If only we could teach common sense …

People who pay attention to such things are aware that new pastors fail at an alarming rate. Why? Often, it’s because of a lack of skills or characteristics that seminaries either don’t teach, hardly teach, or really can’t teach, according to Alistair Brown, president of Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois.

The Latin means “Knowledge is only part of the journey.”Brown was speaking to participants in the Theological Education and Leadership Commission during the Baptist World Alliance annual gathering, held this year in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I’ve been saving his comments for a weekend blog — I think they’re worthy of considerable attention.

Brown looked at four areas of skill or ability that new pastors often lack, and for which seminaries or divinity schools rarely prepare them.

People skills are essential, Brown said, but some pastors just don’t have them. These skills involve really loving people – not just loving God or having a sense of call, but truly loving God’s people. Some pastors don’t demonstrate that kind of love, and congregations can tell.

I have observed that church folk will forgive lackluster sermons or slipshod administration if they believe the pastor really loves them – but even polished preaching can’t redeem a pastor who doesn’t love the people.

Ministers should be comfortable with people, Brown said, and know how to initiate and lead a conversation. He mentioned a former pastor who came to visit him but didn’t ask any questions or do anything to lead the conversation forward. “I had to carry the entire conversation,” Brown said. “His pastoral care was exhausting me!” It was probably exhausting the pastor, too, because he was clearly uncomfortable.

Being able to discern where people are in their faith and what they want or expect of the pastor is also important, Brown said. Before launching into a detailed study of theological debates of the early church, for example, a pastor should gain a sense of whether church people have any interest in that subject – and of what they do want to study.

Thinking skills are also crucial, Brown said – like “common sense.” Theological educators can do many things, he said, but try as they might, they can’t really teach common sense. That’s a shame, because many pastors run aground on the rocks of mistakes that anyone with good common sense wouldn’t have made.

Pastors often overestimate what they can accomplish in one year, he said, and underestimate what they can do in five years. Trying to push the church in a direction it doesn’t want to go, for example, or too quickly, betrays a lack of common sense.

Emotional intelligence also a core skill that is difficult to teach. Ministers should be able to identify, assess and control their emotions as well as being in touch with other’s emotions and with emotional currents in groups.

How can a pastor learn to live with the constant guilt of not being able to do all he or she wants to do? How does one deal with opposition? How does one learn to build support? All of those are related to emotional intelligence as well as maturity.

Similarly, adequate emotional intelligence helps ministers avoid the traps of certitude, manipulation, or a sense of entitlement, Brown said, any of which can sink him.

Many people are drawn into caring professions because they are seeking healing in their own lives, Brown noted, and they need to get a good handle on their own emotional health before diving into the demands and pitfalls of pastoral ministry.

Learning how to sleep “when the world and your people are falling apart” is also an important skill, Brown said. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the problems of the people and lie awake with worry, he said. Learning to put that aside in order to get needed rest is essential, he said.

Years ago, when I was still playing the occasional round of golf, I learned the trick of trying to remember every detail of my last round: what the first drive looked like, where it landed, what club I chose for the second shot and why, how that shot turned out, and so forth. I was often asleep before putting on the first hole, and rarely made it past the third hole before somnolence won.

Basic living skills play an important role in pastoral success, Brown said, but may not be addressed effectively in divinity school. Healthy marriages and the ability to make and maintain healthy relationships are at the heart of this. The stresses of ministry can lead pastors to ignore the people who are closest to them, he said.

Ministry stress that leads to marital stress can also contribute to improper sexual behavior, Brown said: “Pastors don’t fail because they don’t know what’s right, but because they don’t do what’s right.” Sometimes, though, bad choices result from a combination of overwhelming stress and a tempting opportunity.

Perhaps help with self-esteem and stress management could be more important than talking about specific sexual issues, Brown said.

Financial discipline is another important living skill, and many pastors struggle with it. Some of them graduate from seminary with bucket-loads of debt, but inadequate income to pay it off. Others aspire to lifestyles far beyond their means, and fail to manage their resources wisely.

Physical health is another area often neglected, Brown said. He cited an ad in a religious publication that carried an ad declaring “Pastors reach the pearly gates 20% quicker.” The advertisement was from a life insurance company, indicating the typically shorter lifespan for pastors who don’t manage their stress or health well.

Brown concluded with a list of miscellaneous skills. Ministers should “learn to be liked without letting being liked become your goal,” he said. Charm can be an effective means of leadership, he said. Ministers should learn skills for being more likeable – and learn how to apologize really well. One should not live in fear of not being liked by everyone, he said, but should understand the importance of being a likeable person.

Pastors, especially senior pastors, also should learn to be comfortable in second place, Brown said. They need to allow other staff members to share the spotlight and understand that they may not be everyone’s favorite pastor.

“Strategic incompetence” is a skill that may not sound valuable, but it can save pastors time and trouble, Brown insisted. If the pastor doesn’t know how to operate the copy machine, run the computer network, or repair the hot water heater, then he or she is less likely to be asked to get involved in matters that someone else could handle.

It’s easy for pastors to fall into the trap of being everything to everybody, but an important thing to know is that pastors don’t need to know everything, he said, and should learn when to say “I don’t know.”

Are there things you would add to the list of stuff we should teach in seminary but either don’t teach, rarely teach, or can’t teach?

Comments welcome!

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