The Competent Pastor – Interview with Ron Sisk
This interview was from the September-October 2006 Issue of Homiletics
Ron Sisk was raised Southern Baptist in Arkansas. He was educated at the University of Arkansas, New York University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His Ph.D.is in Christian Ethics and Church History. He moved his affiliation to the American Baptists in 1996. Ron served pastorates in Kentucky, California and Texas for 20 years before becoming Professor of Homiletics and Christian Ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls in 2002. In July of 2006 he became Academic Vice President and Dean at NABS. Ron is the author of numerous published articles and sermons and two books on ministry, most recently The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-knowledge for Serving Well, published by the Alban Institute in 2005. He lives in Sioux Falls with his wife Sheryl and son Doug.
We met with Dr. Sisk in his second-floor office at the seminary in Sioux Falls on a chilly Monday morning in mid-May, and began our conversation by getting right to the subject of pastoral competence.
HOMILETICS: The competent pastor! How did the book happen? Were you noticing a lot of incompetent pastors who didn’t have a clue?
SISK: [laughter] You’re going to get me into trouble right out of the gate! I think that theological institutions have not necessarily done as good a job of producing pastors as they have religion scholars. As a result, a lot of folks come out of school with an M.Div. but know relatively little about the practice of ministry itself. That’s gotten better in recent years — more seminaries are paying more attention to the practical part of education — but it’s not nearly as good as it should be.
HOMILETICS: But most seminaries have offered classes on practical theology, have they not?
SISK: The practical disciplines have in some ways tended to be stepchildren in theological curricula. It’s not so much a matter of administration, although that’s a piece of it, as it is a matter of how you take what you’ve learned in systematic theology and church history and translate those into your relationship with an actual congregation.
HOMILETICS: So what are the signs of incompetence? How does one come to the conclusion, “Hey, I’m incompetent!”
SISK: Well, let me express that positively, rather than negatively. A competent pastor is able to function in ministry, to relate to people, to do the things that are generally expected of pastors and do so with a fair degree of comfort. Signs of incompetence may include stress in the job beyond what might be expected, or the inability to relate to people, the inability to get done what needs to be done in ministry, or even an increasing difficulty in achieving inner satisfaction and maintaining spiritual energy.
HOMILETICS: So how do you define competency.
SISK: Competence is the ability to function adequately in your job.
HOMILETICS: But in a church setting, isn’t it possible for a pastor to be competent in one area and not in another? One pastor may have skills as a counselor, but not as a preacher.
SISK: Of course. We all function at different levels in different areas of work and no one is perfect at everything. But a pastor, especially a solo pastor, is expected to be a generalist. The church expects him to be able to function to some degree in a wide range of capability — all the way to preaching, worship design, working with committees, pastoral care, crisis intervention and so on.
HOMILETICS: So you’re saying that the pastor should be competent in all these areas, but may excel in some specific areas.
SISK: Yes. You’d hope that the pastor would be able to function at some level in all these areas. This may mean, in some cases, that you’re able to recognize when you’re in over your head. As a pastor I never did long-term counseling. I restricted my own counseling to strictly spiritual matters, pre-marital counseling, and sometimes some diagnostic counseling. If someone came to me with a significant issue, I would meet with him once or twice and then refer him to someone who was competent to do long-term counseling.
HOMILETICS: And I think most pastors resonate with what you just said. You can do that with counseling. But with visitation or with preaching —
SISK: — they expect you to be there! [laughter]
HOMILETICS: They expect you to be there. Perhaps administrative matters can be delegated, but you have to have a certain level of competence in these areas.
SISK: It does vary to some degree from tradition to tradition. We have some students, for example, who are preparing for ministry in the Reformed Church in America, the RCA, and those congregations are generally run by the consistory, so that the pastor has relatively little to do with the “business” of the church.
HOMILETICS: You make the comment that if we’re exhausted in our personal life, we then have nothing to give in our “professional” life, nothing left to give to the congregation.
SISK: I really think that ministry is one of the most exhausting occupations that a person can enter. What happens all too often is that a minister gets so busy trying to please everyone that he or she loses themselves in the process. One of the ways I want to define competence is the ability to function with integrity out of who you are, rather than trying to become someone or something that meets other people’s stereotypes of what or who a minister ought to be.
HOMILETICS: Isn’t this one of the problems with the notion of competence? How do you measure this?
SISK: It is incredibly difficult to measure. In my book I include a number of assessments in each chapter to help pastors begin to think about issues of competence. Ultimately, our congregations are evaluating our competence every Sunday.
HOMILETICS: So our congregations will help us get a sense of how well we’re doing our job?
SISK: They will decide whether you’re competent whether you do or not! [laughter]
HOMILETICS: And you suggest — and many churches are doing this — that a pastor-parish committee be formed to provide feedback.
SISK: The Methodists do about as good a job as anyone of building into their structure a formal committee whose job it is to represent the church to the pastor and the pastor to the church. I really think everyone needs some committee like that.
HOMILETICS: When churches are looking for competence in a pastor, in what area do they usually place the most value?
SISK: It depends on the values of the congregation.
HOMILETICS: I like that, but let’s put it this way: Will a congregation forgive a pastor’s incompetence in one area because he or she excels in another area?
SISK: I’ve certainly seen that happen. I’ve seen congregations who’ve had a pastor who was eloquent and accomplished but absolutely inept in human relations. Those congregations put up with failure in one area in order to have the excellence in the other area. They valued worship and the worship experience above every other aspect of congregational life, and they paid a price for that.
HOMILETICS: And I’ve seen it work the other way around, too: pastors who have what you call “high touch” ability, but whose preaching leaves a lot to be desired. The congregation loves that person because they know he or she really cares about them, and they’re willing to sit through some awful preaching.
SISK: They’ll put up with a lot of poorly organized Sundays [laughter] for someone who sits with them when they’re sick and comes to see them.
HOMILETICS: You have to be a self-starter if you’re going to be in ministry. Right?
SISK: I think so, and I think that even self-starters have a difficult time figuring out what they’re supposed to do.
HOMILETICS: On any given day or for the long term?
SISK: Especially in the early years. Most of us over a period of time develop a routine which we carry with us from parish to parish. But when you begin, no one tells you how much visiting you should do. No one tells you how much time you should work with committees. Your homiletics professor will tell you how much time you should spend in sermon preparation, but no one looks over your shoulder to make sure you’re doing that. It’s relatively difficult for ministers to establish a routine, and some never do, and their ministry suffers as a result of that.
HOMILETICS: Should seminaries have classes on time management?
SISK: Seminaries do try to get at that with leadership and administration classes, and I talk about those kinds of things in my field ed classes and in homiletics, but ultimately I am not really certain that any of us can teach someone how to get organized. You can use management techniques and you can teach these techniques, but when you walk into your office on your first day in the parish, it is still your job to organize your time.
HOMILETICS: You start your book with a chapter on family origins. I found that odd.
SISK: I’ve become convinced over the years that we make much too little of our family origins when we look at the kinds of developmental work that ministers need to do for themselves. Some of that I think is particularly true in evangelical churches, but I really think it’s true across the board. Having grown up myself in a very conservative, conversionist type of atmosphere, the training that I got as a child said, “Once one comes to Jesus, everything is different. You have a new life, your old life is gone and Christ works with you to build this fulfilling new life.”
No one in my tradition spent a lot of time talking about the fact that there are ways you never escape your early training and you carry it with you all your life. Pastors, particularly — because we like to see ourselves as following Christ, as disciples, as living out the teachings of the New Testament — tend to think that we’ve left behind us all those early influences and dark impulses that are part of human nature. But, of course, we haven’t.
HOMILETICS: So are you saying that it’s not just that a pastor needs to know or be aware that he or she grew up in a Mennonite tradition and that there’s a strong pietistic impulse in your spiritual makeup, or that you had a father who was overbearing and a mother who was an enabler and those twin realities have shaped your ministry today?
SISK: Let me use my own experience as an example. I grew up in a very stable home, and one that I consider to be a very loving home, but both of my parents were adult children of alcoholics. Alcohol was not a problem in the home I grew up in, but both of my parents carried with them all of those alcoholic family patterns. We were what the experts call a “dry alcoholic” family. So the way we related to one another, the way we dealt with problems when they arose, our expectations for one another — all of those were formed out of that alcoholic pattern of family relationships.
It was not until my middle 30s that I realized the degree to which those patterns affected my behavior as a pastor.
HOMILETICS: So your expectations of the congregation were higher, or you were more narrow-minded on certain issues.
SISK: One of the things you could do is paint a big E on my forehead for ENABLER. I was raised to be an enabler. To worry about how other people felt about everything.
HOMILETICS: That would make you a big pastor?
SISK: A lot of people thought I was a very good pastor, when all I was really doing was helping them to continue to be ill.
HOMILETICS: Is it true that certain personality types might make more competent pastors than others?
SISK: It is true that certain personality types fit more naturally into our cultural stereotype of what a pastor ought to be.
HOMILETICS: Yeah, because you said you were an enabler, and clearly that can be a problem, but some people are simply more nurturing than others, right?
SISK: It makes it easier for them in some aspects of human relationships, but it might make it more difficult for them in other areas of ministry like getting things done, making decisions, dealing with the governing board. Those kinds of things require a different sort of relational ability.
HOMILETICS: What is the cultural stereotype for a pastor?
SISK: Most people expect their pastor to be a people person. Expect him or her to be available when needed. Expect him to be unvaryingly kind. To behave better than they themselves expect to behave in relating to the pastor. People expect us to an example of behavior.
SISK: I think so. What you find in actuality runs across the board of personality types and approaches. Some pastors are very harsh and they seem to gravitate to congregations who want them to be harsh, or at least to be a strong disciplinarian.
HOMILETICS: If a pastor came to you wanting guidance and confessed that he or she just wasn’t as effective as they thought they could be as a pastor, what would you suggest?
SISK: The first thing I would do is to see if I could find out a little bit more about which areas they felt themselves to be lacking. When a person says to me that he doesn’t feel he’s effective as a pastor, then I want to know “Are you happy with your pulpit work? Are you having trouble with your board? Are you failing to enjoy visitation in the nursing homes? Are you really saying that the church is losing members and not meeting its budget?” So what do you mean when you say you’re “not being effective.”
Statistics tell us that 85 percent of the churches in the country at any given time are at a plateau or in decline. And if pastors are gauging their effectiveness on whether they’re in a stagnant church or not, then that suggests that 85 percent of our pastors are ineffective. And I don’t believe that at all.
HOMILETICS: Could a sense of inadequacy be a sign of burnout?
SISK: It could be a sign of burnout. Sometimes a sign of spiritual crisis. Sometimes a sign that the Holy Spirit is leading you to some change in your ministry or a new venture.
HOMILETICS: You talk about the importance of establishing routines, or having a routine, and the importance of having a vision that you can articulate for your ministry and the congregation you’re serving.
SISK: One of the things that can protect us from the ordinary ups and downs of the ministry, is to develop with every congregation as clear a sense as possible of why God has called you to this particular group for this particular time. What is it that God wants to work with you to help this group accomplish?
A pastor who knows that can go to work every day with a sense of purpose. Pastors who don’t know that may find themselves floundering and losing motivation over time.
HOMILETICS: Any other professionals who go into the office know precisely what they’re going to be doing, and what their mission is.
SISK: Precisely, and that’s why in every congregation for whom I was the pastor, I tried to get the congregation to look early on at a strategic plan. I wanted them to answer the question: “What is God calling us to do as a congregation in the next three to five years?” Then, when they had developed that strategic plan, I was able to go to work everyday knowing that, “Okay, this is what I’m working toward. I might not be able to do a great chunk of that today, but at least I know where we’re headed.”
HOMILETICS: That’s interesting because most of the time we try to develop a strategic plan for the benefit of the congregation so that the people know where they’re going. But you’re suggesting that such a plan needs to be developed so that the pastor as the leader of the congregation, the shepherd of the flock, can lead the congregation in that direction. So the pastor needs to know what he or she is expected to be doing.
SISK: One would hope that you’d do those things together: The congregation knows where they’re going, and you know where you’re going and it’s the same place.
HOMILETICS: One of the core competencies a pastor needs to have is communication, and as you say, the pastor must be able to communicate character, caring, and of course the preaching component.
SISK: Particularly on Sunday morning, your congregation is going to make an evaluation as to how you are performing as a pastor that day based on the way you carry yourself, based on the expression on your face, based on your interactions with them or with other people. To that degree, a pastor must be “on” every time he or she is in public with the congregation. It’s part of the pastoral task.
Now, we’re human beings. We get tired and frustrated. We need people with whom we can be transparent and be ourselves as well, and you’ll find that transparency in a few relationships, but you maintain your pastoral identity with the great majority of folks.
HOMILETICS: But people today are more accepting of the human element in pastoral ministry than they were, for example, in the days of the Puritan divines?
SISK: Yes and no. On the one hand, we’ve seen so many pastors crash and burn over the past quarter century, and some in very spectacular ways, that we all know pastors are human. But there is still a degree to which we want our pastors to be examples for the rest of us.
HOMILETICS: So that means you drive your Chevy Nova to church, and keep the Lexus in the garage.
SISK: Well, it means that if everyone else in the congregation is driving a Nova and you’re driving a Lexus, something is out of balance.
HOMILETICS: Are pastors overworked?
SISK: Some are, some aren’t. Some get themselves into it. One of the ways I define competence is the ability to manage your time, to manage the time spent in ministry and to protect both your personal time and your family time.
HOMILETICS: So if you’re getting the job done there, and you have time for your family, you’re doing it right.
SISK: That’s what I would say. It’s a balancing act. It’s not easy. But there are techniques that we can learn for keeping our time management in some kind of reasonable balance.
HOMILETICS: What are some of those techniques?
SISK: One of the things that Wayne Oates suggests in one of his books is that you divide your week into a grid of 21 periods: morning, afternoon and evening for each of the seven days. Oates, who was writing this about 1960, argued that pastors do have to work more than 40 hours a week generally, but that we should use that morning/afternoon/evening grid to limit the number of periods we work to no more than 13 in a given week. His argument from a pastoral care standpoint is that if you have any fewer than eight of those 21 periods for personal and family time, then you’re not taking care of yourself. And he advocated the development of a sliding scale so that if you worked more in one week, you take a little more time off the next.
HOMILETICS: What is “high-touch” ministry?
SISK: High touch is staying in close touch with a congregation, making sure that you show caring for them in the way that you conduct not only your pastoral care work but the business of the congregation as well.
For example, let’s say that you have a committee that is working on some critical project. We’ll use the traditional color of the sanctuary carpet as an example. Pastors might tend to say that we don’t have time for that; we’ll just let the committee do its work. Well, we do need to let committees do their work, but it is also important that the pastors stay in touch with people while they’re doing their work in order both to help them in the process and to assure them that what they’re doing is important to the congregation and that someone else is watching what they’re doing.
When a pastor maintains that kind of high-touch relationship with people, processes tend to go more smoothly.
HOMILETICS: So high-touch is high-visibility.
SISK: It is both high-touch and high-visibility. The value of this is that people are constantly reassured that they are important to you and that what they’re doing is important to you. When there’s controversy in the church, it’s important to maintain this kind of relationship with those with whom you disagree. In order for you to be their pastor they need to know that you care about them even if they’re on the opposite side of an issue. Our natural tendency is to withdraw from those with whom we disagree. That’s a mistake.
HOMILETICS: And that brings up the subject of criticism. A pastor is often a lightning rod for anything that goes wrong, or often gets feedback that’s not always positive. How tough is that?
SISK: We all have thin skins whether we like to admit it or not. Because pastors put their whole identities into what they do, because they lay their souls bare every Sunday, it’s probably inevitable that they take criticism both seriously and personally.
At the same time, it’s important for the pastor to remember that much of what happens in the church is not personal at all and much of people’s criticism even of the pastor is not personal at all. It’s the result of other things that are happening in their lives.
HOMILETICS: But do congregations sometimes forget that any one pastor is vulnerable to criticism from 200 people in a congregation of 200, whereas a professional in another occupation gets criticism in a trickle-down fashion in a hierarchical structure and thus are protected from a riot of criticism coming from all directions?
SISK: I think that’s certainly true. Congregations do tend to think that they have both a right and a responsibility to say whatever it is they have to say about the conduct of the church and the specific actions of the pastor, whereas most of them would never dream of doing that in any kind of official way at work, except in extraordinary circumstances.
One of the realities of American life is that church is one of the few places where people get to express their opinions freely and without substantial consequences for their well-being. If you tell your boss he’s doing it wrong, that might have serious consequences for you. If you tell your pastor he’s doing it wrong, then all you’ve done is give your pastor indigestion!
HOMILETICS: Many pastors are suspicious of pastor-parish boards because they too often become a gripe session about what the pastor is doing wrong.
SISK: They certainly can be exactly that. The key to doing it right is that you have people on the board who understand clearly that they are to represent both the pastor and the congregation. It is their job to defend, protect, and help the pastor as well as to communicate to the pastor the concerns of the congregation. One of the things that helps that is to have people on the committee who are skilled in human resources in the secular world because they bring those skills into that sort of committee relationship.
HOMILETICS: Some congregations, though, are clergy killers.
SISK: Oh, indeed. Lloyd Redeker’s famous book on that subject is a resource that I use with all of my classes. Sometimes a congregation is toxic. When you are in a toxic situation your options are very limited.
HOMILETICS: What if you’re not a people person? Can a pastor truly not be a people person?
SISK: We have certain basic personalities. I’m an introvert, a fairly strong introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale, but I was a pastor for 20 years and my congregations, until I told them, generally didn’t know that I was an introvert. I think a pastor has to function at a certain level because it is a people ministry; you have to function at a level of effectiveness regardless of your particular personality bent. What that means is that you have to make allowances for meeting your own individual needs at the same time that you do your job.
HOMILETICS: Pastors today consider themselves to be professionals, right? And thus they’re interested in excellence and competency in what they do.
SISK: I think we’re still struggling for balance between the pastorate as a profession and the pastorate as a calling. It’s to be a calling from God. That’s clear biblically. If one isn’t called to do this, there are plenty of occupations where you can make more money and have less trouble than in the pastorate. So I find it difficult to believe that anyone in this day and age would choose the pastorate as an easy career path. It’s definitely not.
At the same time we need to function as professionals. And part of bearing witness for the church, part of giving the church a good name in the broader community and with those who might be considering a commitment to Christ, is for a pastor to do his or her job well.
HOMILETICS: You raise an interesting point. A lot of seminarians today are second career people.
SISK: They are, and honestly, I think that’s very valuable. In this school the average age of our students is about 37. Many of them are in their 40s or 50s and entering the ministry as a second career — or third or fourth. What those people bring is an incredibly rich life experience and a clarity about human limitations that younger people sometimes do not possess.
HOMILETICS: But isn’t that also saying that younger people are not looking at parish ministry as a first career option. Is the “call” coming later in life? Often it’s later in life people begin to sense that there’s more to life than what they’ve experienced.
SISK: It seems to vary from year to year. But I do think that the ministry has suffered so much in its public image that some younger people may be less attracted to ministry than they once were. It used to be that the minister was seen as one of the leading citizens in every community of America, but that time, of course, is long gone. To that degree, it may take people longer to work their way through to seeing the ministry as the right occupation or calling for them.
HOMILETICS: You’ve written this book, The Competent Pastor. Who needs to read this book?
SISK: [laughs] It’s written for seminarians who are getting ready to be pastors. It’s written for pastors who want to sharpen their skills. And it’s written for laypeople who may be serving on pastor-search committees and want to think about what characteristics they’re seeking in their next pastor.