“Moving Day” in the United Methodist Church can be an awkward transitional time. In our first move from seminary in Boston to a three-point charge in South Carolina there were generous folks who brought over a meal and proceeded to watch us eat it! One dear woman asked what they were all thinking as I followed a more seasoned minister, “Are you old enough to be a preacher?” My response was both sure and ambiguous and offered very little assurance, “I hope so!”
Hope is what sustains us when one minister leaves and another comes. We all try to put our best feet forward. Afterall, there is only one chance to make a first impression. Together, laity and clergy hope to win people to Christ and disciple them. That’s the great expectation! Our new preacher or our new congregation will be a grand opportunity to fulfill The Great Commission to make disciples for Jesus Christ! One preacher was heard adjusting his expectations, “During the first five years of ministry I had a sign on my desk that said, ‘Win the world for Christ.’ The next five years the sign read. ‘Win five for Christ.’ After ten years, I changed the sign to read, ‘Don’t lose too many.’”
Sad to say and worse to admit, this is the low expectation of too many ministers and churches, but when clergy move it’s an opportunity to recalibrate and have fresh ideas. Each church has its own personality and history. If you expect others to adapt to the congregation then you better do it!
Most importantly, we need to trust the Holy Spirit to make a new appointment work. E. Stanley Jones was probably the greatest evangelist and missionary of the Methodist movement. He spent most of his life in India and wrote prolifically. In many ways, he was a man before his time. In his book on Pentecost and the book of Acts, The Christ of Every Road, he describes the church as living between Easter and Pentecost:
“The church stands hesitant between Easter and Pentecost. Hesitant, hence impotent. Something big has dawned in the church’s thinking—Easter. Christ has lived, taught, died and risen and has commissioned the church with the amazing Good News. But something big has yet to dawn in the very structure, make-up and temperament of the church—Pentecost. If the church would move up from that in between-state to Pentecost, nothing could stop it—nothing!!”
Then he describes the church of his day. Remember, this was written eighty-five years ago:
“Now the church is stopping itself by its own ponderous machinery. Whenever we have been troubled about our spiritual impotence, we have added a new wheel—a new committee or commission, a new plan or program—and in the end we have found that we have little or no power to run the old or the new. We become busy—devastatingly busy—turning old and new wheels by hand. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is not a lived fact with us. Hence we worship machinery instead of winning and discipling souls.”
We worship machinery instead of winning men and women for Jesus. Amen!
So, trying to keep you from becoming too busy and quenching the Spirit, I would offer a simple list of ideas that I shared at a Bishop’s School of Ministry:
Quick Start Guide for Pastoral Transitions
- Don’t change much in the first 6 months!
- Be a good historian! Learn the church’s history, especially emotional history of past tensions.
- Get a copy of the pictorial directory and pray through it daily!
- Ask the Lay Leader and Church Council Chair, LMAC for advice!
- Visit people!
- Be like a Persian cat with keen observation! Get copies of church leaders and financials.
- Ask more questions than you give answers!
- Don’t change the order of worship!
- Preach good/great and familiar sermons!
- Write a synopsis for first 15 sermons and give to worship leaders!
- Don’t blame Bishop, DS, or predecessor for the move!
- Accept strategic invitations to people’s soiree’s even if it’s on your day off!
- Listen, listen; Love, love
- Use “That’s interesting.” Without moving anything!
- Stay out of Triangles via non-anxious presence and defecting in place!
- Go to every District meeting and depend on other clergy near you!
- Praise in public and criticize in private!
- Go to every team/committee meeting and most other small groups!
- If asked, say “Yes!” to children’s sermon, youth, confirmation, chapel, Rotary, etc!
- Call people within 24 hours of their visiting church or returning!
- Hold cottage meetings or speak a lot so people get to know you!
- Beware cottage meetings if tensions are high!
- Dress for success, up or down!
- Familiarity breeds contempt! Be careful not to “let your hair down” too quickly.
- Don’t talk about your previous church/ministry!
- If you go out of town for vacation or continuing education, inform SPRC Chair & Lay Leader!
- Beat people to the hospital! Go early, pray, and get out of the way!
- Get Business cards immediately and make sure your cell # is a local call for everyone!
- Get involved in the community; find out where your people eat, hang out, and sit at ball games!
- Let church committees, especially SPRC, self-select their own successors!
- Don’t be afraid to use the Book of Worship or Book of Discipline!
- Beware those who put down your predecessor and honor those grieving her/his leaving!
- Get a list of shut-in’s and recent deaths, serious illnesses, and life changes!
- Call the Office of Congregational Development for your new demographics!
- In connectionalism, how well your successor does says a lot about you!
- Meet with the Altar Guild ASAP and ask about baptism/communion procedures & preferences!
- Play dumb because you are, and never come off as angry!
- Leadership by walking around and keep confidences!
- Read church wedding policy and put dates on your calendar!
- Ask people/staff what the church is known for in the community and what each staff member is known for in the church!