First impressions, those of the new pastor and of the congregation, can make or break a new pastor’s ministry. Zen Buddhists speak of encountering the world with the beginner’s mind, and new pastors need to approach their first congregational call with that same sense of novelty and wonder. If our lives are part of God’s holy adventure, then even the most ambiguous pastoral situations can be the source of insight and growth for all parties, provided that they look for—and trust—God’s presence in every encounter. No congregation entirely reflects the description conveyed by its congregational profile, the search committee’s hopes, or the bishop or district superintendant’s portrayal. Nor does any flesh and blood pastor entirely reflect her or his paper credentials or references. Congregations are, as the apostle Paul notes throughout his letters, flesh and blood communities that both embrace and turn away from the gospel mandate. 

New pastors are most successful in the transition from seminary to their first congregation when they expect and accept imperfection as an essential ingredient in the art of ministry. While some congregations are clearly dysfunctional and may even fall into the category of clergy killers, most congregations are healthy enough to provide adequate support, challenge, and acceptance for pastors embarking on their first call.  

A good pastor needs to join appropriate boundaries with curiosity about the human condition. In Tending to the Holy, Kate Epperly and I noted that, in the spirit of North African monastics, the pastor should be “all eye” and “all sense” as she observes the physical, spiritual, and emotional environment that surrounds her. This curiosity and awareness is essential for good ministry as well. 

One of my favorite detective shows is Columbo. In that series, the cagey Columbo appears to be clueless as he fumbles his way through murder investigations. He solves cases, so it appears, only by accident and good luck. While pastors may not wish to be viewed by their congregants as the dumbest person in the room, pastors as observers, spiritual ethnographers, and keepers of secrets always know more than they can tell. To keep confidentiality and promote healing within the congregation, pastors often have to play dumb in situations in which they know more than they can let on. 

New pastors enter a multidimensional, nuanced, and confusing world when they begin their first call. Things are not always as they seem. They may intuit certain unspoken communal understandings, past experiences of misconduct and betrayal, feuds and alliances, and secrets that “everybody knows about.” Successful pastors take time to listen well to the spoken and unspoken messages of their congregants in order to discern how best to minister. Observation enables pastors not only to be healers but also to avoid issues of triangulation and unintentional offense. Careful observation also forces pastors to listen before they speak and to speak to the real, rather than assumed, situations in their congregation’s life. 

A pastor’s spiritual detective work may begin by going over documents such as board minutes, congregational histories, and financial records. One pastor notes, “I had to get access to certain things in order to respond to what I perceived were unspoken issues in the church. I made it a point to study the financial records in order to assess accurately the congregation’s financial situation.” In response to missteps in her first congregational call, another pastor now begins new ministerial assignments with the question, “What are they used to in worship, and who selects the hymns?” before making significant changes in the congregation’s worship service. Attentiveness to the congregation’s style of worship avoids confusion and controversy in a new pastor’s first few months in a new congregation. 

Every detective, from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple, knows that things are not always what they seem. One pastor recalls the sage advice she received from a more experienced colleague: “Be careful of the people who greet you most warmly at first. It may not be friendship they’re after, but gaining your support for their cause.” This same pastor noted that beneath the kind words of some of her earliest visitors was an agenda about how worship should be conducted, who should be dismissed from teaching Sunday school, or how many hours the pastor should spend in her office. On the other hand, as Becky, an associate pastor in Hagerstown, Maryland, notes, the support of congregants from the first moments of ministry may reflect authentic care rather than a hidden agenda: “What I experienced at the beginning has persisted through my ministry of nearly five years. The people welcomed me with open arms from the very beginning and have supported me all through my ministry, including my pregnancy and parenting of a young child.” 

Being a congregational detective is a spiritual practice. It involves listening with the heart as well as the ears. As Christian leaders, we need to affirm the presence of God, often expressed in sighs too deep for words, in the most challenging of congregants. And so as pastors we look for something more in each person we meet, perhaps a deeper longing for God, the need to be loved, an abusive experience that has shaped her or his life, or hidden anger or low self-esteem. We must be wise as serpents, yet gentle as doves as we tend to the holy in ministry. 

As spiritual ethnographers, we train our ears to hear congregants’ experiences of God as well as their experiences of our new congregation. We listen for what gives them joy, the meanings they attribute to worship and congregational programs, and their concept of ministry. While our listening does not imply agreement and may not change our approach to worship or pastoral leadership, deep spiritual listening helps new pastors appropriately respond to individuals as well as the congregational system itself. 

How we open the door in a new congregation is crucial. While ministry includes much that we cannot control, faithful and effective ministry is grounded in flexible intentionality, self-awareness, healthy boundaries, a keen sense of observation, loving acceptance, and trust that the One who called us to ministry will continue to guide our paths in our first congregational call. If we train our senses to God’s presence in our congregations, we will continually discover mysteries that surprise, confound, and inspire us as spiritual leaders.  


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog  


Adapted from Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership by Bruce G. Epperly, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.   



AL408_SM 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.

AL391_SM Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry  
by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly

Tending to the Holy invites pastors to embody their deepest beliefs in the routine and surprising tasks of ministry. Inspired by Brother Lawrence’s classic text in spirituality, The Practice of the Presence of God, this book integrates the wisdom and practices of the Christian spiritual tradition with the commonplace practices of pastoral ministry.

AL366_SM Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness     
by Bruce G. Epperly 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. 

AL294_SM The Competent Pastor: Skills and Self-Knowledge for Serving Well  
by Ronald D. Sisk

Competence in ministry is a moving target. A ministry technique that works in one parish may not work in another. What works today may not work five years from now. But a competent pastor will be able to adapt to changing locations and changing times. This book is intended to help pastors, seminarians, and lay people who work with pastors understand themselves and others and to keep a realistic perspective on their work and their lives .

AL203_SM 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.



Beaumont,Susan Stepping up to Staffing and Supervision  
March 1-3, 2011, Jacksonville, FL
Facilitator: Susan Beaumont, Alban senior consultant

Supervising the work of others requires learning new skill sets.  No one is born knowing them, and yet supervisory skills are seldom learned during professional formation. Join Susan Beaumont at this important seminar for the pastoral leader who is stepping up into a supervisory role for the first time, or for the long time supervisor who wants to revisit best practices. 


Copyright © 2010, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please complete our reprint permission request form.

Subscribe to the Alban Weekly.

Archive of past issues of the Alban Weekly.