church more or less “established” as the default religiosity of the brokers of power, a pastor could defensibly identify the “recipients” of her or his pastoral care to be individual persons in need of encouragement, consola- tion, and even something like therapy. But in the present day, increasingly we are seeing such pastoral work—chaplaincy to the downtrodden victims of capitalist late modernity—to be incomplete in its conception of what ministry needs to be. Seminaries, for instance, have led the way in conceiving of pastoral care as not just directed toward individuals, but for communities, whether that is a community of faith or a community of persons like a neighborhood or city.

This kind of move of what it is to be a pastor requires systems thinking, to understand where people are vulnerable and how persons and (good) systems can be helped to be resilient. In other words, pastoral leadership is then about the work of identifying pressure points in a community, and helping to alleviate them. Niels Henrik Gregersen’s article in this issue reflects on the burgeoning literature on “resilience” as a preferred way to conceive of a self and social system, in addition to of a vulnerability paradigm. Developing the ground- breaking work of German sociologist Hartmut Rosa on “resonance,” Gregersen articulates a vision of the self that does not rely on “buffers” between selves to keep the supposedly autonomous self safe from any threats.3 Such safety is not only a delusion, it actually makes the self more vulnerable to harm by isolating it from potential sources of strength and healing. A koala bear may look at a vast forest of eucalyptus trees, its only food source, and “feel” invulnerable and autonomous. However, we know that an organism with many possible food sources is more stable and likely to survive a blight than one with so narrow a niche. Any ecosystem with multiple energy pathways is always more resilient than one with just a single pathway. When it comes to the self, threats are overcome in part by experiences of “resonance,” where the self can be “carried through” by its various relata or even by something like grace. Therefore a theological anthropology of a “resonant self” will equip pastors to be much more effective leaders in their communities than any “public theology” would.

Lastly, Derek Nelson argues that pastoral leadership is most effective when the pastor is able to see possibility and hope where gospel-less eyes see ruin and threat. To have such vision requires and animates creativity. If creativity in seeing one’s community afresh is godly, then it will be a mirror of God’s
own creative work, richly attested in scripture in ways that are both improvisational and minutely planned. The J source vision of God’s creative activity in Genesis, for instance, emphasizes God’s reactions to human developments, a bit like a skilled jazz musician responds to the playing of others. The P document, on the other hand, conceives of God’s creative work more along the lines of writing and following a sophisticated and precise musical score.

Taken together, the articles in this issue of Dialog constitute an invitation to think about what it is to be a pastor today in light of the ongoing work of God in creating, sustaining, and redeeming the human community. Not content merely to patch up the injured soldiers of modernity to get them back on the marketplace battlefield, not willing to simply stand aside and denounce harmful cultural trends without offering alter- natives, not interested simply in speaking to itself for the fur- therance of its own agenda, the church stands at a crossroads. Its leaders, especially its pastors, will find rich opportunities for ministry if it throws itself into the world God loves, rather than “speak publicly” to it, or worse, lose itself and God by separating itself from it.

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