Care, discipline and courageous conversations – effective pastoral leadership


Is there a difference between pastoral care and pastoral oversight or leadership? I think so; however, I am aware that many assume both terms refer to the same thing.

For our life as a vibrant church I think we need a clear distinction between pastoral care and pastoral leadership. The latter is a requirement in many recognised roles and responsibilities such as elders, leaders (lay and ordained) and those exercising presbytery responsibilities such as chairperson and pastoral relations committee.

Pastoral leadership may involve pastoral care, however, it is not its dominant characteristic or priority. 

All leadership expressions within our Church should be saturated with care; however the term ‘pastoral’ as it applies in pastoral leadership is as much about discipline and courageous conversations, conflict resolution and the effectiveness of timely and appropriate feedback. The term pastoral prompts the image of a shepherd who both constrains and guides, as well as comforts and protects.

When the image of the shepherd is portrayed in terms such as ‘meek and mild’ and reflected in a particular view of Jesus, then our leadership within the church communities becomes distorted. (As an aside, such a view of Jesus as meek and mild is unsustainable with a close reading of the Gospel stories!)

Pastoral leadership is anything but meek and mild.

In my checklist of attributes for pastoral leadership I would include: trustworthy leadership that ensures effective maintenance of agreed upon and recognised roles including the exercise of power and authority; ability to constrain excessive behaviours that damage the fabric of a community; willingness to have courageous conversations identifying unhelpful behaviour; and being willing and able to offer effective feedback to ensure the dynamics of relationships within congregations and councils are as healthy as can be.

Specifically, I want to highlight three elements.

Pastoral leadership is about care. It displays care for all in good times as well as difficult and challenging times. Leadership is exercised in a way that cares for the wellbeing of individuals yet does not allow care of individuals to override the care and wellbeing of community life, be it a congregation, church council, PRC or a working group. This means willingness to challenge or offer feedback on how an individual’s or group’s behaviour is affecting the community. It also involves reflecting back to the community how it is faring – where the stumbling blocks are being experienced, where relationships are assisting (or not) the progress of the community and where coalitions are affecting the community.

Pastoral leadership is about discipline. The meaning of discipline can be distorted if only understood in terms of punitive actions. I suggest in the life of our church that discipline primarily encompasses correction or realignment. Pastoral leadership, at its best, offers leadership in aligning the community and individuals to the gospel values and vision for us as a people of God. It is about seeking pathways to correct misalignment with agreed upon goals – whether in an individual’s behaviour or a community dynamic.

This correction is not about punishment, rather it is about restoration and maintenance of the integrity of community decision-making and relationships, all of which need to be congruent with agreed-upon vision and goals.

Pastoral leadership is about courageous conversations. Conversations that are constructive, brave and offer feedback and care are crucial. Identifying and naming unhelpful and destructive behaviour takes courage and careful preparation to ensure that the feedback is interpreted in helpful and constructive ways. The tendency of a leader to ‘let things slide’ and take the less confronting pathway may serve us occasionally, yet in the long run creates an unhealthy and untrustworthy basis for relationships and decision-making.

There is a tendency in the Uniting Church to claim we are hamstrung around questions of leadership, authority and power because of our flat structure and emphasis on collaborative leadership. However, to vacate the responsibility of pastoral leadership is not the way forward. It is certainly unhelpful to redefine it only in terms of pastoral care. Our flat structures and concepts of shared leadership mean there is a higher call on us to pay more attention to the character of this leadership and to navigate the intricacies of pastoral leadership within our church.

To exercise pastoral leadership demands that such leaders are fully grounded and mature in both their personal development and in their faith. Those exercising this leadership need to welcome correction and realignment, receive care and be open to feedback from colleagues and communities for whom they are responsible. 

It is a precious responsibility to participate in leadership within our communities – always to be exercised from a foundation of love and integrity.

This is a conversation that we in the Centre for Theology and Ministry’s Living Leadership program would like to continue to explore with colleagues across the synod. On the afternoon (4pm-6pm) of the Synod opening worship (Friday 8 August) in the synod office at 130 Little Collins Street, you are invited to participate in exploring more deeply the role of pastoral leadership and its implications for the Church in congregations and presbyteries.

Jennifer Byrnes

Executive Director


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