Pastoral Perceptivity: An Essential Tool for Ministry

Chuck FullerChuck Fuller, Ministry Tools

I tried to join my friend’s sense of accomplishment as he told me the story over the phone. From his very first day as pastor of a high profile church in rural community, he had set his sights on a new ministry model—something that he believed would put the church on the cutting edge—something that would eliminate miles of red tape and years of stale tradition. He had a plan! In print, his plan was nearly a half-inch thick—a manual detailing the way his church would do ministry. It defined staff roles, reorganized committees into ministry teams, provided clear lines of authority and communication, and unified the whole structure under a succinct, catchy vision statement. The strategy teemed with brilliance—the pastor’s remarkable administrative gifts were on display for all to see.

He failed to see, though, that his plan for success fostered his failure at the church. With excitement, he said, “We did it! It passed in business meeting last night! It received 67% of the vote, so now we can start putting it in place.” The enthusiasm in his voice caused fear in my heart. I was afraid that he had not won a war, but started one. Indeed, resistance rose and accusations flew at an ever-increasing pace over the next three years until, utterly exhausted and bewildered, my friend resigned.

The problem was not his plan. The problem was not the people. The problem was a lack of perceptivity. My friend failed to perceive that he was not confronting an outdated ministry model, but a deeply ingrained culture—a mode of operation that the people, under various pastors, had fostered over the course of decades—even generations! He was not merely trying to change how they functioned, but who they were. He failed to perceive that the prerequisite to such radical change is radical trust—a level of trust that may be impossible to foster in two short years as pastor. Finally, my friend failed to perceive that winning a simple majority in a church business meeting is not victory. A 67% vote only reveals division and insures more conflict. More times than not, it takes a 90% or better vote to implement change smoothly.

The term “pastoral perceptivity” might be defined as a pastor’s ability to sense the level of trust he has with his congregation, and his ability to know how the people will hear and receive his ideas. Dr. Hershael W. York, a mentor of mine, compares a congregation’s good will toward a pastor to a bag of poker chips (pardon the gambling allusion!). When a pastor first arrives, the church is eager to receive him, trust him, and shower him with love. It’s the honeymoon and the bag is nearly full of chips. But every change costs him chips, and the bigger the change, the more chips it costs. For example, a minor change in the worship service, such as moving the announcements from the beginning to the end, will cost him hardly any chips. If, however, he wants completely to change the worship style (say, from traditional to contemporary), it may cost him every chip he has. If he continues to push for change on an empty bag, his credibility will plummet and resistance will rise. A pastor replenishes his chips by doing essential ministry tasks in an excellent way: delivering engaging sermons, making regular visits to the sick and shut-in, being gracious in the face of conflict, winning souls for Christ, and working to increase attendance and offerings. If his wife chooses to be visible in the congregation, she will win for him many chips. York claims, “A successful pastoral leader has a keen, even uncanny ability to know two things: how many chips a particular issue or change will cost him and how many chips he has left in the bag.”[1] A wise pastor knows when he has the credibility to proceed with change and when he needs to step back and replenish his bag.

When I was a youth minister, I worked under a pastor who was highly skilled at pastoral perceptivity. He successfully led a small, tightly knit, rural congregation to growth and spiritual vitality. During his time as pastor, the church hired two new staff positions, launched an intentional evangelism ministry, started a sports outreach for children, and built a new sanctuary—all with near zero conflict. He seemed always to know exactly when to push for change and when to back off. He knew what battles were the most important to win, which ones he could win, and which ones he would have to postpone. He typically knew how a business meeting would go even before it started. He could predict a vote with pinpoint accuracy. He knew how people would receive his plans, and would often tell me in advance who would resist and for what reasons. For a time, I assumed that this was some special, extraordinary ability—a supernatural, spiritual gift that somehow did not make the lists in the New Testament!

Over time, though, I came to realize what he had embraced: the key to pastoral perceptivity is relational connection. He poured his very life into the congregation—showing up not only at hospitals and funeral homes, but also at high school football games and church softball tournaments. He found his way into the schools and onto the farms. He went to where the men worked and the children played. He worked relentlessly to learn names and follow-up with visitors. On Sundays, he was careful to connect with the people that he would only see for that one hour a week. He diligently honored the church’s long-established leadership, spending enormous amounts of time with deacons and committee chairs. He patiently listened to all sides of a debate, and always kept his cool. In short, he knew the people, and by knowing them, he could perceive them. The more he perceived them, the more capable he was to lead them, and the more they came to trust him. He gave honor where it was due (Romans 12-13); shared the gospel and his life with the people (1 Thessalonians 2:8); and patiently shepherded the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-5). He embraced a New Testament, apostolic model for pastoral ministry that fostered his perceptivity and resulted in growth and unity!

Pastoral perceptivity is essential for faithful ministry. You must accurately gauge your level of credibility, you must know how the people will receive your ideas. The key to pastoral perceptivity is relational connection, and the keys to relational connection are found in the New Testament pattern for ministry. Look to Scripture, listen to your people, build your trust, and lead for His glory.

[1]Hershael W. York, “How to Implement and Sustain Change in a Local Church,” Towers 8, vol 13 (12 April 2010): 4.