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Finding "Pastor Right": Why a Perfect Match Matters

A congregation’s relationship with its pastor is kind of like a marriage, says religion researcher Cynthia Woolever. The wrong chemistry can lead to years of disappointment, stress and conflict. Woolever offers some key strategies for finding — and keeping — a pastor that's right for your church.

Like any relationship, says Woolever, co-author of Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor For What Kind of Congregation, the one a congregation has with its pastor must be nurtured. Bad chemistry between congregation and pastor has been known to ruin a church. "People leave because of the conflict," she says, "and the church falls apart."

Clergy, too, are scarred. “We hear about clergy who have really terrible experiences … they’ve been traumatized,” she says. “Some leave ministry because they had such a negative experience.”

Conflict between pastor and congregation often leads to church divisions, lingering resentments and budget troubles, says Woolever, who is also the research director of U.S. Congregations, a religious research group housed in the offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in Louisville, Kentucky.

For years, Woolever and co-author Deborah Bruce had studied the basic building blocks of vital congregations — surveying millions of worshippers all over the world as part of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, a multiyear poll used to learn more about the worship experience and to identify congregational strengths.

But until recently, there was little concrete research about the relationship between the pastor’s personality, wellbeing, worship style and goals, and the vitality of the church. It was Bruce who led the charge to find the connection, Woolever says. (Sadly, Bruce passed away a short time before their book was published by Chalice Press in 2012.)

While Leadership That Fits Your Church is useful for congregations choosing a new pastor, the book also helps congregations and pastors understand and be mindful of their partnership, and forsee the need for improvements before they become critical.

“As with any relationship you have in your life,” she says, “I think it’s a good idea to be aware of how it’s going.” She recommends every congregation form a personnel or parish staff committee of laypeople to meet with their pastor for ongoing, regular dialogue and support and to “constantly be asking themselves, ‘Is there anything we can do that would make the relationship we have more fruitful and less stressful?’”

To help initiate that conversation, a free, downloadable group leader guide for Leadership That Fits Your Church is available and includes exercises that help walk a community through discovering its strengths and goals.

Simply talking to one another, says Woolever, leads to a closer partnership between the community and their pastor, and to a ministry that’s ultimately shared by all.

Further reading

• Learn more about church leadership, and Woolever and Bruce’s Leadership That Fits Your Church: What Kind of Pastor For What Kind of Congregation, at www.uscongregations.org.

The Leader Guide for Leadership That Fits Your Church by J. Brent Bill will help your congregation unpack the wealth of learning contained in Woolever’s book and determine how to best use that information to enhance your effectiveness as a church.

• Find additional leadership resources on Insights Into Religion.

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