Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

January 21, 2016

There is a scene in the movie Rudy (1993), in which the title character, a young college student who desperately wants to play on the Notre Dame football team, asks an elderly priest to solicit God’s help in the matter. Rudy believes that although his own fervent prayers have so far been unavailing, those of the priest will surely have the desired effect. “Son,” replies the priest, “in thirty-five years of religious study, I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God…and I’m not him.” I now have about forty years of religious study under my belt, and I don’t have any “hard, incontrovertible facts” that can beat those. But I do at least have three rules of thumb that have proven useful to me in my work as a pastor, professor and seminary administrator. I learned them the hard way, either by breaking them myself or by watching others break them.

(1) Beware of handling pastoral problems administratively.
(2) Beware of handling administrative problems pastorally.
(3) Beware of assuming that any problem is either exclusively pastoral or exclusively administrative.

By “pastoral” problems, I mean those that you as a minister are called to help other people face: crises of faith, moral quandaries, vocational decisions, family squabbles, etc. By “administrative” problems, I mean church business that you as a leader must deal with: scheduling hassles, personality conflicts, budgetary constraints, building mishaps, all of which have far-reaching implications for congregational life. The great trick of parish ministry—and this proves true of seminary administration as well—is that the very people who sometimes come to you for counseling with personal difficulties may also appeal for your support on controversial matters facing the organization to which you both belong. The skill set needed for handling pastoral problems sensitively is rather different from the one needed for handling administrative problems efficiently, and so is character of a conversation driven by personal turmoil from one driven by parish politics. Getting clear on these differences is a vital element in maintaining your vocational integrity and achieving professional success. Let me illustrate what happens when the three rules of thumb cited above are ignored.

(1) I once belonged to a church whose pastor had very strong views on “administrative” issues such as staffing policies, missional outreach programming and facilities use. But this brother repeatedly offended those members of the congregation who either disagreed with his views or found his manner of putting them into effect too high-handed. On one occasion, a leader of the church asked to meet with him privately. She wanted to discuss congregational priorities and decision-making procedures. She had for several years been a stout supporter of his social action initiatives, but she had gradually come to feel that the worship life and educational programming of the church were suffering. She felt—to quote a former seminary professor of mine—that the sheep were being sheared without being fed. And she wanted to tell the shepherd all this, not just out of sincere concern for the flock, but also out of sincere concern for him and for his pastoral office. So they met, and she poured out her heart to him. She spoke boldly, but also politely and humbly, as was her way.

But instead of being grateful for her friendship and wisdom, he was outraged. He dismissed her from his office as a malcontent, and told her to find another church. He had completely misread the conversation. He saw nothing in her words but a challenge to his authority, nothing in her face but opposition to his priorities. He had handled an essentially pastoral matter administratively—thereby unwittingly providing yet another example of the very problem she had tried to help him address.

(2) The opposite mistake—handling an essentially administrative problem pastorally—is almost equally disastrous. Here I have a tale to tell on myself. Many years ago, when my wife and I were serving as co-pastors of a church in Wisconsin, one of our parishioners, a member of the church’s board of trustees, came to us and said words to this effect: “Wisconsin summers are hot and humid, and I’d like to have air conditioning installed in the parsonage. I know we haven’t budgeted for that, but I want to get it done right away, and I’m willing to pay for it, anonymously, out of my own pocket.” If truth be told, this kind gentleman, whose wife and teenage daughter sometimes took care of our kids, knew that the weather was causing skin breakdown for our disabled daughter, and he had made this offer out of sincere concern for her health, even though he was courteous enough to insist that he wanted my whole family to benefit. Wow!

The trustees, the treasurer and the financial secretary were all consulted, and readily agreed with the scheme. Within a week, the new AC unit was hooked up and the paperwork was all handled properly. I wrote an article for the next parish newsletter to publicly thank the unnamed donor and to express the relief my family and I were feeling from the current heat wave.

A week later, a letter of protest—also anonymous—arrived in the church mail. It railed at the gross misuse of church funds—even though the newsletter article had explained that the bill had been paid by a one-time designated gift. And it rebuked Marilyn and me for living in the lap of luxury. I was stunned by the viciousness of the letter and worried that it expressed a widespread sentiment among the congregation. So I penned a response, lauding the generosity of the donor, explaining the medical condition that warranted the gift, and defending the correctness of the procedures the church leaders and I had followed with respect to it. Fortunately, before running my response in the next newsletter, I showed it, along with the angry letter that had occasioned it, to the chair of the administrative board. “Jim” was a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and the head of security for a network of Wisconsin hospitals. He read the two letters, looked up at me, grinned, and tore both of them to shreds. “That’s how you answer such drivel,” he said. “You don’t know who wrote it, and you don’t want to know. Besides, if other people felt this way, we’d have heard about it by now. We heard nothing besides this one complaint. One anonymous letter is a blip on the screen. Forget it.” And then he added, with a wink, “Oh and…stay cool.” He meant it both ways.

Jim knew an “administrative” matter when he saw one and he knew how to handle it—which, in that case, meant simply to ignore it. He knew that my intended “pastoral” response would have come across as ham-fisted special pleading, and might even have suggested that I secretly believed the hate mail had enough validity to need a response. When you haven’t done anything wrong, publicly justifying yourself just makes you look guilty.

(3) The tricky thing, however, is that in ministry many problems have both “pastoral” and “administrative” dimensions, and two-dimensional problems require two-dimensional solutions. Indeed, both of the stories above turn out to have elements of both dimensions. The story of the minister who treated a well-intended warning as a challenge to his authority illustrates what can happen when a pastoral problem is handled administratively. But was the problem there only “pastoral”? No. It was also administrative. He had first bungled the running of the church, and then, when his bungling was pointed out to him by someone who sincerely wanted to help him, he bungled the response, both by the rudeness of his demeanor and by the stupidity of his refusal to heed her advice. In short, he failed both in his pastoral care for her soul (and, indirectly, for the starving souls of many other congregants) and in his role as the “chief executive officer” of the parish.

Similarly, the story of my response to a random piece of hate mail alerts us to what can happen—though in that case, thankfully, nothing untoward did happen, because I was rescued in the nick of time from overreacting—when an administrative problem is handled pastorally. But was the problem there only “administrative”? Again, no. There was also a pastoral element to it: somebody in that congregation was angry. That person’s anger was probably unwarranted, and the way in which he or she expressed it was both inappropriate (because it was so venomous) and ineffective (because, being anonymous, it could receive no direct response from the alleged “offenders”). Still, hard feelings were there, and pastoral care was needed. I couldn’t deliver it.

The takeaway, then, is that skillful ministry requires us to be alert both to the hidden administrative aspects and implications of problems that initially appear to be purely pastoral in nature, and conversely, to the hidden pastoral element of what may look at first to be problems of parish politics or the routine management of congregational business.

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