Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Interview about placement and transition, part two

My friend Doug did an interview with me via e-mail about my process of candidacy and transition. Part one is here.

Here is part two:

8. Briefly describe your experience of transitioning into your role as pastor?

It's still going on, in many ways: most studies have shown that pastors don't really become as effective in their ministries as possible until seven years in, and that they don't effect significant and lasting change in the first 2-3 years. So in many ways, I'm just approaching the threshold of that second season, with the first a long way off.

That said, transition has been about what I expected: I dug in with building relationships with my congregation, began teaching and preaching on what I believed would best fit a new pastoral ministry, and started learning what my patterns and routines would be. I had been planning how I would spend my transition time for months, so it was not hard to know WHAT to do-- mostly just HOW to do it.

9. What surprised you about it?

I was surprised by little things, the kind of things that hide from plain view but make a big difference. For example, I fully intended to not worry too much with getting my pastoral study set up, but to spend my first days heavily with members of my congregation. But I picked up on cues that suggested that they WANTED me to focus on my study and get it set up-- that was a sign of stability to them, and they needed a strong sense of stability in their new pastor. Similarly, I felt very encouraged to spend extra time at home in the first few weeks, helping Marcie to get our house established; they wanted to love us by helping us set up our home, and part of that was freeing me from pastoral labor to attend to that.

(All of this, by the way, is more the nature of the hospitable people I serve than simply an artifact of transition-- they continue to be generous with my time in these ways, even now.)

10. What are some helpful tips you would give to someone about to go through the process?

Don't try to do everything at once! You're settling into a (hopefully) long ministry, with plenty of time to encourage growth, teach what is in your heart, and accomplish your goals for ministry. Don't be in a hurry.

Also, it's not possible to spend "too much" time with your congregation in the first months. I'm in a fairly small congregation, so I set out to visit every household once in the first six months. That didn't end up being possible, but I DID get to see everyone who was a part of the "core group" of the congregation. I tried to include someone from the congregation in almost everything I did-- lunch, a project at home, helping me find a mechanic or specialty store, etc. That relational investment pays big dividends.

Finally, don't be in a hurry to change things. Some things will need changing, but most things can change much more gradually than your instincts tell you. Remember: they are already going through a lot of change just by bringing you in as their pastor, so don't push them too hard on change. A lot of guys will tell you that the "honeymoon" season is the time to change as much as you can; I think that is short-sighted. Such change is seldom lasting, causes the congregation to feel overwhelmed with change (and maybe no longer at home in the church they once loved), and suggests to them that you have no value of anything that happened before you came. If you want to be in transition again in a matter of months, this is a good way to set the stage for it!

11. What do you wish you knew heading into the first year at your current location?

I don't think there was any one thing (or set of things) that stands out as a gap in what I knew: I was pretty familiar with the demographics of the area, what the prospects for ministry were, and what the culture was like. I knew the church's recent history, and had been briefed on the important details of what had been good and what had gone wrong in the past, particularly with regard to the previous pastor. I knew of many of the ways in which the congregation needed healing, and also had a good starting notion of where they were spiritually strong. In short: I knew what I was getting into, both in the great ways and the hard ways. There have been difficult moments, and even weeks and clusters of weeks where I have been challenged by the circumstances-- but nothing that constitutes a "blind side".

I think most guys don't have the benefit of this. Either they are stepping into a situation that is much worse than they were led to believe, or they are entering a culture they really don't know, or something where there is a point that they think, "I'm not sure I would have taken this position if I had realized all of that!"

For those guys, first of all I would challenge them that they probably WOULD still take it, and that they SHOULD. But probably the biggest thing is to go into a transition knowing that there are going to be things that you didn't know about, and that you're going to get blind-sided. I may yet-- who knows? But most guys probably will, and they just need to be ready for it.

12. How has the transition been for your wife?

It has been good in many of the ways that it has been good for me; she has been encouraged by the love and hospitality of the congregation, just as I have. She has noted on several occasions how well our congregation loves our family. She hasn't been forced into a pre-conceived role of what the pastor's wife ought to do or be, and that has been freeing.

It has been hard, too, since she left behind her close friends from seminary and has not found as many friends of similar "age and stage" in our area until recently-- and those are just now budding relationships, approaching two years in. Meanwhile, I've made friends with some other pastors in the area, and don't feel as much need for friends of the same age or life-stage as me anyway-- so it has been harder for her to see me find fulfilling friendships when she hasn't. She has dealt with that very well, but it hasn't been easy.

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