In a recent conversation, a minister asked me what I thought were the major traps that most often snared ministers when they moved to a new congregation. Great question! Healthy churches and ministers pay attention to potential trouble spots and act in a proactive way to avoid getting derailed early in the new relationship.
Several come to mind:
- The trap of expectations.
Coming into a congregation as the new minister is a wonderful season of new beginnings and possibilities. People await you with great expectations. Often those expectations are exaggerated and grandiose. You are seen as the one who will reverse decades of decline, inspire apathetic congregants, make everyone happy at all times, and never disappoint. Sometimes the grandiosity is in the mind of the minister. She or he thinks this church is everything their last church was not. The grass looks so green on this side of the fence! Your own foibles and bad habits are overlooked in your infatuation with your new opportunity.
Unrealistic expectations, wherever they originate, are a set-up. They lead us away from God’s design for us and his church, and trap us in impossible situations. You will never succeed as the Messiah, and the congregation will soon expose its cracks and fissures and remind you that this really isn’t heaven on earth. Talking about this and anticipating the inevitable disappointments is an essential component of a healthy relationship between minister and congregation. The humility that comes when we acknowledge that we are all earthen vessels and deeply flawed is a great place to begin a relationship between minister and congregation.
- The trap of agendas.
Your arrival invites the congregation to imagine new possibilities. That is a wonderful and divine part of the opportunity. However, it is helpful to remember that all of us have agendas. Some are overt, some quite covert. Simply put, some will see your coming as an opportunity to advance a cause or seek a role that has been thwarted previously. Your arrival is a new day that will bring frustrated congregants out of the woodwork. Others will assume they will have the same intimacy or insider status that they had with the previous person in your position. Some will have been deeply disappointed by your predecessor and will greet you with frosty indifference.
Your job is to be aware. Avoid the trap of believing everything you hear. From search committee members to the most detached congregants, personal agendas abound. Watch with a degree of prayerful detachment those around you. Get up on a mental balcony in every meeting and during every conversation and ask yourself what is really going on. Constantly ask yourself: Why this? Why now? Your coming evokes a wide range of personal responses that you will be wise to take notice of in those early encounters.
- The trap of talking.
Since clergy are seemingly paid to speak, the usual pattern is that we do… profusely, often, and repeatedly. Watch out for the trap of verbosity. The entry into a new congregation calls for a season of diagnostic rather than prescriptive conversations. If your medical doctor walked into the exam room and immediately began a monologue about their ideas for your health, without ever asking for input from you, I hope you would jump up and leave the room. I’d offer the same counsel to a congregation and its minister. Your role in the early days of your ministry is to have your ears wide open, your eyes wide open, and your heart wide open. There will be a time to speak the truth you bring to the situation, but initially your talking should consist of words of invitation to others. Ask many, many questions, especially around the themes of heritage and hopes.
- The trap of silence.
To be blunt, after 100 days on the job, you had better have something to say. There are those who counsel a full year of observation before making any move toward acts of active leadership. The pace of our culture dictates a new reality. Your learning curve has been shortened and you must understand the trap that your silence as a leader, should it go too long, will be misinterpreted as your lack of ability to lead. Your first 100 days offer you a never-to-be-repeated opportunity to define yourself and establish some trajectories for your ministry. Pay attention to this time with careful and prayerful thought. In our coaching of new pastors, we encourage breaking down your first 100 days into ten 10-day blocks of time and becoming exceptionally deliberate about the proactive use of those days. These are days to emphasize relationships over tasks, so plan your time accordingly.
After 100 days, emerge from your time of study and observation with clear and compelling observations. The people need to hear from you. The rest of your first year will be a time to begin an extended congregational conversation which will shape the church’s agenda for the near future. Use those days to engage people around “what if” questions. Invite them to dream with you and God about possibilities. Tell them what matters to you and what you love about them. Share with them a generous vision of the future and invite them to join you in creating that vision and making it a reality. Speak up!
Beware the traps and enjoy the ride. It really is a marvelous opportunity to start anew.