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Thriving pastors; a shared responsibility


Dr. Dieter Schoenwetter makes a point in presenting the 2008 Pastoral Trends Survey results

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April 25, 2008
-Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Understanding what makes pastors thrive was at the heart of a Pastoral Trends Survey Colloquium sponsored by Mennonite Church Canada on April 3 and 4.

Close to 30 participants including pastors, area and national church ministers, representatives of Mennonite educational facilities and MC Canada staff met to discuss the results of a Pastoral Trends Survey conducted by MC Canada in late 2007. Social psychologist Dr. Dieter Schoenwetter gathered and interpreted the data. The survey was based upon a similar assessment he previously undertook for the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (CCMBC).

John Neufeld, Leadership Coach of the CCMBC and an integral part of the CCMBC survey, attended the colloquium to offer feedback and suggestions.

Schoenwetter stressed caution in interpreting numerical results of the survey, but was able to identify some significant trends emerging among Mennonite pastors. Comparing the current survey demographics with information gleaned from a database of pastors who served from 1975-2007, he highlighted key issues such as a declining number of new pastors, an aging pastoral population, more associate pastors and fewer youth pastors. He then examined the possible impact these trends could have on pastors, congregations, area churches and the denomination.

In his introductory statement, MC Canada Executive Secretary Robert J. Suderman drew attention to the interrelationship of these entities. “This [colloquium] will focus on how to strengthen pastoral leadership, but it is equally important to ask how pastoral leaders will strengthen the vocation of the church [which] is to engage the world.”

Over two days of discussions, colloquium participants identified three primary criteria required to develop and maintain a healthy pastoral population: platforms for calling people to ministry, access to education, and support systems designed to sustain pastors over the long term.

The survey and ensuing discussions identified the vital role congregations play in calling people to ministry and the positive impact of “shoulder-tapping” or personal invitation. The phrase “culture of call” peppered conversations, clearly indicating the importance of forming definitive ways to invite people into ministry.

“In the past congregations called pastors, but the more recent trend has been to let schools do this,” said Sven Eriksson, MC Canada’s recently retired Denominational Minister. “We need to reconsider the significance of congregations in pastoral formation.”

Survey results revealed a common desire for training beyond initial pastoral education, including access to mentors and spiritual coaches. Although significant instruction is available for pastors in liberal arts, the survey indicated a strong call for tactical education in areas such as leadership, the mentoring process, teamwork development, time management, conflict resolution and dealing with emotions.

A Bachelor of Arts was the highest level of education received by most survey participants, followed by Master of Divinity and then Doctorate degrees.

The survey showed that pastors leave their positions for numerous reasons, including negative motivations such as leadership or congregational conflict, disillusionment and burnout, but Schoenwetter noted that more pastors leave for positive reasons such as continuing education, geographical moves, career advancement, church plants and maternity leave.

The most powerful motivation demonstrated for continuing in pastoral ministry was spousal support followed by an engaged, supportive congregation and then personal development opportunities.

Closing discussions focused on ways in which the national church, area churches and educational institutions can work together to provide ongoing support and nurture for pastors through educational programming and mentoring.

Reflecting upon those conversations, John Neufeld remarked that for ministry, there was no clear articulation of a developmental journey, while training for most vocations defined such a path.

The colloquium was affirming for Doug Klassen, the Lead Pastor at Foothills Mennonite Church in Alberta. “It reinforced for me the need to be working very deliberately at leadership training and ministry involving the whole congregation and to stop looking to the schools as the only place where that can happen.”

The Pastoral Trends Survey Project Committee members included MC Canada staff, Dave Bergen (Executive Secretary, Formation), Lois Bergen (Executive Assistant), Sven Eriksson (Denominational Minister), Pam Peters-Pries (Executive Secretary, Support Services), Conrad Stoesz (Archivist, Mennonite Heritage Centre), and Canadian Mennonite University representatives, Dan Epp-Thiessen (Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies) and Irma Fast Dueck (Assistant Professor of Practical Theology).

An in-depth exploration of the Pastoral Trends Survey implications will take place this summer at MC Canada’s Delegate Assembly and the joint MC Canada/MC USA People’s Summit which follows. Registration information is available on the Mennonite Church Canada website at: