The 10 Characteristics of a Thriving Pastor
For years we at DIFW have focused on what it means to live out the gospel in supposedly “secular” work, like business, medicine, law, or the arts. But several years ago we came to the uncomfortable realization that there was one field we had overlooked: pastoral ministry.
Now, we hadn’t completely overlooked pastors. But we had done two things. First, we assumed being a pastor was intrinsically “sacred.” But as my colleague at DIFW Brian Gray says, who was a pastor for 10 years, “It’s possible to wait tables very ‘sacredly,’ but pastor very ‘secularly.’” In our work with pastors, we’ve seen being a pastor, too, can devolved into just being a “job.”
Second, I felt like we had started to look at pastors as a means to an end. That is, we hoped pastors would come to “get it,” meaning that they would teach their congregants to be missionaries and servants of God in society through their work. And once they “got it,” we wanted them to influence their congregations with a robust theology of vocation. But after several of our key church relationships cooled off, I began to ask: have we been using pastors to get to their people, or had we been serving pastors? Had we really asked what might it look like for pastors to deeply live out their own faith through their work?
When working with pastors in our city on topics surrounding vocation, we also realized that getting churches to engage the social and cultural needs of their cities through their congregant’s work was often nearly impossible because they were dealing with too many issues in their own churches. Difficult elders, flighty volunteers, shrinking budgets, conflict amongst members, unclear goals. We realized that if churches weren’t led by pastors with unusual skill and competence, spanning from preaching and teaching to conflict resolution, community impact was nearly impossible.
Yet pastoral excellence, too, is elusive! We also realized that attaining pastoral excellence is difficult for many pastors (just as excellence is for people in any field!) because they were dealing with so many of their own spiritual and emotional issues—or not dealing with them. In a survey we did this last spring with nearly 20 pastors in Denver, many told us anonymously about their own loneliness, fears and doubts. Many were longing for communities of clergy peers with whom they could be honest, vulnerable, and open – and found that this was usually difficult to do inside their own congregations. Pastoral ministry can be hauntingly lonely.
As part of a grant application process we did this last spring (for which we were summarily rejected – so take this following list with a grain of salt!), we put together our convictions about what it means to be a thriving pastor.
We summarized the marks of a thriving pastor in three categories: personal (points 1-3 below), professional (4-5), and public (6-8). We also believe thriving pastors put themselves in the right context (9-10) to grow. Thriving pastors lead from the inside out: they draw on the life of Christ from within, pursue excellence in their craft of pastoral leadership, and influence their churches for the sake of their cities and the flourishing of their communities.
Drawing on our work with pastors in the Denver metropolitan area along with external research on pastoral health, we at DIFW believe there are ten characteristics of a thriving pastor.
1.Personal Humility and Deep Spiritual Health. Thriving pastors “face their own shadow” in the context of vulnerable relationships. They open their hearts to God’s transforming grace through practicing spiritual disciplines, and they sustain pastoral habits of mental, emotional, and physical self-care. Their first call is to love God with all of their heart, mind, soul and strength.
2. Embracing the Call to Be a Pastor. Thriving pastors listen to God’s voice over a lifetime and embrace a professional identity without being unhealthily dependent on that identity for a sense of personal worth. They embrace a distinct call to be a pastor. They recognize their limitations and leverage their God-given gifts for their congregations and communities.
3. Healthy Families, Marriages, and Friendships. Thriving pastors are surrounded by healthy relationships, including first their spouses, then children, family and friends. Safe, open and honest relationships are critical to pastoral flourishing.
4. Leadership Management and Skill. Thriving pastors exhibit pastoral competence and learn new leadership skills often left untaught in seminary education (e.g., casting vision, managing projects, managing budgets, hiring well, etc.). They recognize short-comings and depend on mentors to navigate leadership challenges, especially early in their career.
5. Emotional Intelligence. Thriving pastors exhibit growing emotional intelligence and self-awareness, especially as it relates to leading and “reading” their church and its key leaders. They are able to build trust and lead healthy growth and change in their congregations.
6. Social Engagement. Thriving pastors lead churches that serve the needs of their particular community, especially the poor. They commit to social justice and civic renewal in response to Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
7. Vocational Discipleship. Thriving pastors lead churches committed to forming men and women in their vocations as agents of reconciliation and restoration in families, workplaces and cities.
8. Evangelistic Witness. Thriving pastors lead evangelistic churches committed to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed with their communities and the world.
9. Community of Peers and Mentors. Thriving pastors have communities of clergy peers and mentors who help them navigate personal, professional, and community challenges over a career. They embrace friendships with other pastors and leaders outside their church.
10. Becoming an Adult Learner. Finally, thriving pastors take ownership for their own development and embrace learner-directed, problem-oriented, and contextualized learning environments over a lifetime. They write their own “syllabus” and embrace peer feedback.
Today pastors face increasing complexity in their ministerial roles: the pull to be both spiritual and organizational leaders, and the pressure to offer cultural leadership in communities that no longer recognize their moral authority. Pastors – like all of us – need rhythms of spiritual formation, self-care, family health, and professional development to thrive with resilience.
We all face deep challenges in the workplace and long for God to use us to bless and heal this broken world. Perhaps one day, both lay leaders and pastors will lock arm and lean on one another to imitate King David who “shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them” (Psalm 78:2).
I’d be interested to hear from you. What do you think we missed in this list? What did we get right, and what did we get wrong? What specific examples can you give of deep pastoral health and resilience?
For more on this topic, see:
- Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie: Resilient Ministry
- Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
- Gordon Smith, Courage and Calling
- Barna Group, The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity