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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — Fresh Out of Seminary

While summertime means vacation and relaxation for many folks, it's a completely different story for recent seminary graduates who find themselves pounding the proverbial pavement, so to speak, as their discernment process leads them to their first call.

As a recent seminary graduate and presumptive (presumptious?) candidate for ministry in my denomination, I have been walking through the process of "conversation" with a potential calling church. While I have enjoyed the process thus far, the congregation is going to vote in a few weeks and then the discernment ball will be in my court, so to speak. And I'm wondering how y'all do discernment at this level. In denominations without bishops making these matches for you, what does it really mean to feel "called by God" to a particular ministry location?

This leads into a second question, although this may be more appropriate a few months from now, and that is: any advice for a young minister starting off in her first call, her first congregation? What should I avoid doing? What absolutely needs doing? How do I care for myself during this time? etc. etc. etc

Here are the tips from our matriarchs:
Do a gut check.
Some questions to ask yourself about how you feel: Does it scare you to consider accepting this call? (Not necessarily a bad thing to be scared.) Does it feel right? Can you imagine yourself serving this community? (Jan)
Listen to your heart and intuition; pay attention to what they are saying to you. Pray, and invite others to join in praying for you. (RevHoney)
I think about it like intuition. Does this feel right. Could I love these people, get excited about living in this community, are my particular gifts and skills well suited for this setting, will they love me, can I shine. (Ann's personal matriarch network)

Spell out expectations from both sides.
Check on salary, housing, pension, car allowance or mileage, vacation, days off, education leave, etc. Be sure you are being paid fairly as compared with others in your range of experience and responsibility. Be clear about days off per week (most jobs have 2 days) and take them from the beginning. Do not be shy about stating your needs. A good letter of agreement about what they will do and what you will do is invaluable, as the church will take every moment you allow it to do so; so your ability to make it a long-term commitment will be how you establish the relationship and keep to it. (Ann)
Start well by setting a Sabbath day for yourself and honoring it. At a minimum, take one day/ week and two days in a row once each month. (RevHoney)
The best advice I received was to tell the interviewing committee and anyone else that will listen that, as a person with friends and family out of town, you will be 1) leaving town on your day off to visit them and 2) having them stay in your home. And they will include relatives and friends, married and single people, old and young, men and women. This comes in handy when people wonder what's going on in the new pastor's house. And it reminds them that you have a life apart from them. Depending on the context of your ministry, this might be something they don't realize. (Jan)

Personalize your experiences with congregation members.
Visit personally as many parishioners as possible just to chat. Keep a card file on each family unit - as soon as you finish a visit make notes on the card and each time you have new info. You think you will remember, but info overload occurs within weeks of arrival. (Ann)
I always think that it is important early on to schedule home visits wtih parishioners. It's a way to get to know people outside of a conflict situation and have a good leg up on establishing relationships equally across the boards - not just with those who are seeking you out! (Ann's personal matriarch network)

Learn about your community as well as the congregation.
As you are getting to know your congregation, get to know community leaders too. Make an appointment with the principal of the school closest to yours, to a local government person, long time local business owners, etc. Ask them what people in the community say about the congregation, and what the community’s greatest strengths and growing edges are from their unique perspective. (RevHoney)

Buddy up.
Find a spiritual director. And use him/her! (RevHoney)
Once you agree find a good small group of peers in your area (they don' t have to be clergy - other professions are good too, just not church members) and some strong cyberbuddies to discuss issues. (Ann)

Here are a few other Ask the Matriarch columns on navigating new calls that may help you out:

What to watch for, and what to watch out for:
It's Interview Season
Who's Interviewing Whom?
What's Fair?
A First Call (also one of our first AtM columns!)

What experiences from new calls can you other experienced revgals share for our newest about-to-be-clergy? Please share them in the comments!


  1. Another thought - seek out resources for referrals before crises appear in your office.
    The Domestic Violence network and safe house.
    Good counselors for variety of issues - therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists.
    Cultivate the press - especially in a small town.

  2. Assuming you get called to this church, I think it's wise NOT to make major changes for at least a year--unless it's something you just absolutely can't live with. Changing things immediately tells folks, on some level, that whatever they've been doing is not worthwhile. Gain trust--especially with the stakeholders--and get a group of people w/whom you can de-brief after major services (what worked, what didn't--for them or for you). Alban Institute has some really good stuff on transitioning into churches.

  3. All good advice, from matriarchs and commenters. I'll second (or third?) the 'gut check' note - trust your instincts. If something feels wrong or like a bad fit, check it out. Being scared in an awe-filled way is a good thing; being worried because it feels like something is wrong is not.

    I found it really important in my first call to be clear about my day off, to take that time on a weekly basis, and to do something completely non-church-related.

    A colleague of mine says that every pastor should have a totally non-church hobby. He's a civil war history buff. I knit (among other things). Keeps you from being obsessed with church or forgetting that you are more than a pastor.

  4. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I begin my first appointment on July 1 and so your advise is so timely for me and for others I am sure. I am so blessed to have found this nurturing and thoughtprovoking community (RevGalBlogPals) and all of you wonderful women & men.

    Blessings to you!

  5. I would reiterate the gut check. Plus add three things...

    1 - make sure you know how to report child/elder abuse and what the appropriate protocol is for that state. You don't want to be trying to figure out what the reporting process is at 1 am in an emergency situation.

    2 - pray. Pray. Pray some more.

    3 - Although the "no change for a year" rule applies to some congregations it certainly can be a big mistake as well, especially for congregations that are in a very unhealthy place or are stagnant. Many congregations are in need of wise, thought-out changes within that first year. Wisdom is key... use your session/council/committees/bishop to help you discern.

    I entered a church who hadn't had forward-looking (or any) leadership for some time. Those changes that went against the grain in my first six months were very significant (changes to worship and to committee structure) and very difficult, but they produced amazing fruit, and were very necessary at that moment. As one member put it... "If you would have waited a year, we would have never considered the changes."

    Work with the lay leadership in the congregation to truly discern through prayer what God wants... and then do it.

  6. A spiritual director reminded me that most people's reactions to you are 90-95% them and only a small proportion related to you, even though they may feel like they are all about you at times.... So in the early days, to remember that those who really like you or those who struggle with you, often reflects something deeper than you. It helped me have perspective.

    That said.... Sometimes a new pastor coming is a huge change for folks in and of itself. They are used to the last pastor or the pastor before the last pastor and since we are all so unique, just a change in pastors without a change in policy or program or worship style can throw people for a while. Even if you are positively regarded, it's still new again for folks.


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