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Making the perfect minister

Survey reveals what congregations really want in a church leader

By David Wilson

Suppose a mad scientist invented a process for designing the ideal United Church minister. Chances are he’d rely heavily on data from our second annual reader survey.

The survey covers a broad range of issues relating to ministry today, and the results can be considered from a number of different perspectives. The perspective that most interests our imaginary inventor is the view from the pews: what do congregations really want in a minister? After all, they’re the ones he hopes will buy his invention.

So armed with survey results, he goes to work. First of all, he needs a name for his creature. He decides on Kim, because it’s gender-neutral: the survey makes it very clear that rank-and-file members do not care whether ministers are female or male. And Kim will be of indeterminate age and marital status, because neither seems to matter much to the target audience. Kim’s past employment history isn’t a big deal either, but Kim had better be well educated, well spoken and theologically liberal. It will likely help if Kim is ordained, too.

Next, what should Kim look like? This one’s a little tougher. Some prefer their ministers in a robe and stole on Sunday mornings, some think a dress or a suit are fine, and a surprising number just don’t care. Best to offer a range of options. Nor is there much unanimity on how Kim should look outside church, although it’s safe to assume that neatness is important because ministers are expected to be the face of their congregation and denomination in the community.

In theory, our mad inventor could program Kim to be a slave to the job, but that probably wouldn’t go over well. People in the pews do not expect ministers to put in horrendous hours; quite a few worry about them burning out. That’s not to say, however, they wouldn’t rule out Kim’s having to put in some overtime, especially in pastoral emergencies. As much as our mad inventor may be tempted to program Kim with superb preaching skills, he needs to bear in mind that most people in the pews view pastoral work as more important — so much so that they wouldn’t object if Kim borrowed the occasional sermon from the Internet. And some negotiating skills better be included in the basic operating system: Kim and the congregation will not always see eye to eye on what constitutes the right compensation package for all the work Kim does.

Off-hours, Kim doesn’t need to be angelic, but there are certain places that our ideal minister would be wise to avoid. But it’s not going to bother anyone if Kim is programmed to show a little affection toward a partner in public. As far as having the partner and kids, if there are any, show up in church every Sunday or get involved in other aspects of congregational life, it’s mostly optional but probably a good idea.

Our mad inventor will find all sorts of other useful information in the survey. But at the end of the day, he may want to ask himself whether this new creature is worth all the effort — will there be a market for his invention? Overall, our survey suggests that people in the pews may conclude that Kim bears a striking resemblance to the minister they already have.

Maybe our mad inventor will go back to the drawing board and look at the survey from a different perspective — say, from the point of view of a minister looking for the ideal congregation. Now that could get really interesting.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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The author is baptized at Central United in Calgary. (Photo courtesy of Al Coe)

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