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Reader survey: I love my minister . . .

By Jocelyn Bell

More than 75 percent of you are pleased with the person in the pulpit.

With 50 years of ministry under his alb, Rev. James Strachan knows what it is to love his calling. Celebrating his milestone last spring in Ponoka, Alta., he reminisced about the days when he would jog for two hours before heading into work.

“I really enjoyed congregational ministry when I was younger. . . . I could hardly wait to get up in the morning.” Now 74, Strachan admits he doesn’t have as much energy as he once did, but the enthusiasm is still there. In fact, his current job at Bashaw-Mirror pastoral charge is the fifth he’s taken since retirement.

If all ministers are as passionate about their work as Strachan, it’s no wonder they got rave reviews from the people in the pews. In fact, 78 percent of survey respondents said their congregation is either satisfied or very satisfied with its current minister or ministry team.

Delving further into the topic, the survey asked respondents to rate their minister or ministry team’s skills (see “What are your minister’s strengths?”). High praise went to preaching skills and the knack for making Scripture interesting. But room for improvement is evident in the minister’s ability to relate to youth and young adults, and in his or her aptitude for raising the church’s profile in the community.

Though our addiction to TV and the Internet might lead one to assume that a good sermon would be lost on us, quite the opposite is true. Three-quarters reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their minister’s preaching, and only eight percent said they were less than satisfied.

“I’m pleased,” said Rev. Rob Fennell, a professor at the Atlantic School of Theology. “I think all of our theological schools are trying to produce clergy who are attentive to culture and context and pastoral concerns, but also try to be grounded in biblical witness. Most of the clergy I know take their task of preaching pretty seriously.”

Preaching was most popular among Atlantic Canadians, who reported an 80 percent satisfaction rate. Fennell, who has lived in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and now Nova Scotia, says with a few exceptions, church is more formal as you move east. “I’ve only lived here three years, but there’s an expectation that there’s going to be good preaching. I think it actually raises the bar for the preacher.”

Only 61 percent of ministers themselves reported satisfaction with preaching, an indication that they’re either too humble or too hard on themselves. “There’s a fear for many clergy today that unless the sermon is preached in a particular way, we’ll continue to lose ground in terms of participation and membership,” says Fennell. “So people are anxious about their so-called performance.”

Can a minister be a fabulous preacher and a neighbourhood mover and shaker? Perhaps not. Only 57 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with their minister or ministry team’s community profile.

According to Rev. Ross Lockhart, minister at West Vancouver United starting this August, United Church clergy need to get out there and show that their congregations and the denomination do not fit the stereotypes of Christianity. “When the media refer to Christians, it’s usually a blanket statement, and it’s often the more conservative or fundamentalist churches who give the better sound bites or the wackier news clips. . . . So clergy need to find ways to network with the local media and promote programming through the church that has wide benefit to the community, like food banks or music programs.”

For Lockhart, building a community profile for his church is a weekly priority. “You need to demonstrate that the community of Christ is for everyone, and it’s not just an insider group. . . .  Do as much radio and television as you can.”

Another category with room for improvement is the minister’s ability to relate to youth. Only 59 percent of respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the minister’s rapport with young people, and 11 percent reported being unsatisfied or very unsatisfied.

(Then again, out of nearly 2,100 tabulated responses, only five came from people age 12 to 24 — a strong indication that The Observer also has a lot of work to do if it wants to reach a younger audience.)

Rick Garland, the United Church’s program co-ordinator for youth and young adults, said the results were “a bit better” than what he might have guessed and that relating to youth is challenging for ministers. Ministers themselves would agree with that  — only 39 percent said they were doing a good job with youth.

“There have always been generation gaps, there’s nothing new about that,” Garland said. But the gap may be growing rather than shrinking. Today’s ministers are older than they’ve ever been, with an average age of 54, while today’s youth are exposed to more technology and information than ever before. “It’s natural that a 50-year-old is going to have trouble relating to a 13-year-old.”

For his part, James Strachan is well aware of the changing times. Though he has little advice for the younger generation of clergy, he does think church members should give their ministers a lot more feedback. Judy, a former parishioner of Strachan’s, never minced her words during their after-service chats. “She’d say, ‘Well, Strachan, you used a whole lot of million-dollar words, and I didn’t have a clue what you were talking about.’ She gave me that feedback, and I trusted it.”

— With files from Sara Jewell



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