Thursday, May 03, 2018

Confused New Pastors

In a little over one month, I will taking the appointment as pastor to the Mooreland United Methodist Church. And I'm confused.

It isn't about the location or the job. It is about the transition. This will be my fifth appointment to a new church. There are always expectations of the new pastor on the part of the receiving church. There are also imaginations and excitement to do things on my part. In other words, there is always a degree of change that takes place. But the confusion comes with trying to grasp how much, how soon, how deep, how wide.

There was a bit of wisdom that was shared with me early in ministry. "Don't make any real significant changes in your first year." That doesn't seem like a long time in our rapid paced world. The idea behind it is that you don't want to appear to be throwing away the established way of things. That first year was supposed to be a time of learning the context: the people, the community, the history, and the sacred of the church. That first year was the chance to "earn" the permission to make change.

We are in a time of increased pace of change. It doesn't take a year to totally reverse the course of a congregation. It doesn't take long to lose the permission to make change. It is easy to be seen as the custodian of "the way it's always been done". A year's time is more than enough to legitimize the perception that change isn't necessary.

I have been reading a lot about making a successful move. There is a lot of advise to use the "honeymoon" period to make some change. It is a time to take advantage of the expectations and anticipation that a new pastor is going to make changes. Thom Rainer says this about the honeymoon phase:
Year 1: Honeymoon. Both pastor and church have a blank slate and they enter the relationship hoping and believing the best about each other. Perhaps the pastor was weary of his previous pastorate, and perhaps the church was happy to replace their former pastor. For a season, neither can do wrong in the other’s eyes. That season does not usually last long.
The sad thing is that this was from an article on why it takes 7 YEARS to become a congregations pastor. The honeymoon is only one seventh of the time it takes to become a pastor to a people.

But, Eric Geiger responds with this:
The pastoral honeymoon was such a recognized occurrence that people debated what the leader should do during the honeymoon. Some advocated that the leader make as many necessary but difficult decisions as possible during that time because the honeymoon allowed some cover to do so. Others advocated not making decisions during the honeymoon but simply getting to know the church and the people, thus extending the honeymoon as long as possible. But both groups agreed there was a honeymoon. It was a real thing. It may not be so anymore. It is at least shrinking.
Geiger identifies 4 reasons why this period of adjustment to a new pastor is shrinking. Due to cultural influence, our PATIENCE IS SHORTER. Spiritually, we have to accept the reality that in churches, COMMITMENT TO CHURCH IS WEAKER.  As a society, PEOPLE ARE LESS CONNECTED. And as a practical reality CHANGE IS HARD. I would say that he as a point on some of these that could be argued. Commitment isn't weaker, prioritization of church is lower. People aren't less connected, they are just connected to fewer people in different ways. Change is natural; accepting change is hard. But whatever side of those arguments you land on, the payoff is the same. Pastors don't have as much time of unmerited grace in the church when they arrive.

When it comes to quantitatively defining the honeymoon period, it is a moving target right now. Six to eighteen months WAS the standard. Now, I'm hearing 100 days. According to Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches, a pastor has 100 days to define their trajectory for ministry. But Robert Kaylor in Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for Local Churches, a pastor has LESS than 100 days "before early opinions are formed that can make or break a pastor's tenure." (Wilmore, KY: Seedbed Publishing, 2013. Kindle version, location 744.)

The pastoral honeymoon has effectively been diminished to a first impression.

That is not to say that pastors are doomed to failure from the beginning if they step off on the wrong foot. I have made plenty of first month, first week, first Sunday bad impressions. I was able to recover in most situations. There have been a couple of times when I did not recover the relationship. But as I examine those instances, they were not about me. It doesn't really change the fact, though, that as a pastor, I don't have much time to create a positive outlook in the hearts and minds of some.

So now I am confused. Not about the time I have to make a good impression. I am confused about how to make the best impression I can in the limited time I have. Relationship building is key. And very challenging for a barely functional introvert. Respecting local tradition is important. But many times those traditions are the very thing standing in the way of progress and growth. Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is the highest function of the preacher. But in so many cases, that task is re-prioritized under chaplaincy and fulfilling personal attention requests. Leading a people to maturity in Christ is my calling. Tending to the clerical administrative tasks is my schedule filler.

The confusion of becoming and being a pastor in a new appointment is deep and real. Be in prayer for all of those transitioning into new appointments that they may serve the Kingdom of God by being the embodiment of Christ among a new people.