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Pastoral ministry as selling

Pastoral ministry as selling

by George Clifford

What makes for a great bishop, dean, rector, or vicar?

One vital part of the answer to that question is that the person must be a woman or man of God. But that, by itself, is insufficient. Not every great spirit has the call or gifts to be a great bishop, dean, rector, or vicar.

Similarly, the Church has long recognized that great bishops, deans, rectors, and vicars tend to be well educated, i.e., knowledgeable about scripture, tradition (church history), theology, and ethics. In the twentieth century, a constructive emphasis on equipping clergy with the practical skills that ministry requires (preaching, teaching, and caring) has complemented the emphasis on content.

Yet, our Church struggles. Worship attendance steadily and persistently declines (cf. my 2011 post, Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?). Increased numbers of pastoral relationships experience divisive conflict; more dioceses and more congregations seek an involuntary termination of pastoral relationships (cf. Forced clergy terminations). Clergy obviously need more than spirituality, academic preparation, and field education to become great bishops, deans, rectors, and vicars.

Leadership is the key missing component in our understanding of what makes for a great bishop, dean, rector, and vicar. Leadership, according to Dwight Eisenhower, is the art of getting others to do what you want. Unsurprisingly, reporter Daniel Pink has observed:

Spend a day with any leader in any organization, and you’ll quickly discover that the person you’re shadowing, whatever his or her official title or formal position, is actually in sales. These leaders are often pitching customers and clients, of course. But they’re also persuading employees, convincing suppliers, sweet-talking funders or cajoling a board. At the core of their exalted work is a less glamorous truth: Leaders sell. (“Why extroverts fail, introverts flounder and you probably succeed,” Washington Post, January 28, 2013)

Spend a day with the bishop, dean, rector, or vicar of one our relatively few growing, thriving dioceses or congregations and you will observe a leader who is a highly effective salesperson. As Pink notes, that is not a glamorous description. But it is an accurate one. Good ordained leaders are constantly selling the organization they lead to other staff, volunteers, members, and the non-affiliated.

A good leader sells the vision, mission, and product or service of his or her organization. Church organizations variously formulate their vision of the life God intends; their mission is some permutation of transformation or, as Richard Niebuhr framed it, loving God and loving neighbor; their product or service, an admittedly awkward phrasing for Christ’s Body, consists of activities designed to help people deepen their relationships with God and God’s people. If an organization’s leader is not an enthusiastic believer in the organization’s vision, mission, and product/service, then the organization will almost certainly wither.

Focusing on all three – vision (who we are), mission (where and what God calls us to do), and product/service (how to live into our vision and mission through specific activities in the present) – is essential. Context determines which of those three a leader tries to sell in any given moment. A leader may need to sell the vision to people on the periphery and outside the organization. She/he may need to sell the mission to people considering affiliation or internal groups making program and budget decisions. He/she will constantly need to sell participants on specific opportunities to contribute or get involved.

Career coaches emphasize that a job seeker should have a prepared elevator speech, a 30 to 60 second summary of who they are, their qualifications, and the type of position they want. An elevator speech primes job seekers to seize unexpected employment chances.

Similarly, a good leader always has an elevator speech prepared, ready to sell his/her organization at every opportunity. Good clergy leaders are promoters and recruiters in chief. Selling the organization is not synonymous with gospel evangelism, something ultimately dependent upon the moving of God’s spirit. Instead, good clergy sell their organization, confident that through participation people are more likely to encounter Christ, to grow spiritually, and to engage in transformational mission activities.

The best leaders are resilient and persistent salespeople. During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln faced enormous personal and political challenges. The death of Willie, his eleven-year-old son, left an already depressed Lincoln bereaved and weighed heavily on his marriage. A longer, more deadly war with a series of early Union defeats hampered army recruitment and encouraged anti-war political opposition.

In spite of personal doubts and great stress, Lincoln never publicly wavered in his resolve to preserve the Union. He listened thoughtfully to his advisers, held open office hours at the White House office to hear the opinions of ordinary citizens, and visited battlefields and generals. He adapted his actions to the exigencies of events. Originally intending to restore the Union before abolishing slavery, in 1862 he recognized his plan was dead in the water and that freeing the slaves in the seceded states would enable him to achieve both objectives. Even then, he timed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation to coincide with a Union victory, heeding advisors’ recommendation that to do otherwise would appear to act out of exhaustion and desperation.

Abolitionists strongly applauded Lincoln’s Proclamation. Jefferson Davis denounced it as another reason for the Confederacy to fight; political foes in the North decried its legality and saw it as divisive. Yet once he acted, Lincoln did not waver. (Cf. Nancy F. Koehn, “Lincoln’s School of Management,” New York Times, January 26, 2013)

Leading a growing, thriving diocese or congregation is hard work. Growth never occurs without conflict. The relative bloodlessness of Church fights can be deceptive, hiding the conflict’s real intensity and casualties. Battle lines may be less visible. And meanwhile, the ordained leader’s personal life may quite likely, like Lincoln’s, add emotional turmoil and stress. The effective ecclesial leader needs a Lincoln-like resilience and persistence rooted in both genuine spirituality and mutual (with most members of the organization) commitment to Christ.

Stereotypically, people think that the best salespeople are, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, extroverts rather than introverts. Almost no research evidence supports that assessment. Adam Grant, a Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Management, will publish his study of sales reps at a software company later this year in the journal Psychological Science. The best performers? Neither extroverts nor introverts but ambiverts, people who took their cues from the customers on when to speak and when to listen.

Ambiverts “can talk smoothly but also listen keenly, who know when to turn on the charm but also when to turn it off, who combine the extrovert’s assertiveness with the introvert’s quiet confidence.” (Daniel Pink “Why extroverts fail, introverts flounder and you probably succeed,” Washington Post, January 28, 2013)

To be a great bishop, dean, rector, or vicar, the Church’s ordained leadership – whether serving the smallest congregation or as Presiding Bishop – must be called, gifted, and educated women and men of God. But like Lincoln, they must also be leaders who know when and how to listen, when and how to speak. They need his resilience and persistence. And, like Lincoln, they need to have a clear vision and mission that they consistently sell (not of a united nation but a Church that brings heaven to earth).

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Troy Haliwell

Beautiful article that EVERY bishop, vicar, associate priest, deacon, and member should read and absorb.

Your education matters, but your listening, hearing, comprehending, understanding, reiterating, and your ability to swallow pride is even more important.

A Facebook User

The categories are deacon, priest and bishop not the administrative positions they happen to hold. I think people best “sell” the church, crude metaphor though it is, by living a life of love of the Lord and our neighbor. That takes many different forms. Carlton Kelley

Jonathan Galliher

Sounds to me like another reason to find a way to remove “the boss” from most parish clergy’s job description, not least because sales habitually pretends its shadow side doesn’t exist. Also, many people are not so good at sales, so requiring priests to be good salespeople tends to severely limit our ability to get all the clergy we need for the non-leadership side of clergy work.

Nancy Davidge

Well said and thank you. This especially resonates: “But like Lincoln, they must also be leaders who know when and how to listen, when and how to speak. They need his resilience and persistence. And, like Lincoln, they need to have a clear vision and mission that they consistently sell (not of a united nation but a Church that brings heaven to earth).”

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