Review: Leadership that Fits Your Church

March 11th, 2013

Finding a good match between pastor and congregation is one of the great difficulties of all Christian denominations, regardless of the polity under which they operate. Researchers Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce seek to enlighten and assist both congregation and pastor in that pursuit.

Compiling research from the U. S. Congregational Life Survey, Leadership That Fits Your Church examines a wide variety of factors that affect the relationship between pastor and congregation. They group the subjects of their study into three broad categories—Catholic, Protestant, and Conservative Protestant—to highlight both the differences and the surprising similarities among these groups.

The early chapters lay the groundwork for understanding the primary issues involved in finding a good pastoral match: the broad trends in American church culture, the makeup and prospects of a congregation, and the strengths and preferences of a pastor. The key, the authors argue, is not to find the perfect pastor or congregation, but to find a match in which strengths and weaknesses can co-exist in the healthiest possible way.

Not surprisingly, one of the most important components of a good pastoral fit is mutual support. When both pastor and congregation act in ways that encourage one another, the result is less stress and fewer conflicts, both of which are factors in whether or not a church will grow.

The latter chapters seek to apply the research presented earlier in the book toward a few common issues of church life. They explore factors surrounding numerically growing churches, congregational vitality, and leadership style.

Woolever and Bruce conclude that a good match between pastor and congregation (as perceived by those within that relationship) comes down to a handful of factors. Pastors, for example, are more likely to be seen as a good fit when they have been at a church longer than the average tenure. Congregational dynamics that impact fit include a low level of conflict and favorable church finances.

In the view of the authors, the notion that the right leader is the secret to congregational vitality is deceptive. Both laity and clergy must invest in the ministries of a local congregation in order for a church to be at its best. This requires communication and honesty—especially at the outset of the relationship.

For United Methodists and their unique polity, one of the most important questions regarding Leadership That Fits Your Church involves applicability. Is it necessary for pastors or churches to consider the issues they bring up in their book? Or is the idea of pastoral fit best left to those who wield the power in the itinerant system, namely bishops and district superintendents?

Woolever and Bruce, both affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), do not directly address this question, but their research does not suggest any factors that would not translate across both call and appointment systems. Therefore, while cabinet members may benefit from reading this book, individual pastors and congregations can also use it as a resource—especially to better understand who they are and how to communicate that to those making pastoral appointments.

Cynthia Woolever is a sociologist and consultant who serves as research director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Her co-author, Deborah Bruce (1955-2012), was associate research manager with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

comments powered by Disqus