February 16, 2017—It is no longer a secret that faith communities, particularly mainline denominations, are in a precarious state and facing an uncertain future. Some evidences of the sea of changes include declining church membership; congregational financial instability; fluctuating enrollment in denominational-affiliated seminaries; cultural shifts from dogmatic religious ideologies to “spirituality”; and the tenuous voice of religion in the public square.
Together these shifts have contributed to unprecedented levels of anxiety and uncertainty for administrators, pastors, and congregations—leading many to wonder, where do we go from here? There are many possible responses to this important question. Though, I believe what is needed most at this time is stable and steady leadership.
I am convinced that the strength of leadership is best tested in conditions of high anxiety and deep uncertainty, both of which characterize the church presently. And, in my view, pastoral leaders need two critical skills in their efforts to effectively lead and negotiate these unprecedented changes: pastoral imagination and emotional intelligence.
First, pastoral leaders must possess great and vivid imaginations. Imagination is one of the most significant gifts we possess as human beings. It is deeply divine. Indeed, it was God’s creative imagination that designed and constructed the world. Imagination provides hope—the antidote to anxiety and fear.
Pastoral imagination in its basic form is the capacity to see things as they might be in the future, rather than what they are in the present or have been in the past. Effective pastoral leadership requires the continued exercise of imagination. It requires leaders to imagine anew the movements of God in the world. Unfortunately, when pastoral leaders can only imagine returning to a place of yesterday, their organizations stagnate or completely collapse. Imagination requires flexibility and an openness to change.
Second, pastoral leaders must possess great depths of emotional intelligence. At its basic level, emotional intelligence is simply a creative process of using our emotions intelligently to guide our behaviors and to think in ways that reduce conflict and promote collaboration within ourselves and with others.
Emotional intelligence requires us to pay deep attention to our emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, etc.) and act upon them in ways that lead to improved interpersonal relationships. Pastoral effectiveness arguably rises and falls on the emotional competencies of its leaders. Ministry, as life, is primarily about relationships. It takes great social and emotional skills to lead. This is as true in faith communities as it is in commercial enterprises.
As Roy M. Oswald and Arland Jacobson have noted, “An emotionally intelligent leader is a nonanxious presence in the midst of sometimes infantile congregational behaviors, able to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise in parish life.” Emotionally intelligent leaders are able to stay calm and collected when all about them is chaotic and uncertain.
In these unprecedented and anxiety filled times surrounding the church and its future, we need stable, steady, and imaginative leaders. To use a military metaphor: it is when the battle seems lost that the general earns her stars. She stabilizes the troops, develops a plan, and leads the charge. Above all, she maintains her imagination and controls her emotions. Pastoral leaders must do the same.
In sum, I am convinced that when our hearts and minds are filled with hope and imagination and our emotions are intelligent, we are in a better position to provide the kind of leadership that the church desperately needs at this moment in history.
If we choose to embrace and develop these virtues, our communities and world will be stronger and more resilient than ever before. Will you take the challenge?
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Michael Lee Cook, ThD, LMFT, is a licensed pastoral psychotherapist in private practice at Micah Counseling Services in Peachtree City, Georgia. He is on the faculty for Leadership In Ministry through The Center for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary, and serves as an adjunct professor in pastoral care at Emory Candler School of Theology. Further, he is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor candidate providing clinical supervision to aspiring mental health professionals. Cook is an ordained Baptist minister that speaks regularly at professional conferences in the area of family life and theology. He is the author of Black Fatherhood, Adoption, and Theology: A Contextual Analysis and Response (Peter Lang Publishing, 2015).