After the moving truck leaves, the real work of building relationships between a new pastor and the congregation begins. The first three months of a new appointment are crucial to the future of the ministry of the congregation. Church consultant, Alice Mann, has said that the most important work of a new pastor is to “excavate the culture of the congregation.” What does that look like? Both the pastor and the congregation have a role to play.
First, the pastor needs to learn about important traditions in the life of the congregation and the community. The pastor parish relations committee and other leaders can make this task easier. Does everybody who’s anybody show up at the annual Farm Bureau dinner? Your new pastor won’t automatically know this, and you can help not only by telling him or her of the event’s importance but by offering to host the pastoral family at the dinner. Is there a special hymn that is sung for every baby’s baptism? Let the pastor know that before the first baptism occurs, not after. Just because no one says anything at the time doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. A consultant tracing the roots of a pastor’s toxic relationship with his congregation discovered that the bad blood began when the pastor innocently ignored the congregation’s tradition of circling the sanctuary on Christmas Eve to light candles and sing “Silent Night.” No one told him before or after, but the resentment began building that night. Pastors need to ask about traditions, and lay persons need to tell about them.
It’s also important to dig deep enough to learn about significant events in the history of the congregation and the community. This is doubly important when there are traumatic events in the past that still linger. (That is the case in almost every congregation and community.) Was there a bitter fight over school consolidation 20 years ago? Knowing that, may go a long way toward helping the pastor understand the reluctance of a congregation to work with a neighboring church. One small church had accumulated significant savings yet refused to put the money to work in ministry. The pastor eventually learned that the church had been destroyed by fire decades ago. Though the congregation now had adequate insurance, the funds were accumulated “in case anything like that ever happens again.” Through sensitive pastoral intervention, she was able to free funds for much needed ministry in the community.
A particular kind of significant event is a history of pastoral misconduct. Though those events may be difficult to discuss, savvy lay leaders will clue a new pastor in. In such situations, while it may not be helpful to continually dredge up pain from the past, the pastor will need to work extra hard to build trust with the congregation. The facts are not nearly as important as the memories.
How do members of the congregation communicate with one another and with the community? Is this a community where social media and email are the preferred way of getting the word out? Or is it the kind of place where a flier on the post office bulletin board is still the most effective communication? Both formal and informal communication patterns are important here. When the pastor is new, any statement (even one made off the cuff) is likely to be widely repeated. Pastors will do well to speak thoughtfully, and laity can help by listening with grace. Perhaps it is not furthering the mission of the church to quote the pastor who has just hit his thumb with a hammer!
Another pattern to excavate it the way the congregation makes decisions. In some churches, decisions are really made in meetings. That practice is rare. Often, the meeting is held to ratify the decision that has been made previously. Sometimes the decision doesn’t count until it is ratified by a longtime respected member. More than one pastor has been shocked to learn that a decision made in the council meeting was revisited at coffee hour on Sunday and reversed. New pastors should be especially wary of the phrase “whatever you think, pastor.” That is a clear signal to ask more questions. Wise lay leaders will make sure that the new pastor gets connected with opinion leaders in the community.
Finally, it is essential for the pastor to research the vision of the congregation. Pastors who arrive with a “word from the Lord” about the congregation’s future and impose a vision without dialog will eventually fail. Developing a shared vision must be a priority, and this task is difficult because the pastor is probably more accustomed to articulating a vision than the average pew occupant. Deep listening, whether through cottage meetings or other means, is essential. In churches which do have a clearly developed vision, the lay leadership can be in conversation with the new pastor about how his or her gifts can help support that vision. Too often, our congregations wait (sometimes fearfully) for a new pastor to change the direction of the church. A wise pastoral supervisor once commented that having a succession of pastors, each of whom turns the church around, results in a church going in circles!
The work of excavating a congregation’s culture is not linear. A new pastor can’t make a checklist and address each item in turn. Careful observation, dialog with congregational leaders, and informal conversations are tools that will yield results. The partnership forged well in the first few months will lead to many years of fruitful ministry together.
The Rev. Evelyn Fisher is director of Congregational Excellence for the Great Plains Conference. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.