What a joy it is to be called to a new ministry context! This week’s question asks: “What then?”
After leaving my last call several months ago and moving away, I have been in the search process in my new location. I am so excited that now a wonderful congregation is extending a call to become their next pastor.
My question: What are some of your best ministry practices for getting started in a new congregation?
I have been the new pastor before, but I know I can benefit from some even better strategies. Thank you!
Our Matriarchs — each with 10+ years of ministry experience — have navigated that “new pastor” territory a few times. Here’s what we have to offer the newly called pastor:
Listen. Several of our Matriarchs agreed that this is the most important work in that new ministry.
- Chrysanne Timm: “I try to listen deeply – to the Holy Spirit through scripture, to congregation members through planned and impromptu conversations, and to the community, by meeting with community leaders”
- Kelley Wehmeyer Shin agrees that “active listening is so important. I believe it takes a full year to get to know a new congregation, learn their personality and gifts both individually and as a community of faith. I don’t make many changes in the first year. I see those early weeks and months as trust building time. I observe, listen, learn, and build relationships.”
Create times and spaces for listening. We have some ideas about that, too.
- Sung Min Moy: “In one congregation, I did a weekly dessert with the pastor within the first 3 months where groups of 5 would have dessert with me and my family. It gave them and me an opportunity to at least have an initial personal meeting with me. I think it helped to set a positive tone.”
- Tracy Spencer-Brown: “In a larger congregation, it could be larger groups with some guided questions. In a larger congregation, there are often neighborhood groups which are a great way to organize the gatherings.”
- Diane Roth: “I suggest either having one to one conversations with a cross-section of the congregation (both leaders and those on the margins) or a series of house meetings. If house meetings, a mix of fellowship and a sort of conversational agenda helps — a short series of questions (3 at most) to draw people out about the history of the congregation, and their place in it.”
- Anne Andert: “In each new congregation I served I asked groups of people to invite me for coffee and conversation. I started with the natural groups within the congregation like choirs and committees, but met in someone’s home at a different time than their regular meeting. I had a list of questions; some personal (E.g. what should I know about you?) and congregational based (How long have you been a member of this congregation and why did you join? What is our congregation’s reputation in the community? What would you like it to be? What are you proud of here?) and some practical (what are your favorite restaurants). I started with the least threatening questions and made it a point to hear from everyone who gathered. I jotted down notes asap afterwards. I even sent a clipboard around worship to encourage people to sign up to host a group. In a large congregation it was very helpful to meet with multiple small groups. I also took a group photo at each gathering as a way to connect names and faces. I actually put a notebook together from these meetings for my own use.” Anne adds: “I also allowed people to ask me questions after I had told them a bit about myself.”
- Dee Eisenhauer: “If it’s a smaller church and it is do-able, do home visits in every household in your first year. It’s a crash course in what people value and love to see them in their own living rooms and kitchens. And it will help you remember people’s names. Start with the homes of the leadership council. Listening is Job One in every setting early on.”
How to Listen
- Tracy Spencer-Brown: Listen to concerns, complaints, etc. should people come to you, but do no more than thank people for taking the time to visit with you.
- Sharon Mack Temple: “It was helpful to me to jot down some notes after those early conversations: about the person(s), about what I heard about themselves, the church, the world (community).”
Other Ways to Get to Know the Congregation
- Martha Spong: “If there is a membership list or directory, ask two or three lay leaders in positions of trust (elders or deacons or whatever you have in your tradition) to look through the list with you, with a particular attention to identifying the web of family relationships and any ongoing health concerns. I recommend asking two or three non-related folks for a couple of reasons: 1) they are likely to have a broader combined base of knowledge, and 2) it is less likely to turn into a gripe or gossip session.”
- Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath: “I love picture directories! I had a copy with notes in the margins that I pulled out every week or so. For about a year…”
- Anne Andert: “I also ask the call committee to distribute 3×5 cards to worshipers for two or three weeks consecutively before our arrival and ask people to “introduce yourself” to us please. The cards are collected at the end of the worship where the blank cards have been distributed. Very interesting reveals.”
- Tracy Spencer-Brown: Even if you don’t plan to do it regularly or they are staffed by someone else, attend at least one meeting of each committee early on.
- Tracy also urges everyone to wear name tags!
Also from Tracy about how to introduce yourself: “Make sure, in a gentle way, to let everyone know your “schedule” in multiple ways, with explanations if needed. Ex: I am not in the office on Fridays because I am preparing my sermon…I take day off/Sabbath on Mondays because …”
Beginning a Listening Tradition
Jennifer Burns Lewis: “In my new call, I posted “coffee office hours” in varying neighborhoods. It set the stage for great visits and conversations as well as an ongoing commitment to be available for conversation and community engagement long past the “new pastor” label was gone.”
And, finally — a little thing that means a lot — and something that is easier to do at the beginning: “Find out the birthdays and work anniversary dates of all of your staff members. Acknowledge the birthday and anniversary in some way each year. Encourage the congregation to celebrate the big anniversaries (1, 5, 10 . . . etc. years). “
That last one was from me — Sharon — with gratitude for the ministry that God has given to each of us in our various contexts. And an outpouring of all the thanks for our Matriarch panel. Your experience and ideas are golden, and we are blessed by your gifts among us.
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How about you, dear reader? What have you done to get off to a good start in a new congregation? What do you wish you had done? We look forward to your response in the comments below.
Are you starting something new? Or are you reluctant to begin a new thing? You are not alone! Ask our Matriarchs for some support and advice. Send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com
Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.
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