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Getting Inside Your Pastor’s Head

by Alan Nelson

I guess I am a freak of nature. While many ministry people move from working with children and youth to become senior pastors, I am sort of the opposite. After twenty years of pastoring, seventeen of which I was the lead pastor, I became the executive editor of Rev! magazine, which involved even more work with pastors of the senior sort. My passion was leadership development. Having written several books on leadership and church development, I have had the opportunity to teach and train pastors around the country. But after a decade of this, I began to think there must be a better way to grow leaders.

George Barna told me, “Focus on kids.” At first, I blew off his friendly advice since I was not much of a children’s worker. “After all, I am a leadership development expert,” I said to myself. But after some research and God-wrestling, I came to the conclusion that it is true. If you want to raise effective, ethical leaders, you need to get them while they are moldable. This is why I created LeadNow, the only concentrated leadership-training program for 10-to-14-year-olds. Not long ago, after three years of prototyping this executive-quality curriculum to identify aptitude and train preteens, I gave up my paycheck and benefits to launch a national nonprofit called KidLead. While my former colleagues might suggest I am devolving, I beg to differ.

Having seen both sides of the age-group fence, I have no doubt there exists a gulf between most senior/lead pastors and children’s ministries. Even good pastors, providing modest support for children’s ministry in their church, usually fail to understand how vital it is to the kingdom. While admitting this would be political suicide, we senior pastors treat children’s ministry as if it is just one of the several sub-ministry equals. But it should not be. Family and children’s ministry is key to our future.

Partial blame certainly lies on the side of the pastor, who is likely consumed with the overarching church infrastructure and a personal bias of leading his fellow adults. Much of this is due to personal calling, and grown-ups are the ones who give the money to support all the ministries in the church. But a savvy children’s director can do a lot to advance the cause of kids by getting inside the pastor’s head. Here are ten effective ideas to accomplish this.

  1. Get to know thy pastor personally. Can you name his pet peeves? What is his personality type? What is he passionate about? Can you quickly name his three biggest strengths and weaknesses? What are his hobbies? What is his communication preference? If your pastor is not that open, then do some digging, because the more you know about your pastor personally, the more effective you will be in building a bridge for your ministry.
  2. Provide unsolicited, updated reports. Your pastor is likely busy and often not apt to ask you for a regular report, so providing a one-page synopsis once or twice a month is key. Include attendance. Describe event postmortems and what is ahead. Tell your people connections and any of potential interest to him. Include potential problems, but also how you are addressing the proactively. Convey the attitude of “just keeping you informed, Pastor.”
  3. Initiate meetings. Do not confuse his being preoccupied with disinterest. Any savvy pastor knows the benefit of a health children’s ministry, but the bottom line is that most pastors are spinning plates in different areas. Yet do not assume silence is golden. If a problem arises where you have not paved a way to communicate clearly, you will hamper your reputation and potentially set back the ministry you love. Get on his calendar at least fifteen minutes bimonthly, whether you are paid or volunteer, in a mega- or micro-church. Make up excuses to meet or provide a verbal update, but one-on-one face time is vital.
  4. Come with an agenda in hand. Even congenial senior pastors are thinking to themselves, “Please do not waste my time.” For most of them, task trumps relationships, but realize you are building a relationship just by getting together to discuss a task, need, agenda item or clarification. If your church does not allow private male-female time with the senior pastor, do not let that hamper a meeting. Do what it takes to keep protocol, bring a team member.
  5. Bring potential solutions when you raise problems. If you only meet when you have a problem you will be bad news whenever he sees you coming. This is simple stimulus-response conditioning. We do not enjoy being around people associated with negative information. Show that you have pre-thought the situation and that he has hired a leader in children’s ministry. Asking for his advice acknowledges that you are open to coaching and respect his wisdom.
  6. Keep the big picture in mind. One of the biggest frustrations that pastors have with most staff members is the latter’s tunnel vision. The pastor, more than anyone else, sees the big view. So be sure to remember the mother ship. Know why it is you have the opportunity to do your ministry and from where your budget, salary (small as it may be), facilities and workers come. In your meetings, note how your ministry fits the overall goals of the church. Avoid the danger of silo thinking, where ministries become islands, drift and eventually atrophy. Use similar words and phrases when describing your work and plans to the pastor.
  7. Educate your leader. Pass along articles, book summaries and statistics on children and families that he can potentially use in his sermons. Keep them brief but do this well and consistently. Pharmaceutical reps provide this as a value-added service to doctors. Although their job is to sell drugs, they also highlight research and recent medical studies for busy physicians who may not have time to read up on what is happening in the field. Plus doing this allows you to set the agenda in the field.
  8. Arrange for pastor drop-ins. If the pastor did a great staff devotional or board-training session, ask him if he would be willing to present it to your teaching staff. Invite the pastor to be a special guest at a children’s event or family function. Provide an opportunity for him to be the hero and interact with others in your ministry. If possible, keep if brief and avoid adding extra work. If you have to, come up with reasonable excuses for getting him into your area and interact with your staff and kids. This also affirms your leadership among your staff by demonstrating your influence on the leader.
  9. Vie for “up-front” time. The larger the church becomes, the more difficult it is to get into the worship service announcements, bulletin and church marketing. Do your best to make your wheel squeak. Do a short video after a VBS or big event. Make your announcements fun and engaging. Ask for the pastor’s voice as an advocate. Because of his rapport with “big church” constituents, nothing beats his voice in raising money, workers and involvement. The church as a whole does not know you because either they do not have kids in your program and/or you are sequestered “in the back” during their service.
  10. Develop advocates who add ballast to your voice. Who has the pastor’s ear? Who loves what you do, whom you can educate, inform and inspire and who has influence on the pastor? Who is your ally on the church board? Some churches do this formally, but most do not. Be sure that you are not the sole voice in representing children’s ministry to your pastor. Establish reports and face time with others to whom your pastor listens. This is important to do before you need help in selling a big idea or putting out a fire.

The goal is not manipulation, but acceleration. You are the primary lobbyist for children’s ministry in your church, so staying close to the “power brokers” is vital. Just because we know the importance of children and preteens does not mean everyone else does. You need to be savvy and shrewd in how you gain influence of others to elevate this value.

The process is called “leading up.” Rarely are we ever taught or trained how to influence our superiors. But with intentional, proactive effort, you can elevate the value of children’s ministry in your church as a whole. This means bigger budgets, fewer conflicts, greater emphasis and, who knows, maybe even a healthy raise for you. One of the most important things you can do for your children has little to do with your children, but rather gently herding the shepherd of the flock.

Alan E. Nelson, EdD (Monterey, CA) was a senior pastor for twenty years and is the founder of KidLead Inc. (www.kidlead.com), a non-profit providing young leader training curriculum globally. He is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of “Growing Great Leaders.”

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