Healthy Ministries Require Healthy Leaders

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian Wallace
Associate Minister for Emerging Ministries &
Acting Head of Staff
Thursday, January 18, 2024

Healthy Ministries Require Healthy Leaders

In July of 2007, our oldest child was born.  We had been married for just over a year and, at the ripe old age of twenty-six, found ourselves as parents to a new baby.

It was, and remains, awesome.

Just before the birth, our Head of Staff came to me and told me that the Personnel Committee had voted to give me a week of paternity leave (in addition to my regular vacation time).  Until then, I don’t think I had ever heard of paternity leave, much less contemplated asking for it.  But, looking back on it, it was huge.  Paternity leave, while more common now, was a foreign concept at that time, and being given the freedom to take that week and not have to tap into my vacation was nice.  And, truth be told, even once that week was over, everyone was great about granting me the flexibility to run home for lunch and deal with the inevitable curve balls that come with a newborn.  Years later, when my father was dealing with some unexpected health challenges, that same flexibility was once again present.

In hindsight, I can say one thing with certainty: The time away and added flexibility afforded to me during that stage of our family’s life was a priceless gift.  One I have only come to truly appreciate in my more recent years.  And not only was it a gift to me personally, but it has helped shape my view of ministry in a positive manner.  Let me explain.

One of my mentors has a phrase: Healthy ministries require healthy leaders.  While I think this is true of vocation in general, I think it’s especially true in the ministry world. If someone isn’t emotionally, spiritually, and physically in a healthy space, it will be challenging, if not impossible, for them to lead a healthy ministry.  This is the reason why, in more recent years, we’ve placed such an emphasis on self-care and healthy boundaries for clergy and other church leaders.  Self-care isn’t just for the sake of the pastor/leader but for the ministry to which they are connected to as well.

In 2022, the General Assembly passed many changes to our Book of Order.  Like always, some of these changes are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while others are very significant and will have a direct impact on our churches and pastors.  Two of the changes I want to highlight fall into the second category.

The first relates to leave for Pastors.  Pittsburgh Presbytery has had a Parental and Family Leave Policy for several years.  Now, the Book of Order requires that every pastor in an installed position receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parental, family, and personal reasons, with personal being a new category covering situations where a pastor has experienced a significant loss or tragic event.  In response, the COM has updated our leave policy to meet the Book of Order requirements and extended the same provisions to those in Covenant Pastor relationships.  The truth is that being a pastor includes living a fully human life, which means that the natural events of life (some celebratory, some not so much) still occur, and when they do, pastors, just like anyone else, need time to focus on what is most important in that moment.  Again, not just for their sake but for the sake of the ministries they lead.  Remember, healthy ministries require healthy leaders.

That being said, in the words of Richards Reeves, two things can be true at the same time.  Regardless of circumstances, periods of pastoral leave can pose an incredible challenge and hardship for the congregation.  From figuring out the basics (who is going to preach, moderate, and make hospital visits) to the logistical questions (How are we going to pay for this? Who is responsible for scheduling?) to the bigger picture questions (How are we going to do without a Pastor?). To put it succinctly: Sunday is coming, what are we going to do?  This is particularly true for situations where there is just one pastor and few other staff members who can share the responsibilities for a season.

The opening line of our purpose statement as a Presbytery says: “Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community of Jesus Christ…”  While mission/purpose statements are often idle placeholders, I think this truth directly applies to this situation.  In my view, it is essential that our covenantal and, therefore, connectional nature is at the forefront of supporting both our congregations and our pastors when circumstances necessitate time away for the pastor.  I believe it is in the best interest of our shared ministry that the resources, financial and relational, of the Presbytery be fully engaged in seasons in which a pastor needs to step away from their regular responsibilities.

To that end, the Commission on Ministry and Executive Committee have taken two actions:

  1. As mentioned, the COM has updated its Parental, Family, and Personal Leave Policy. And, to help pastors and church leaders understand how the policy will work and to prepare should the need arise, COM is hosting a webinar via Zoom to lay out the details and address any questions that might arise.   You can find more information and register for the webinar here.
  2. The Executive Committee, as part of its 2024 Budget, recommended (and the body approved) the creation of the Parental, Family, and Personal Leave Grant Fund. In short, when a pastor needs time away, the Presbytery will be able to provide financial support directly to the congregation.  Details regarding this grant program will be included as part of the webinar.

The webinar will also include information on another new policy of the Commission on Ministry – The Dissolution of Terms policy.  This policy relates to situations where a Pastoral relationship needs to end due to extraordinary circumstances (anything other than someone taking a new position or moving into retirement).  The goal of this policy, like the leave policy, is to help a pastor transition out of a call in a healthy way and smoothly into a new role.

I quoted part of our current purposes statement earlier, but I want you to see the whole thing: Pittsburgh Presbytery is a covenant community of Jesus Christ that exists to assist and support the witness of our congregations and members as we actively participate in the mission of the Triune God in the world. 

The test of this purpose, of our covenant nature and our promises to support each other, comes when the stakes are the highest.  Whether it be the planned arrival of a new baby or the surprise of having to take responsibility for a friend or family member due to tragedy.  Whether it be the death of a loved one, a completely unexpected medical event, or a personal loss where the pain is too deep to “carry on,” it is in those moments in which I believe, as Presbytery, we’re called to join together and provide support for our congregations and pastors. Not just for their sake but for our sake, as a covenant community, that our love might shine through the darkness.

Every so often, I wonder what it would be like if the church I had served hadn’t been so generous and flexible (after all, they didn’t have to do that).  To be honest, I shudder at the thought.  I wonder what my view of ministry, of the church, and the strange and wonderful calling of “pastor” would be if, at that time, the saints I served had acted differently.  Sadly, not everyone’s experience is like mine, and that is to the detriment of both our pastors and congregations.

It’s my hope, my prayer, that as Presbytery, when pastors encounter life-changing circumstances of all varieties, we can join together human and financial resources, not for our own sake but for the mission of the Triune God in the world.

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