My October column advocating an extended period of seasoning before a person assumes a leadership role in the congregation brought a chorus of responses on a common theme: What is good for congregational leadership is also good for pastoral leadership. Here is a sampling:
While your column focused on placing “new members” into leadership positions, your comments [could apply as well] to those prepared and called as pastors. You wrote: “On a purely human level, it is generally understood that the first task of anyone entering a new organization, or even a church or parish, is to get to know how things are and to form relationships with the people who are there. For people to be placed into leadership positions without having significant experience in learning the proverbial ‘lay of the land’ is dangerous both to the leader and the organization.”
We do not follow this principle very closely (if at all) when it comes to pastors receiving a call to a parish. I believe this is one of the main reasons for the difficulties so often experienced by new seminary graduates in particular, but also by “seasoned pastors” who are called to a new congregation. Especially when the vacancy has been a lengthy one, people in congregations are anxious for the pastor to “start work right away” with little thought expressed-let alone planning done-to assist and enable the new pastor to “learn the culture” and “get to know the people.”
The above comment came from a pastor with more than a decade of pastoral experience and several terms as a circuit counselor. Here is another comment from a long-experienced pastor who has served several interim-ministry assignments in addition to being a long-term parish pastor:
Your last Reporter response (about “novice lay leaders”) applies to pastors as well. . . . I have had to struggle several times with the after-effects of a [now departed] novice Lutheran pastor.
There are a number of directions my responses can take, and any ongoing discussion with readers might yield interesting conversations. I will address this concern further if readers show continued interest in the subject.
I agree with both pastors here (and with the bulk of the others who flagged this issue). There is an old line suggesting that a pastor’s two tasks when entering a parish are to be an historian and a lover. He is to love the people in a pastoral way and learn about them, the parish, and the community. To use a J.H.C. Fritz (Pastoral Theology) term, the pastor needs to learn how to “read the book of the flock.” To come in and start making significant changes and decisions without learning about the community is ill-advised and likely to be destructive to the pastor, the parish, and the ministry therein. A healthier response is to take the position of a learner.
Frankly, we need to help and encourage pastors (and other church workers as well) to take an intentional-learning stance as they work with people. We are, after all, continuous learners as well as teachers. In fact, we stop being good teachers when we stop being good learners.
At the same time, it is important that the congregation intentionally work to educate its new pastor (as I would hope it intentionally educates its new members). Does the congregation have a plan for orienting its new pastor? How will the pastor learn of the community, the history of the parish, its current and former conflicts, the hopes and aspirations of both the people and parish as a whole?
Parish leaders can wait for a pastor to discover these things, or they can work to aid and foster such learning. The latter is one basis of building a healthy learning community.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Oct. 27, 2005