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What does it take to effectively minister in today’s church? Pastors, ruling elders and deacons across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have had to learn the hard way over the past 15 to 16 months as the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way church leaders minister to their congregations.

The Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka believes there are two important characteristics for every church leader, especially in today’s church: resilience and imagination.

“While teaching at Columbia [Theological Seminary], we began to look at congregational ministry and tried to understand the practices and gifts church leaders in the 21st century would need and these things came up,” he said. “Everything focuses on life of a congregation and has to be shaped by leaders who provide resilience and imagination, God-given and shaped by the Holy Spirit.”

Nishioka serves as senior associate pastor and director of adult faith formation at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, with a membership of 5,000.

“I was called here after serving 15 years on faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary, where I taught faith formation,” he said. “It came as a surprise to me that I would come to a congregational setting, but I’m grateful. I really do think that the future of our church has to rest in our congregation, and that’s the essence of what we do and who we are.”

Nishioka has also been writing articles for Regarding Ruling Elders, a monthly online series. During the Year of Leader Formation, a yearlong initiative launched by the Office of the General Assembly focusing on deacons and ruling elders, the articles have a specific focus on ecclesial formation.

The pandemic, he says, has forced pastors and other church leaders to think outside the box.

“I remember a colleague talking about Zoom a few years ago saying it was an interesting concept but why would we ever need to know this? When the pandemic happened, we had to find different platforms in order to connect people virtually and safely,” Nishioka said. “Leadership that has been imaginative and courageous to be resilient began to thrive. The congregations that have struggled the most are those that didn’t have the gifts of imagination and resilience. There are faithful people everywhere and I’m grateful for that.”

Nishioka says the question asked of every deacon and teaching and ruling elder being ordained or installed is, will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?

“I have no qualms on intelligence. Overall, as Presbyterians, we have a high education level across the denomination, and I don’t worry about love. We love the Lord with heart, soul and mind and do our best to love one another,” he said. “What I do worry about is energy, which I translate to mean resilience and imagination. Can we envision a new church in a new way? The churches that have thrived over the last 15 months had imagination and demonstrated that.”

Nishioka says everything points to the strength of leaders.

“Congregations will thrive when leaders are able to lead just as Jesus Christ did. Jesus didn’t sit there in Nazareth and tell people to come to him; he was going out to people, eating with them, talking with them and walking with them,” he said. “That’s the kind of ministry people are looking for, so anything we can do to help encourage, enable and support leaders, especially our lay leaders, to grasp that vision is going to help our congregations.”

Nishioka is grateful for those who have been reading his contributions to Regarding Ruling Elders during the Year of Leader Formation on a regular basis and reaching out by email.

“I’ve gotten notes from elders who say they have shared the devotional and are reflecting and talking about them,” he said. “I’ve also received notes from some thoughtful elders who may not agree with me on some particular thoughts. I love that kind of engagement. It tells me that people are doing their very best to live out their calling for Christ’s church.”

Additional information as well as links to associated resources and events can be found at the Year of Leader Formation webpage. Subscribe here to receive monthly email notifications when new issues of Regarding Ruling Elders are released.