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Are pastors “experts”?

Are pastors “experts”?

Writing for the Alban Institute, Landon Whitsitt asks some provocative questions: to what extent are clergy “experts” at running a parish, and why don’t search processes focus much on a candidate’s administrative skills?

From where they sat, wasn’t I the one who had just spent three years at a prestigious theological institution where I learned not only theology and biblical studies but also all manner of practical concepts? Wasn’t I the one who had worked in campus ministry and as a student pastor in a church plant geared toward postmodern young adults? Wasn’t I the one who had been ordained to work as the program director for a world-recognized interfaith organization? Wasn’t I the expert? ….

We want our pastors to be experts in practical matters like leading worship, education, pastoral care, administration, and community organizing. And yet, typically, decisions about whether the candidate is qualified to fulfill a congregation’s expectations in these areas rest upon a very few number of conversations with a search committee, one sermon before the congregation, and parishioners’ feelings about whether they connected to the candidate during the three to five minutes they talked to her at the “getting to know you” reception the day before in the chaotic fellowship hall.

This scenario doesn’t bother us, however, because we assume that if the candidate can make a strong interpersonal connection, answer the search committee’s questions to its satisfaction, and deliver a well-prepared sermon, then they must be “exactly the person we’re looking for.” Their interpersonal skills and successful delivery of a dynamite sermon translate, in our minds, to a perceived ability to excel in administrating the church’s day-to-day activities and to effectively guide church boards and committees in carrying out the congregation’s broader ministry. I think it is not far from the truth to say that congregations vote on a pastor based primarily on her preaching skills and then are shocked if she’s not a great administrator.

He also notes a certain disconnect between the ways in which clergy are trained and the realities of the jobs that most of them do.



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Lee Alison

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that what the current leaders of the congregation I serve want is not a priest but a MBA-trained administrator and personnel manager. They don’t need an ordained person to do that.

Robert Solon Jr

In my own parish ministry in a less-than-full-time role, I get all of that. I am fortunate because I was in business with an MBA before experiencing my call to the priesthood. And although that has helped me immensely, I am becoming more and more convinced that the ministry of a priest in a parish today is primarily one of presidency: president of the worshipping assembly; president of the Vestry; president of the annual meeting; and president of the educational programs of the community. When you express it that way, it delineates what we are called to do more clearly than the assumption of expert-of-everything.

Paul Martin

Susan, it’s much the same for non-academics. As an engineer, no one equipped me to deal with project budgets and schedules, or for the responsibilities of managing other people. We are all constantly asked to grow out of our comfort zones. That’s called life.

What is different in the life of the rector is that, in most cases, there is minimal or no other paid staff. It is more difficult to form teams with people who complement your skills. I have also seen a lot of variation in the willingness of laity to step up and fill the gap. Being a sheep is a lot easier than stepping up and taking responsibility.

Ideally, there would be a paid lay administrator who would allow the priest to focus on using that marvelous theological education as a pastor and educator. But that’s wildly idealistic for most parish budgets.

Canon K F KKing Tssf

Provided no administration skill in seminary (1950-53)save reading and not grasping the significance of “Donn Frank Fenn;Parish Administration,” I fumbled my way for 31 years. Called back to two congregations I had served initially,I finally had nerve enough to admit the things I no longer didi administratively. An older now-departed good friend said, “Kale, you never did those things when you were here the first time!” I contunued to fumble. And we had a great experience those last five years.I still regret the lack of decent training.


This is, broadly speaking, no different for academics. We are chosen as scholars and researchers at the top of our game and become faculty whose primary roles are administrative and pedagogical, functions for which most of us have no training at all.

And yet…. do you really want your priest (or your professor) to be trained primarily as an administrator?

Susan Forsburg

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