At the advanced age of 62, I bought my first truck. I didn’t really need a truck, I tried to tell myself, but having a truck is something no one really needs until you need it. And then you need it. So, to ward off any future problems like that, I bought one.
I really didn’t negotiate that hard for it. On the day I bought it, I went to the dealership to ‘just look.’ They saw me coming. And when the salesman referred to this truck as the ‘Cement Taco’, I was done for. Cement Taco sounded like the name of garage band I might have tried to organize in my younger years. But the salesman used the name like a nickname for my new truck. It was a Taco (short for Tacoma) and it was the color of cement. An hour later I drove it home.
I have gotten a good deal of mileage out of that truck, as it were. Not actual mileage—it’s only logged two thousand miles after four months. But my Cement Taco has helped me revise my vision of roles and leadership in ministry. It turns out, it’s a tremendously helpful metaphor for some of the church leaders I’ve coached since driving it off the lot.
Most of the leaders that I work with are Rectors or Senior Pastors of churches. They all want to grow and excel in a role that’s often daunting. They come to me with problems with their Vestry or their staff; they come and talk about their churches and how flat they are, in attendance or new members. And they often confess a confusion over their roles and responsibilities with their role as Rector. This is where the Cement Taco comes in. I’ll open my mobile phone and show them a photograph of my truck, and I tell them that everything they need to know about their role is right there.
The role of Rector is simple. Very simple. It is difficult to do. But is so simple to understand.
See Clearly: A Ministry of Declaration
The first assignment of the parish leader is to look through the windshield and declare the direction and the route that is to be taken. I am careful not to use the word “Vision” here. Vision is more about distant horizons and it takes more than just vision to lead a church. No, I mean to say that the senior leader has the specific challenge and obligation to ‘declare’ the direction for the entire, unified congregation. This is the place to which we are going. This is our future. This is what I see through the windshield.
(Windshields are remarkably clean on brand new vehicles, I might add.)
Think of Moses and the tremendous task of declaring a future before the people of Israel. He had to define the direction. He had to point to the future. But he had to do something more and (I would say) even more difficult. He had to describe what he saw and what it would mean for God’s people. He had to tell the people what they were going to have and do in the new land. And he does so masterfully.
Deuteronomy 8 (ESV)
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.
Do you see what he is doing? He is telling people that their future is going to be different. It is going to change. There is going to be water flowing from the mountains. There are going to be dates and fruits and honey in plenty. There is going to be tremendous property; ore and rich minerals are going to be found just below the surface of the earth.
This is the role of the Rector: to describe, in as much detail as possible, what the future is going to look like. What the people will be able to do.
In fulfilling this role of Declaration, the Rector can and should take counsel. The picture of the future should not be impulsively or carelessly drawn. But my point is simply this: no one besides the Rector can do this.
Let me say it another way: Woe to the Assistant to the Rector that attempts to do this job. Woe to the Vestry Wardens that might attempt it. And, if I may be wary of the Bishop that attempts to impose His plan on a congregation. This ministry of Declaration is the purview of the Rector. Period. There are no exceptions.
To return to my new truck for a moment, there is only one driver at a time of the Cement Taco. Anyone else who attempts to declare the future or announce the direction of the church is either a back-seat driver (notice there is a back seat to the Cement Taco) or about ready to open the door.
Direction and intention can be mutually agreed upon. And certainly, you will need help navigating while you have your hands on the wheel. But I have counseled and coached many leaders who confused ‘collaboration’ with ‘abdication.’ They have actually let the passengers take the wheel, so to speak. It cannot be so. This is the role and responsibility of leadership: DECLARATION.
Remember Faithfully: A Ministry of Interpretation
The second key role that the Rector plays in the life of the church is to look in the rear-view mirrors and help the church understand and interpret their past. This is primarily a ministry of remembrance, an ability to see the past for what it was in the great story of God’s work in the world.
In the life of a congregation, there are ‘glory days.’ These times are teeming with new families and ministries that feel focused and energetic. And there are also times in the life of a church that present major difficulties. These times tell the story of shared suffering and perseverance. The Rector must see all of this in the rear-view mirror.
For example, many in our tribe of Anglicanism have struggled with past leadership traumas. Decisions were made that turned out to have a disastrous impact. One church I know decided to take in a school and share space. The result was a near-total shut down of the church’s ministry. I know the Vestry prayed and I know that the Rector was a champion for the cause. But even then decisions can be wrong. Yes, it is true. A vestry can decide to do something after a few months of prayer and discover that it was NOT the will of God.
This is a vital piece of honest and transparent communication from the Rector and leadership team. It is a bit of ‘looking behind’ into the past and determining that we were wrong or that events conspired against us. We called the wrong person to work in our youth ministry. We made a time change on Sunday that decimated our children’s ministry.
Again, just to reiterate, just because you seek the Lord and find agreement and clarity, does not make it a certain thing. Did you know, for example, that the great Apostle Paul’s commitment to go to Macedonia was the result of trial and error? We should all take great comfort in the number of times that Peter’s impulse was dead wrong.
The Rector is the one who should not only declare the future direction with confidence but must also look into the past and interpret. Telling your church’s story can’t just be a triumphant catalog of successes that glosses over failures, that whitewashes painful experiences. Instead, the Rector’s task is to answer more complicated questions: What was God doing then? Where was he telling up to go? How has the Lord’s blessing and fingerprints guided and directed us?
Faith is not only looking ahead for direction; it is also remembering what God has done in the past. It is remembering God’s faithfulness even (and most especially) when we have wandered. Memory is the muscle we use to build and exercise our faith.
Pack Wisely: A Ministry of Administration
There is one more essential role in the role of the Rector that makes the position so terrifying and important: a ministry of provision. Looking forward to the future and recognizing the past, the Rector must finally decide on the provision that will be needed for the journey. What is it that Rectors are there to provide? Well, everything that will be needed. He or she is not responsible for doing everything, of course. But the Rector is responsible that everything is somehow provided for.
This is a good way to think about the often cluttered and disconnected programs in the church congregation, as sacred as they may be. A church leader is totally responsible for looking at the panoply of programs and activities that the church is doing and asking the hard question about sustainability. Are we going somewhere where we need to be able to do this? If not, let’s stop it.
When you own a truck, you discover friends you forgot you had. They call out of the blue wanting to catch up and, oh by the way, would you mind helping them move next week? Truck owners know the conversation well. But the Cement Taco can only hold so much cargo—it’s not a moving van. It’s only going to hold the essentials.
I consulted with a church a few months ago that was losing their property in a legal transaction. They were having to move. But they were really struggling with what to pack for the next leg of their journey. They wanted to take it all—all the programs, all the leadership structures—but they were beginning to ask the tough questions: What do we actually need?
More churches resonate with this than you would ever imagine. Because there are moments in every church’s life when capacities will be stretches and limits will be reached. Those are challenging moments, but they are also opportunities to clarify your mission and hone your ministry. And once the needs are known, the Rector must provide the space and resources for ministries and leaders to flourish.
You see how these roles work together. Before a congregation figures out what it needs for the journey (provision), it must know where it’s headed (declaration). And the necessary discernment for that declaration can only happen as a congregation remembers where they have been and how God has worked in the life of the church (interpretation).
Yes, I take pride in the Cement Taco. Not just because I’ve joined the ranks of ‘truck owners’, but because it’s helped me understand how leaders must lead in the difficult days that lie ahead of them. I’d love to help you and your church navigate those times—just reach out to me. I may show up in my new truck.