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July 12, 2017

Research: The “stages” of ministry

Matt Bloom

Matt Bloom

By Matt Bloom

Pastors need a "back stage," a place where they can receive the support and care they need to be excellent in ministry and to flourish, according to the Flourishing in Ministry project at the University of Notre Dame.

Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from a research report from the Flourishing in Ministry project at the University of Notre Dame. 

Any time we enact an important role -- pastor, parent, friend, professor -- we have certain expectations about the things we should do and say. Other people also have expectations about what they think or hope we will say and do. More formally, researchers define a role as a set of connected behaviors, goals, obligations, rights, norms, interaction styles, and time horizons that are associated with a particular position or function in a social group. We expect professors to do certain things and act in certain ways. These expectations are the social role.

There are, for example, certain responsibilities that most pastors must perform and pastors must perform these responsibilities well: preaching, teaching, and caring. These responsibilities are nearly universal parts of the pastoral role. There are also expectations about the way pastors should be. Pastors are not only expected to do certain things, they are also expected to have a certain demeanor, certain ways of interacting with people, perhaps even certain ways of speaking. Some of these expectations are proper and reasonable -- they fit the role well. There are common characteristics of most excellent ministries, things most pastors should do to be effective. But other expectations can be inappropriate and unduly constrain pastors into an overly tight box of unreasonable demands.

In our research we find that the more authentic a person can be in their roles, the more stirring and proficient will be their performances. Their wellbeing will also be higher. Other researchers find very similar results. Think of authenticity as being able to express more of your true self in a role. Sometimes actors have to fake a lot -- they must pretend to be the character. Acting is tough enough, but pretending can be more onerous because it requires even more focus, attention, and work. In addition pretending to be someone we are not creates stress and strong internal tensions. We cannot continue pretending without beginning to damage our wellbeing.  But authentic front stage performances must fit or fill the social role -- they are not full-on improvisations to do whatever feels good to the pastor.  Our research shows that when pastors can be more authentic – when they have the skills to perform well in their current ministry role and when they have the latitude to appropriately express their unique call and personality in their ministry work -- they are both more effective and much more likely to flourish.

What makes a good back stage?

A good back stage provides a place to review and improve front stage performance. It is a place to unpack front stage performances, to review what went well and what did not go well and explore what lead to good or poor performances. It is a place to practice and sharpen skills for the front stage. It is a place to rehearse future performances and a place to improvise and generate new ideas for the front stage.

Second, a good back stage provides support and care for actors. It is a place of emotional sustenance where genuine expressions of caring and understanding are offered. Good performances are celebrated, bad performances are commiserated with, and actors receive the nurture and support they need to sustain their wellbeing and to return again to the front stage. Here, each actor is shown that they truly matter to other people. Others act purposefully to help sustain each actor’s sense of efficacy and self-worth. Actors are accepted within a network of caring others.

Third, a good back stage helps actors deal well with the inevitable stresses, challenges and failures they will experience on the front stage. Other people in the back stage help actors adopt effective strategies for coping with the normal stress that are part of the front stage. In the back stage a distressed actor can receive information and personal advice to help them resolve problems or adapt to challenges. Coping assistance is a stress buffer because -- when successful -- it quite literally lessens situational demands and helps ameliorate an actor’s emotional reactions to those demands.

The right people for a good back stage

Having the right people in a back stage is essential. Significant others such as family and friends can be helpful, but most important are similar others, people who have experienced the front stage and, ideally, people who have filled similar roles themselves. Similar others can provide uniquely important social support.

First, while significant others can sympathize, similar others can empathize. Because of their previous experience on the front stage, similar others have an in-depth understanding of the many dimensions and nuances of the front stage. They can really imagine what a stressful or challenging situation is like. It is such a relief to be understood by someone else, to have someone who can truly commiserate with and validate our experiences. Similar others can grasp the full meaning and implications of the stressful situation that another actor faces. This capacity for empathic understanding provides distressed actors with opportunities to ventilate their feelings and worries with less fear of criticism or sanction. Sometimes getting something “off your chest” is all a person needs to be able to perform well again on the front stage. Researcher Peggy Thoits refers to this as “ventilation and validation” and she notes that it can reduce experiences of stress and restores wellbeing.

Secondly, similar others can provide valid feedback about front stage performance. They can provide expert critiques because they really know what kinds of performance are best and what is required to get those best performances. They can reinforce other actors’ strengths and provide real insights into opportunities for improvement. In most cases, the evaluations and appraisals of similar others are much more accurate than those of significant others or people from the audience. Similar others can provide personalized advice and counsel, tailoring their support and help to a particular actor and to the role that actor is striving to fill.

Thirdly, similar others can provide what Professor Thoits calls active coping assistance to help other actors deal with stressors and crises. Because they are experienced experts, similar others are in a position to understand and make more accurate evaluations and appraisals of the situation. They can provide help that is closely tailored to the specific nuances of a particular problematic situation. And, their commiseration can dampen another actor’s despair by lessening situational demands and negative feelings directly.

Lastly, wise and experienced similar others -- we call them wise guides rather than mentors -- can serve as role models to be learned from and emulated. Wise guides have their own repertoire of effective problem-solving strategies to share and their own experiences from which other actors might learn. They can inspire hope and help other actors find again the meaning and purpose of their front stage. Wise guides can help other actors imagine a better future and a better self toward which they can aspire. They share their own experiences of the highs and lows of the front stage. By describing their own journey, wise guides provide a way for other actors to reflect on their own journey. They are mentors but also much more. Wise guides are friends and companions, caregivers and care receivers, fellow travelers on a journey through life.