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Qualities essential for pastors today

Wanted: 29-year-old pastor with 40 years’ experience. Preach like Peter, pray like Paul, be as graceful and truthful as Jesus, be willing to suffer much and still be considered wise. . . .

With relationships between pastors and congregations under increasing strain and scrutiny, one of the questions frequently raised is this: what are essential skills that a pastor must have to function well and even flourish in the role? What should councils, classes, seminaries and the Candidacy Committee consider especially weighty factors as they encourage and discourage applicants?

It’s an intriguing question. Fifteen years ago, the Christian Reformed Synod adopted standards in the areas of character, knowledge (biblical and theological) and skills for those entering ministry. And many years earlier, Calvin Theological Seminary articulated a fairly detailed (perhaps daunting) set of Personal Qualifications for Ministry.

Trying to identify all of the qualifications for all of the potential responsibilities is not practically possible. There is no formula. There are no shoo-ins. And there are surprises.

Ministers come in a great variety of styles with a unique mix of character traits, giftedness and skill sets. And the contexts in which ministers find themselves – congregations – are also never precisely the same. There are stock characters, but the mix of history, location, personalities and dynamics is always unique.

There is mystery. Why is it that some pastors can do well in one place but not in another? Is it a matter of place or a matter of time? Is it a matter of maturation in a pastor or in a congregation?

There is so much about what transpires inside individual hearts and minds, and what transpires in relationships between individual pastors and congregations (and leaders within those congregations), which is fluid and beautiful and miserably difficult – all at the same time. So the only way to speak about this matter is with a great sense of humility. What God accomplishes in pastors and in churches, and what painful roads our journeys include, remind us that we see and know imperfectly.

But if we can’t say everything, perhaps we can at least say something. Pastors today need to be fervent storytellers with strong “soft” skills and superb self-awareness.

The art of listening
More than ever, pastors need strong soft skills – sometimes named people skills or emotional intelligence. These refer to the capacity of a pastor to relate and connect meaningfully with a wide range of others. Pastors need the capacity to read people and to read situations with some degree of accuracy and with a huge degree of respect. One of the persistent themes in situations where pastors and congregations separate is an experienced or perceived disconnect in relationships.

It’s not enough for pastors to connect well with some parishioners. Pastors need to connect well with many, even most of their parishioners and even with those parishioners who require extra effort. Love must produce respect that has authentic traction. It’s not enough to merely co-exist.

A key ingredient is the willingness and ability to listen well, ensuring that the other is being heard. Listening requires humility and curiosity: it is a sure sign that a pastor respects the story of another person’s life, and more than that, the story of what God is already doing in this other person’s life, as well as in this church community’s life.

So setting a framework for a healthy relationship with a congregation requires that a pastor knows that his/her own story is only one among many. When a pastor enters a community, a pastor merges into a group of travelers who are underway, and in whom God is already at work. The leadership that will happen occurs when a leader can lead from among – as one who is in relationship with these people.

When congregants are convinced that their pastor cares about them and is genuinely interested in the details of their lives in this place, they are able to hear and listen to pastors of varied skill. The flipside is that if congregants feel unheard by a pastor, they will not be able to listen to even a skilled preacher for very long.

The unfolding Story
Secondly, pastors need to be people who love to tell the Story. The one essential reality about Scripture is that it tells a story. A true story – but a story, a narrative with characters and plot and crises and resolutions and mystery and it moves towards an ending both known and unknown. This is the Story which frames and anchors our lives and infuses them with meaning. Pastors need to love to tell that Story with all of the invisible mystery that speaks of love and sacrifice and redemption and holy ground in the everyday. Pastors need to love to tell the Story because they are convicted of its beauty and pathos and gut-wrenching, soul-inspiring truth – a truth which connects with all the goodness, messiness, wonder and pain of our lives.

Pastors who love to tell the Story are pastors who can help all of us grow ever more alert to the Story unfolding within our own lives and in the world around us. This love for the Story which Scripture tells must trump a pastor’s love for any other book of preachable chapter topics. And though churches organize, they are not, first of all, organizations. The church is the mysterious body of Christ for whom and with whom a pastor proclaims the good news. Pastors must know themselves to be preachers before they are CEOs.

Pastors who love to tell the Story can be leaders in the present with a healthy respect for the fact that how the Story unfolds into the future is as yet unknown. God’s people require a posture of openness to the stirring of the Spirit. And pastors who love to tell the Story can be leaders in the present with a healthy respect for the ways in which God has been at work in the past. There is a length, depth and breadth to the Christian tradition which is to be respected.

Not for the faint-hearted
Finally, an essential quality for any pastor is the kind of self-awareness which realizes how you come across, for better and for worse. It’s self-awareness that knows up-front strengths and goodnesses as well as shadow-sides and underbelly. It’s self-awareness which allows us to be both brave and careful, with healthy ego and deep humility. It’s self-awareness which enables a pastor to know when personal buttons are being pushed, and then to learn to stand in that uncomfortable spot for still longer: to be at the same time weak and strong, strong and weak.

Pastoring is not for the faint of heart. Neither is it for the self-sufficient. It’s a position that requires exceptional skills and character. And it requires wisdom. To know the ways of the human heart. To be street smart and savvy about life, and to be schooled just as well in the disciplines of faith and piety. To be strong enough to have a spine, yet flexible enough to bend in storms. To know when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em. To consider others better than ourselves, and to have a great capacity for submission even while we dare to pull on a prophetic mantle. To have eyes that see the light well enough to walk in the dark.

Essential skills and character? How about a deep sense of the grace of God which yet whispers the truth, and a deep sense of truth which trumpets grace?


  • Cecil Van Niejenhuis works for Pastor-Church Relations, engaging the stories of pastors, councils and congregations where they intersect within the still greater Story.

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