The other day, I talked with a friend who works for a large corporation. He talked about the latest meeting with some company executives. The executives had descended from their corporate offices to speak to the people on the “front lines.” There were new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, accompanied by familiar platitudes and stock phrases. The executives emphasized the importance of everyone “getting on board” with the new strategy.
If you’ve been part of a large organization, you may have had a similar experience. The execs read a new book or go to a new conference, they have a new visioneering retreat, and then they announce the company’s new direction to the “front lines” people with breathless excitement.
[Ironically, most of those execs at one time based their next bit of breathless excitement on the book Good to Great, which notes, “The good-to-great companies had no name for their transformations. There was no launch event, no tag line, no programmatic feel whatsoever.” It was the under-performing companies that kept unfurling banners with the next great tag line.]
My friend was frustrated by the meeting. Frustrated that they often receive edicts from the corporate office with no understanding of the realities on those “front lines.” Frustrated that the people giving new edicts and calling him and his colleagues to “get on board” have never taken the time to get to know them. The executives are “too busy going to conferences and having strategic meetings.”
The Missional Strategist
I had that conversation around the same time I was reading Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor (highly recommended). Peterson recalls a seminarian saying something similar about the church: “I realize that for those twenty years that I was an engineer sitting in the pew each Sunday, I never had a patient pastor––they were all trying to get me ‘with the program,’ shape me up, get me, as they put it, ‘involved.’ I don’t want to become a pastor like that. I don’t think that is what pastors are for.”
Today’s mission-driven church world runs many of the risks of the corporation I described above. Pastors cease to be pastors and become missional strategists––too busy going to conferences and strategic meetings, never enough time to sit with people and know them. Too worried about getting people “with the program” to take note of what God is doing in their lives. Our sermons can be shaped more by conference room discussions than by living room discussions. And when we do this, I expect the response of most of our people to be like that friend on the “front lines” above––as someone treated with no more dignity than a cog in a machine, a means to an end.
Peterson quotes another pastor: “I think I see something unique about being a pastor that I had never noticed: the pastor is the one person in the community who is free to take men and women seriously just as they are, appreciate them just as they are, give them the dignity that derives from being the ‘image of God,’ a God-created being who has eternal worth without having to prove usefulness or be good for anything.”
When our pastors become mere missional strategists, they lose that unique role in the community. They become just another set of people looking for how they can use others to accomplish a mission.
The Pastor and the Missional Strategist
Compared with “missional strategist,” the role of “pastor” seems a much bigger role to me. A pastor can see people in the community as they are, in all their God-given dignity and all their human need. That will include a zeal for ministering to the hurting, hopeless, and wayward. It will include treating the people in our congregations and communities with dignity, getting to know them simply because they are worth knowing. It will include nurturing people in their discipleship and recognizing their gifts to lead in the Church and in the world. It will include missional strategy, but it will be far more.
I don’t believe that pastors shouldn’t be missional strategists. I believe the word is just much too small. I’ve seen how it has led some pastors to abandon their roles as pastors. They hide in meetings and conferences, they compose bold mission statements with detailed action plans, and when they’re done, there’s no time left for their people and communities. (Let’s be honest, meetings and conferences and Ministry Action Plans are much easier, much less messy, than soul-tending.) And then when those missional strategists come to their “front lines” people with the new slogans, new acronyms, and new diagrams, they come away frustrated at how many people “just don’t get it” or “won’t get on board.” Then, lacking a culture of healthy dialogue and empathy, they resort to blame or coercion.
The Chief Missional Strategist
I write this aware that the UMC has embraced the role of our district superintendents as “Chief Missional Strategists.” For all the reasons above, I believe that’s a mistake. I understand its intent––moving this position’s role away from regulation. Many of our DSs had become simple rule-enforcers. (Side note: A growing bureaucracy for the sake of regulation is a symptom of a deeper problem. See another intriguing quote from Good to Great in the footnote here.)[1. “The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline—a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place. Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth.”][1. And another gem related to discipline: “Don’t confuse a culture of discipline with a tyrannical disciplinarian.”] But the name change also communicates a change of primary roles for our pastors and DSs––away from pastor; to missional strategist.
A long-time district superintendent whose writing I deeply respect, Sky McCracken, writes on the other side of this. He advocates for the role of DS as chief missional strategist. But I don’t believe that’s really what he is. He’s still a pastor first. Even when he writes about DS as chief missional strategist, he writes, “For a D.S. to truly be a chief missional strategist, s/he must be involved at the congregational level.” For McCracken, a DS will fail at all the missional strategizing if (s)he fails to be a pastor first. See his five essentials for district superintendents at the end of this post. Three emphasize his role as pastor to the pastors and congregations in his district.
Strategic church world is clamoring right now for more missional strategists, more entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re undervaluing the role of the pastor and shepherd. Of course missional strategy is part of the work of the pastor. And of course we don’t need more bad pastors. But I still believe what we need most is more pastors––more leaders who take people seriously just as they are, in all their God-given dignity; more time in living rooms, even if it means less time in conference rooms.