Last week I attended a Dr. Ken Callahan Seminar where he effectively reminded us that churches are active mission outposts, pastors are shepherd leaders, and the community is a family. Three months from today on June 25, 2014 I will be the new pastor of a vibrant and exciting church. How will the transition go? Will I be ready? I have high expectations that everything will be absolutely great, but I am reminded of Loren Mead’s description of pastoral transition as “running through thistles.” Ouch!
I want to avoid as many “ouches” as I can! In preparation I have been rereading some familiar material about starting well in a new parish. One of the best and concise books is The First 100 Days: A Pastor’s Guide by T. Scott Daniels. It is a book that challenges me to pay attention to God, my family, and my next parish.
We have all heard mentors and advisors say, “Just love the people!” But every church is different and so is every pastor. Some congregations are in the throes of separation anxiety because they love their current pastor so much. Every mentor I’ve had has expressed how much better it is to follow someone who is loved than a clergyperson who is disliked. Following a beloved pastor may make things a bit rough at first but early on the family lovingly absorbs you into its fabric. That’s their pattern! To follow someone ineffective or disliked makes you the quick hero, but the angst and anger toward that pastor is just as quickly transferred to you as the love was in the first scenario. The challenge is to do well in either case.
The good news is that whether you follow a beloved longtime pastor, a divisive church splitter, or a middle of the road maintenance minder has little consequence because you control you, not the circumstances. The best approach then is to do a lot of observation at first while repeating the mantra under your breath: “Listen, listen; Love, love!”
I need to get to know the church by becoming a keen sociologist and historian, by working hard to understand the church’s current reality and its processes from vision to finances; and by falling deeply in love with the community. “How do they do things here?” can be answered through bulletins or orders of worship – videos of high Sundays and the ones in between would be extremely helpful. However, from a sociological point of view, how is this church a family? What is its unwritten but very real ethos and set of family rules?
How do they talk and do I have the capacity to speak the same language? Learning what “funeralizing” someone meant became extremely important when I moved from seminary in Boston to a three-point charge in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina! I specifically remember being asked to go visit someone and given a country store and a “colyum” as landmarks. I was supposed to go past the store and take a right at the “colyum.” I found the store but I had no idea what a “colyum” was. When I went back to the store and asked where the person’s house was and they said, “Take a right at the ‘colyum.’” My response was, “Could you spell that for me?” They answered: “C-O-L-U-M-N!” Oh….. I got it and made it to my destination. I had to learn the lingo, the church and community’s history, the expectations of the pastor, the lay leadership, the flow of the worship services, the people who needed immediate pastoral care, the vision and plans of the church, and all the mundane but IMPORTANT idiosyncrasies of that unique family.
The greatest challenge was joining the family! One of the metaphors that The First 100 Days uses is that a new pastor is someone who has been invited to become a “facilitator at someone else’s family reunion.” A new minister isn’t a member of the family automatically any more than a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law is. Newbies have “positional authority” by virtue of their legal or titular standing; i.e., “This is my ____ ___ ______.” However, they don’t have real authority until it’s earned or, I daresay, a grandchild comes along! Some clergy try to get by as long as they can by the “reputational authority” they’re given by their predecessor, the inquisitive detectives in the church who check them out ahead of time, the Bishop, or their bio. I am firmly convinced that pastors don’t really get an invitation to join the family until they acquire “relational authority” through significant interactions with people.
Please note that the word “authority” does NOT carry its usual heavy-handed meaning. Since “authority” comes from the word “author,” it really means doing something creative and productive rather than destructive; as Hebrews 12:2 describes Jesus as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Authority built through relationships with people and communities isn’t engendered through titles and degrees. It comes through an incarnational presence with people at their most important life events: illnesses, births, deaths, marriages, crises – whenever and wherever the clergyperson is invited to be a part of the new family.
According to author Scott Daniels the notion of “The First 100 Days” was originated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after his inauguration in 1933. In the midst of the Great Depression he and Congress paved the way for the main components of the New Deal to be enacted in his first 100 days in office. It wouldn’t have happened unless he had the political capital to get it done. FDR had almost two years of campaigning under his belt before the clock started on his presidency. During those two years FDR articulated and garnered support for what was accomplished in his first 100 days! New pastors don’t have that luxury or capital!
In quick-step time we must gain capital through relational leadership with careful attention to avoid rushing. It sounds like an oxymoron to hit the ground running while going slow enough to really get to know the lay of the land. Relational authority has to be earned and that takes time, skill, and observation. It also requires the support of a new church family that is willing to be helpful, supportive, and patient. The most important key for all concerned is to trust in Jesus and follow His example. Then the rest will take care of itself!