Strong pastor = stronger church

New coaching initiative helps core group of UM pastors reach top potential

By Jessica Connor

Nothing less than the best.

In these trying times, when church attendance is dwindling and worship competes with ball practice, shopping and TV-watching, the United Methodist Church is putting increasing importance on developing principled Christian leaders who are willing to go the extra mile to achieve excellence.

In South Carolina, one new initiative is helping African-American pastors do just that.

The Leadership Development Coaching Initiative, a nine-month pilot project that started in September, provides ongoing, sustained learning and coaching to help pastors reach their fullest potential and be the strongest Christian leaders they can be.

Ten S.C. pastors are participating—the Revs. Pattie Gordon, Ellis White, Cathy Mitchell, Stephen Love, Dwight Nelson, Jeffery Salley, Jackie Carter Harris, Leatha Brown, Telley Lynnette Gadson and J.C. Lane—from congregations with strong potential for revitalization and growth.

Local churches need leaders, said the Rev. Ken Nelson, project director and congregational specialist, African-American ministries, for the S.C. Conference. This is not a time for leaders who are ambivalent, reluctant or unwilling to walk forward with humility and courage. We need leaders who will settle for nothing less than excellence from themselves, and thus by their example and ability can call this forth in the life and ministry of the congregations where they serve.

With the exception of two face-to-face sessions, the pastors are coached by phone around specific objectives twice a month: once in a group conference call, once in an individual session.

The project was developed by Dr. Larry Ousley, with the Intentional Growth Center at Lake Junaluska, N.C., with Dr. Carl Arrington, director of African-American Ministries and coordinator of Social Justice and Ethnic Ministries at Lake Junaluska, who also serve as coaches for the initiative.

The objectives include self-care, spirituality, developing a shared vision for a congregation s ministry, using a team approach with staff, increasing worship attendance, increasing financial giving, developing lay leaders, developing new ministries, crafting a personal plan for continuing education and developing a new ministry tool or strategy.

It s effective because the heart of it is based in coaching, which really allows people to discover and use their gifts to draw them out to call them forth, said Ousley, calling the initiative a hybrid experience that combines the best of a lot of different things.

Also effective is that there are definite, measurable outcomes, many based on hard data, though others are more subjective. Participants check in with their coaches and each other to ensure they stay on track, keeping records of attendance, giving and more.

I think one of the most important things is it gives people an opportunity and a method by which to be intentional about their work, to be able to identify and have a sense of accountability, Arrington said. People are watching over each other in love to help them achieve their goals. You know there are things you want and need to do, but it gives you an extra push to know that when you come back together, there are people listening.

The S.C. Conference put up part of the funds for the initiative, receiving a matching grant from the General Board of Global Ministries. Each participant pays $100 toward tuition so they have some financial stake in it, Ousley said.

While all of the leadership skill sets are important, coaches are most enthused about the emphasis on self-care and spirituality, which Ousley calls the roots.

Arrington feels strongly that the participants understand how integral it is to take care of their physical, emotional and spiritual health. And he doesn t just mean diet and exercise.

Many pastors might read or listen to sermons or go to training experiences, but we want you to do something specifically for your own spiritual growth ... time to sit down with God and connect with God on a personal level, Arrington said. Because what we ve discovered is, by doing that, it keeps you on track as a pastor and on track with who you are and to serve your people.

Mitchell, who pastors St. James UMC, Sumter, said the initiative has been an invaluable tool for her.

This coaching initiative is good for the conference in that it transforms good pastors into great pastors, she said. Conference gatherings and district gatherings are valuable tools for fellowship, but coaching takes it to a higher level. Someone once said, ˜In order to receive something different, you have to do something different. We can t afford to keep doing the same old things in our churches and expect different results.

White, who pastors Camden First UMC, said the initiative has helped him approach ministry and life in new ways.

Too often we as clergy find ourselves not connected with a support group beyond our friends, when our connection has so much to offer, he said. It opens up a network that is without bias and competition, and for its duration, it will bring about community.

Gadson, who pastors St. Mark UMC in Sumter, said it is a great opportunity.

Our Annual Conference is to be commended for this new paradigm in leadership development, she said. We have been called from different districts, different experiences and different perspectives to the table of ministry commonality. From my view, this program will continue to speak life to us and blow breath into us as we serve God and God s people for such a time as this.

The coaches are talking to the Mississippi, North Georgia and California-Pacific annual conferences as potential next stops when the S.C. coaching wraps up in May. Ousley said part of the challenge is not the program model, which is strong, but the creation of different funding models for conferences with very slender (or nonexistent) budgets.

But at least in South Carolina, 10 African-American pastors are well on their way to stronger leadership skills “ and a stronger local church “ thanks to the vision of this Annual Conference.

I believe that three of the most significant encumbrances to effective, vital congregations are ineffective leadership, a lack of vision and a lack of partnership between the laity and clergy, Nelson said. The coaching initiative addresses all three of these factors in very specific ways and builds upon the strengths that these pastors already possess.

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