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Drawing on twenty-five years of parish ministry, during which he has mentored many new and transitioning pastors, Lawrence Farris here provides ten guidelines, illustrated with relevant examples, that identify potential pitfalls and show how to avoid them. Such areas as preaching, pastoral care, self-care, community and denominational commitments, and role clarity are addressed with an emphasis on practical approaches to ministry in a new setting. Farris also gives clear advice on how to learn the new congregation and its setting, how to set appropriate personal and professional boundaries, and how to stay focused on what matters most in a new ministry.
Lively, practical, and brief enough for the new pastor to have time to actually read it, Ten Commandments for Pastors New to a Congregation is a must-read both for pastors on the move and for individuals preparing for first-time ministry.
"Some Israelites have come here to search out the land." Joshua 2:2
"Well, Reverend Farris, it's like this. I never saw Reverend Flint but what he had on a three-piece suit - tie, vest, wingtips, everything. Heck, in this town, even the bankers and undertakers don't wear three-piece suits! Reverend Flint just didn't get it. He never, ever took the time to get to know who we are and how we live. And that's why he's gone!"
That comment, made to me by a member of the Reverend Flint's congregation shortly after his failed ministry had come to a ragged end, points to at least two truths about new ministries. First, it suggests that congregations, like the communities of which they are a part, are cultures. All congregations have unique histories, unwritten rules, carefully observed customs, cherished traditions, spoken and unspoken expectations of ministers and members, functional norms, famous and infamous characters, powerful legends, set patterns of relating to insiders and outsiders as well as buildings and geographical settings. And second, new ministers, like the Israelites heading into Canaan after a sojourn in another and different context, are entering a land which is new to them and must be thoroughly searched out.
Mark was a second-career minister who had grown up in a large, active, and affluent metropolitan church. However, after seminary, he found himself called to serve an established church in a rural community. In short, he found himself in a setting radically different from that which he had previously experienced. Regrettably, his model of ministry was limited to that appropriate to his large, urban church - lots of community-focused ministries, extensive education and music programs, highly liturgical worship. From day one of his work in a very different context, Mark set about the task of re-creating that small town church in the image of his previous church experience. Needless to say, the congregation, which had been in that community for over one hundred fifty years, and had seen many a pastor come and go, did not respond positively. Conflict ensued, and Mark's efforts were frustrated at every turn. Attendance at worship and church school declined sharply, giving decreased significantly, and participation in fellowship activities dried up. Finally, and wisely, since he would not adapt to his new circumstances, Pastor Mark moved to a church in an urban setting better suited to his model of ministry. But the church and its people had suffered, suffered over two years of mostly unnecessary and unproductive conflict, and suffered the humiliation of not being known and appreciated for who they were.
Like the first of the biblical Ten Commandments, this first commandment for new ministers is the most important. If the new minister gets it right and follows it well, many of the other commandments will, if they do not fall completely into place, at least pose many fewer problems. Before we can minister faithfully and effectively in a new setting, we must understand that setting in all its richness and complexity. In entering the life of a congregation, we are crossing the River Jordan. We are entering new and unfamiliar territory, and we need to search it out carefully and understand it well if we are not only to survive, but thrive, therein. And so, we need ways to unearth the details and nuances of the current culture, the history of the people, and the specifics of the place to which God has called us to serve. There are a number of ways historical-cultural explorations can be undertaken, and some of this work can be done even before the new pastor arrives on the scene.
Reading church and community histories, if they are available, is an obvious first step and can be quite helpful. While generally written with a positive spin, these documents can help identify important people and key turning points in the congregation's and the community's life. A close, between-the-lines reading of these, along with annual reports and governing board records (not all of them, but a sampling of those from critical times in the congregation's life) will allow the new pastor to begin to understand some of the deeper currents which have shaped the congregation. Who were the founders, and why did they form the church? How did the congregation respond after its building burned or when a major industry left the community or when there was a dramatic increase or decrease in population? What ministers are remembered fondly, and what were they like? What needs prompted new construction or remodeling? Was there a period of "glory days" that strongly imprinted the congregation's self-understanding? Are there long-standing Sunday school classes or fellowship groups that perhaps wield as much influence in the congregation's life as the governing board? What was part of the congregation's life at one point, but is no longer - a local ministry or a style of worship service, for example? When is the congregation at its best? What conflicts has the congregation engaged, and how has it handled them? Is the congregation relatively unified in its theological stance, or is there significant diversity of perspectives? What other churches are in the community, and what are relationships with them like?
by doing such reading, I learned one congregation I served had, in its earliest days, taken a special offering for the poor of its community every time the Lord's Supper was celebrated. In that act of faithfulness to Christ's command to care for the least was born the congregation's deep and abiding commitment to extend itself generously on behalf of the disenfranchised. In another, a long defunct but well-remembered "folk service" of the 1960s became the basis for continuing openness to innovations in worship. In yet another, the arrival of a new industry had meant a dramatic increase in the community's population, and a church previously stable in membership had struggled to integrate many newcomers.
Listening to the Old Timers
While written histories usually cast the past in its most favorable light and tend to soft-pedal problems, they nevertheless can give a broad overview from which to proceed to more personal and interactive cultural explorations. While much of this will happen naturally in the course of conversation, it is helpful to structure some occasions for information gathering. One I have found most helpful is to gather a few of the congregation's long-standing members in the church sanctuary to ask them to reminisce about important moments they recall happening in that special and sacred space. Weddings, baptisms, funerals, comedic moments, even the occasional memorable sermon may all be recounted. The conversation flowing among those older and faithful members is often a pleasure for the new pastor to overhear, and can be the source of crucial insight into congregational culture and dynamics.
On one such occasion, a very elderly gentleman said to the others gathered, "Remember when there was a movie projection booth up there on the back wall? And how we'd hang a sheet across the front of the chancel and show movies for the whole town?" (That, not surprisingly, occurred in a congregation with a tradition of opening its facilities, usually at no charge, for many outside groups as part of its ministry.) A gracious and rather quiet woman spoke up, - "Oh, and remember when we had that ten-inch downpour? The water just gushed through the roof. Wasn't it then that we changed to a center aisle and angled the pews towards one another so we can see each other as we worship. I like that."
- "And thank goodness for Mrs. Hasting's bequest that helped us recover from that flood! What a wonderful Christian woman she was. I still miss her." And in but a few moments, the new pastor knew where the congregation learned to keep their facilities in good repair, how the sanctuary found its present configuration, who one of the heroines of the past was, and that the congregation could see a crisis as an opportunity for change.
- "And remember when Reverend Anderson preached that sermon damning the board from here to eternity - mostly because it wouldn't go along with him - and then stormed down the aisle taking those families with him? I always thought those folks would come back, but they never did." In the long silence that followed, the sorrow over such divisiveness was palpable.
But more than just sharing and learning history, such conversation shows that the new minister cares about where the congregation has been before she arrived, and that she values the memories of the old timers. Furthermore, holding such a conversation in the sanctuary gently reminds the participants that worship is the heart of the church's life. A tour of the entire building and grounds might well follow with more memories evoked and shared. Of particular interest here is how the use of various spaces has changed over time and why. If the church has a preschool, how were its rooms used previously? If the kitchen has been moved, when and for what purpose? What prompted additions or remodeling projects?
At the end of the tour, I like to sit the group down with a cup of coffee and ask them, "And where do you think our congregation needs to go in the future?" All kinds of answers usually come forth:
- "I hope we always have our good music in worship. That's been such a blessing to me."
- "We've got to figure out how we're going to get more parking if we're going to grow."
- "We need to keep training people in caring for one another to keep our family feel, especially for folks who are new."
- "Do you think we could ever build a retirement facility? Our community really needs one."
by the end of this conversation, the members of this group know they are valued by the new pastor not only for their memories, but also for their dreams. It is likely that they will spread the word that the new pastor is eager to learn about the congregation, leading more folks to come forward with memories, stories, hopes, and visions. And the new pastor will know a tremendous amount about the congregation's culture, history, and possibilities for the future.
History-Telling Congregational Supper
Another helpful approach to learning the culture is to have a congregational history-telling event in conjunction with a church supper. A good way to do this is to have people seated for the meal according to their presence during various pastorates (i.e., those who want to remember Pastor A's time at one table, Pastor B's at another, and so on, going back as far as possible). As people eat, they are asked to share what some of the congregational accomplishments were during that pastorate, and to recall what some of the challenges were. Using the word "challenges" for the second part of this exercise elicits more complete and helpful input than using the words "problems" or "failures." A designated recorder for each group takes notes on what is shared.
After the supper, all the groups are gathered. A person other than the new pastor (a colleague from another church of the same denomination is often a good choice) asks each group to share its collections of accomplishments and challenges, allowing the new pastor to be in the role of observer. These are recorded on large sheets of paper, one for each pastorate, for all to see. This is best done chronologically, from the most distant up to the most recent pastorate.
Through this activity, congregational members will learn an enormous amount about their own history and thereby become clearer about the congregation's identity. Newcomers present (and they should be particularly encouraged to attend) will be helped as they become acquainted with the congregation's journey before they themselves came to be members. Usually there is lots of laughter; sometimes more than a few tears. The new pastor gets to observe not only all the information collected on the sheets of paper, but also the congregation at work on this task. What's the mood? Who seems to dominate, and who is not talking (these may be crucial people to listen to at another time)? Where are the awkward silences when something important, and perhaps painful, may not be coming out in full? And what are the main themes, traditions, commitments over time that distinguish this congregation's life? These issues will become clearer through this evening of reminiscing and storytelling, and with them much of the congregational history and culture. The pastor's later review of the sheets will help continuities and norms of the congregation's life begin to emerge so that a sense of the parameters within which the congregation functions can be discerned.
Much more detailed and structured approaches for analyzing congregational culture are available, and it may be useful for the new minister to draw upon these, particularly if the congregation has recently, or repeatedly, experienced significant conflict. The roots of church conflict often run deep into its history, and the careful searching out of the background and sources of conflict will be essential in getting off to a good start.
It will also be worth the new pastor's time to contact one or more of the previous pastors of the congregation, particularly those pastors who served during a time of significant change in the church's life. The same issues of achievements and concerns explored by the congregation can be addressed fairly briefly, but often from a different, and hopefully insightful, perspective. Furthermore, make sure to check in with either a leader (i.e., bishop or executive) or long-term member of the denomination's regional governing body to get his or her perspective on what have been the identifying marks and moments of the congregation's life. Simply asking, "What comes to mind when you think of First Church?" will give a helpful capsule view of the congregation.
The Larger Community
Such historical and cultural explorations should not be limited to the congregation itself, as if the congregation lived in a vacuum apart from its community context. Understanding the community, and how it and the church interact, is crucial. An easy and usually pleasant way to learn about the community is to take an old timer (rather than a Chamber of Commerce community booster), either from within or without the church, and drive all over the community in which the church is located. This may take some time, especially if the church is in a large urban area, but it is time well spent.
Excerpted from TEN COMMANDMENTS for Pastors New to a Congregation by Lawrence W. Farris Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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|I||Thou Shalt be a Cultural Historian||1|
|II||Thou Shalt Spend Thy Blue-Chips-for-Change on Changes that Matter||13|
|III||Thou Shalt Attend to Thy Preaching||23|
|IV||Thou Shalt Be Certain the Church's Financial House Is in Order||32|
|V||Thou Shalt Not Create Expectations Which Cannot Be Met in the Long Term||40|
|VI||Thou Shalt Take Care of Thyself from Day One||48|
|VII||Thou Shalt Be Aware of the Chronics||59|
|VIII||Thou Shalt Limit Thy Activities beyond the Congregation That Has Called You||70|
|IX||Thou Shalt Remember What Thy Job Is||75|
|X||Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery||85|
|Afterword: The Eleventh Commandment||92|