The transition from seminary to your first congregational call is similar to becoming a driver. If you want to drive a car, you must pass the written test, take driver training courses with an instructor, drive with a competent adult, and then head out on the open road on your own. You can’t drive safely or skillfully without the preliminaries of instruction, classroom time, and mentoring behind the wheel, but—as every new driver knows, and best not forget—there is a quantum leap between driving with an instructor or your parents and taking your first solo drive. You can’t wait to get your license, but that is only the beginning of the journey. A new driver still needs to become comfortable driving in traffic, navigating curves in the road, dealing with unanticipated hazards, discovering the right balance between caution and risk taking, and discerning the proper distance between moving vehicles. The new driver also needs to respond to other drivers in mature and respectful ways. Becoming a good driver takes time and is a matter of character and imagination as well as technical skill. Virtually every new driver is filled with fear and trembling when she first hits the road on her own.
Every new pastor goes through a similar process from the initial experience of being called to ministry, meeting with ministerial authorization bodies, taking courses in seminary, and then being called as a congregation’s pastor. In the final year of seminary, most seminarians are eager to graduate. Like novice drivers, they yearn for the day when they can become congregational leaders. For many, the final seminary semester is almost intolerable. Like kids on the way to the beach, they keep asking, “Are we there yet? Can’t we just speed up this process? I’m ready!”
Yet, like teenagers going out for their first solo drive, new pastors discover, as they open the doors to a new congregation and face the many firsts of ministry, that they still have a lot to learn. In reality, pastors are never “there yet.” But over time and with a commitment to ongoing theological education and spiritual practices, novice pastors can embody the skills that lead to faithful excellence in ministry over a lifetime.
I often tell new pastors that ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. Faithful excellence in ministry is grounded in taking advantage of the honeymoon period and not panicking when the honeymoon is over. Most of the pastors with whom I have spoken see the honeymoon period first as a time for building relationships and trust with congregants. The relationship-building time is also a time for exploration. Like the TV detective Colombo, the new pastor can pretend to be the dumbest person in the room, innocently asking probing questions that will help identify the congregation’s challenges as well as its possibilities. Many pastors use the honeymoon as a time for experimentation and making small changes that may lead over time to profound congregational transformation.
When the honeymoon is over and the pastor notices resistance among congregants, he or she is tempted to succumb to self-doubt, anxiety, or feelings of alienation. The most effective new pastors see this period of mutual disillusionment and congregational resistance as an opportunity for spiritual and professional growth. Some new pastors focus on spiritual growth, withdraw projections, and learn to see holiness in the most challenging people. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that within the limitations we face, new opportunities may emerge. This affirmation is true for congregations as well as people. While this does not ensure an easy transition, pastors who look for possibilities amid challenges tend to be more patient with their congregation’s imperfections. Again, patience is essential here. When the euphoria is over, the good work of ministry can continue and deepen.
During times of transition, pastors find inner resources by focusing on their spiritual lives. While pastors can’t control others’ behaviors and responses, they can be responsible for their own attitudes. Becoming a nonanxious presence is the result of a pastor cultivating spiritual disciplines that enable him or her to weather the storms of ministry, face challenges, and grow in ministerial wisdom and stature. Learning about the dynamics of congregational systems can free pastors from the burdens of self-blame and self-doubt and allow them to claim their own leadership styles and communicate directly in ways that nurture partnership rather than alienation.
When the honeymoon is over, both pastors and congregations may find that they see their church—its relational dynamics, decision-making processes, and limitations—in a new light. While this can lead to disillusionment, it may also deepen the covenantal love between a pastor and her or his congregation. When pastors remember that everyone we meet is bearing a burden, our empathy can lead to positive ministry, even if behaviors or circumstances do not immediately change.
Many pastors note that when they discover the honeymoon’s over, they need to reach out to people beyond the congregation. Healthy professional relationships and mentoring enable us to let go of our own illusions, discern what is really going on in the congregation, and discover appropriate and creative responses to congregational challenges and resistance. The insights of experienced pastors who’ve “been there” or who have no emotional stake in the congregational dynamics enable a new pastor to gain new perspective on her or his work and the congregation’s gifts and challenges.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog
Adapted from Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership by Bruce G. Epperly, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership
by Bruce G. Epperly
For more than thirty years, Bruce Epperly has followed the call of the spirit, moving through his vocations as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, seminary and university professor, and seminary administrator. Drawing on these experiences, he addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader; pastoral authority; the “honeymoon”; boundaries; death; the pastor’s spiritual life, health, and relationships; the role of the associate pastor; and continuing education.
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry
by Barbara J. Blodgett
Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry.
Letters to Lee: Mentoring the New Minister
by Paul C. Clayton
Each year, hundreds of newly ordained pastors enter their first congregations, unsure whether seminary training has truly prepared them for the day-to-day work of parish ministry. In Letters to Lee, Paul Clayton uses a unique epistolary format—from an older, experienced pastor to a novice—to address wisely such issues as preparing for weddings, funerals, and baptisms; planning education, evangelism, and stewardship programs; growing spiritually; developing a leadership style; and maintaining personal and professional boundaries. Highly acclaimed while used in Clayton’s Andover Newton seminary classes, this book is the perfect introduction to parish ministry for students, new pastors, and mentors.
Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness
by Bruce G. and Katherine Gould Epperly
Four Seasons of Ministry serves as a guide for what you will find on your ministerial journey and gives meaning to the routine and repetitive tasks of ministry. Authors Bruce and Katherine Epperly invite clergy to see their ministries in the present as part of a lifelong adventure in companionship with God, their loves ones, and their congregations.
If you missed Dan Hotchkiss’s spring seminar on governance and ministry, you have another chance!
September 20–22, 2011
Governance & Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
Location: Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center,
West Hartford, CT
Presenter: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant
All participants receive a copy of Dan’s best-selling book, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, and a half-hour follow-up coaching session.
Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar
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