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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - It's Not Easy Being New

It's demanding enough to be a newly-ordained pastor, but even more difficult when you are a new pastor in a challenging parish. Such is the situation presented to us today...

I am in my first call in a rural congregation where I have been serving for a little over a year now and well its been rough. Most experienced pastors hear my stories and cringe, this is not an easy place to be the pastor. I have tried hard to understand their unique church culture but a year into things and I still rarely know which end is up. The expectations are plentiful and very high but are at the same time completely un-articulated and therefore unknown to me.

I just had two concerned members come and visit me and they spend 2 hours talking to me first about the ELCA Sexuality stuff and then they moved on to voice their concerns about what people are saying and how the congregation experiences me as their pastor. I won't go into detail but according to these people who I truly believe came trying to help me I am not involved in the congregation, am not making any effort to get to know people, am not friendly, and frequently blow people off on Sundays. And well I don't know what to think or feel. What was offered as constructive criticism leaves me asking what MORE I could possibly be doing to be involved in the congregation, get to know the people, be friendly, and talk to more people on Sundays. I am just in shock. I am not perfect, I am a brand-new pastor who has a lot to learn, but I question whether anyone could be seen as a "successful" or "good" pastor by the congregation.

I am not really sure what my question is beyond "what would you do?"

Jennifer who blogs at was the first to respond:

Dear One:

You’re right—this sounds like a very difficult situation. Are the two who visited with you people you trust, and are they perceived by the congregation as trustworthy? (I’m asking if their comments are unique to them, or if they’re folks you would expect would represent the general feeling of most folks.)

Second, are there safe places in your congregation and your higher governing body to air concerns and receive support? A well-constructed pastor-parish relations or personnel committee can be really helpful, especially if there are expectations, as you say, that are high, but unarticulated. You shouldn’t have to guess or wonder—those expectations should be clear and measurable.

If you have a higher governing body ministerial relations committee or committee on ministry liaison, they, too, can provide a sounding board, and a wider perspective on your ministry and the congregation’s personality as a whole. Even a local colleague in ministry—maybe even another clergywoman, who has been in ministry for a little while, could provide you with some perspective and support. It’s so hard to sort out what’s constructive from what’s just snarkiness, and help in discerning that cannot be overrated.

It sounds like there’s some anxiety in your congregation’s midst about the recent actions of the ELCA. Is there a place and time for your congregation members to talk about what they’re learning and feeling? Would it be helpful to air some of that, apart from these two individuals’ comments about your leadership?

May you find peace and confidence as you pursue help in calming anxious folks.

Earthchick, who blogs at adds:

Oh, UGH. This sounds very painful, and I'm sorry for what you're dealing with. That kind of general negative feedback, without specific positive suggestions, can be debilitating.

Does your congregation have a Pastor Relations Committee in place? If not, I would recommend working to put one together as soon as possible. I am betting that the ELCA has some resources to guide you and your congregation in the formation of such a committee. A PRC should be a small (ours is 3 members) group of people that both you and the congregation trust. The PRC should help facilitate communication between the congregation and the pastor - church members can bring concerns about the pastor to the PRC, and the pastor can also voice concerns about the congregation to the PRC. You could be honest with them about some of what you have said here: "I am a brand-new pastor and am unclear about what is expected of me. I feel like I am doing my best, but I am getting negative feedback without suggestions for how to improve. Could you help me figure out how to deal with this feedback?"

You could probably find more information about developing this sort of committee from your denominational offices, but is a resource from my denomination.

In the meantime, hang in there. Try not to be reactive or overly anxious. If more people approach you with similar feedback, consider asking them if they could be more specific about what they'd like you to do. Then decide for yourself whether their specific thoughts are reasonable. Talk to a mentor. Talk to a judicatory supervisor. Develop as much support as you can beyond the congregation. Keep saying your prayers for the people you serve and for your own ministry.

And from Mompriest, who blogs at

Comments like the one you received from these concerned parishioners lead me to wonder if what they really mean is you have not been friendly enough with the "right" group of folks in the parish. This then is a narcissistic injury issue. Most churches have a strong matriarch and patriarch group who have led the parish for years. These may be the old lay leaders, now "retired" but still acting through others. Sometimes they are the silent leaders, the one who lead from the fringes, but who are nonetheless in charge. I'd ponder about the congregational groupings and see if this might be true. Then I'd invite these key folk to have coffee with me and spend time listening to what they are thinking about. That doesn't mean I'd do everything or perhaps anything they suggest, but I would meet with them and listen and say back, "So I hear you saying...." I'd do this more than once. I'd also invite them to consider with me anything I might ponder implementing, any change.
Also, I'd create a team of people to help me listen more carefully to the congregation. This team, call it something like, "The Pastor Guidance and Reflection Team" would be comprised of key folks from every grouping in the parish. So for example: one person from the search committee that called the Pastor, one person from each service (assuming there is more than one service on a Sunday), one person who was previously a primary leader in the parish - in my denomination that would be a warden, one person who is a member of the matriarch/patriarch leadership, one person who seems to be new and not part of anything else - until I had a team of about 5 people. I would ask them to meet me with me weekly or at the very least monthly to talk about how things are going in the parish: concerns, questions, celebrations, hopes, and as a sounding board for where the congregation needs to go.
I suspect that it is true that the parish does not know what it really wants and the confusion you feel reflects their confustion. There may not be anything you can do about this if they are resistant to doing discernment with you. It may be that all they want to do is tell you what you should do...but that will not be helpful. They need to take ownership of the discerning, and the doing, with you. Some books that might help: William Bridges, Managing Transitions; Peter Steinke, Healthy Congregations; and Roy Oswald, New Beginnings...other resources are available at the Alban Institute including weekly email newsletters on parish issues. Prayers for you!

Finally, I (revhoney) am wondering if you are involved in a First Call Theological Education experience in your synod or region? Are you assigned a mentor with whom you are comfortable discussing these issues?

Do you have some insights or words of support for this new pastor? Please share them in the comment section following this post.

And, as we are down to one question in the queue, now is a great time to submit your question to Ask the Matriarch at

May you live in God's amazing grace+


  1. I'm an introvert. The comments remind me of what some folks have told me about myself. Some people experience me as cold. It's interesting that after they get to know me, they think I've changed. (And there are folks who are surprised to find I'm an introvert.)

    I try to be friendly and outgoing, but I'm just naturally reserved. I'd say the other suggestions are good ones.

    A first call in a rural area is really hard. I did it and though the congregation was great, I started looking for a new call within the first six months. I finally found a new call after two and a half years.

  2. When I've had conversations like the one you describe, they have turned out to be the opening volley in an attack. I wish someone had told me to read "Dealing with Antagonists in the Church" (or something very much like that title) sooner rather than later.
    Until you read it, Don't react! Don't give them any credence! Don't tell anyone else in the congregation about what they said to you! Read. Get help from outside the congregation. And watch your back.

  3. Yes, books like "Antagonists in the Church" can be very helpful. But also, not every one or every "complaint" is antagonistic or by an leaders we need to be able to discern the difference and respond accordingly. With true antagonist I try to apply the rule I learned in Dog Obedience Training - ignore the bad behavior and reinforce the good. This usually means ignoring almost everything the antagonist says or does, BUT building trust and reinforcing the good in everyone else...

  4. Thanks to our matriarchs and others for wise advice - I won't repeat what's already been said: just add advice I was given in my second year of school-teaching (before answering a call into the church!) - when I had a class of little horrors. A wise friend said 'love them' - I used to pray for them all regularly - lingering longest over the names that made we want to say 'Oh God I REALLY need to pray for this one!'. When I left that school that class of kids said "We were your favourites weren't we? We just knew you liked us best!".
    I didn't have the heart to say 'No you were just the class that made me pray hardest!'.
    And make sure someone's praying for you, too.
    God bless.

  5. I'll pass along something that's been going on in my congregation (also small and rural) that may be of help in yours: We recently built a new sanctuary, assuming a mortgage for the first time in over 50 years, so our pastor has been trying to get our congregational finances stabilized by encouraging more regular, mindful giving by more households. As part of getting our families up to speed on our finances, he initiated small-group "cottage meetings," centered around meals hosted by council members but led by him. This originally was all about stewardship, but as the meetings have commenced it's become a helpful means for him to get feedback on what's "out there" generally as far as what parishoners are thinking/feeling.

    In many cases, he notes, it's an opportunity to educate people, especially our newbies, on things like church polity, because often they really don't understand. (One of our newer families didn't know that our congregation had to pay its own way -- they had assumed that our denomination pays the pastor's salary and our building costs!)

    If you launch a similar series of small groups, it might be interpreted as proactive goodwill on your part. It's also a way to provide a less intimidating place for people to share their feelings and ask questions of you, especially if you can find hosts other than congregational alphas who are inclined to dominate conversations/intimidate our case the pastor called on our council members, who ironically are NOT the alphas in our church;-)). And -- you're doing an end run around the alphas, who as noted may or may not be giving you accurate feedback about "what people think."

    At our place one of the conversation starters has been, "If someone says to you, 'Oh, you go to _______ Church. Why do you go to church there?', what would you say?" That's been a good ice-breaker. We've also gotten some helpful feedback on things like our worship services. two cents.

  6. Boy, does this bring back some memories...I'd been here for a year when a woman who'd said for a year that I was "an answer to her prayers" pulled me aside after worship to tell me that "people are saying you're cold, insensitive, etc." When I dumped this conversation on my General Presbyter the next day, he told me that this same woman said almost the exact thing to my predecessor. This is just to say, this is probably a deeper systems issue and not much about you. I echo the advice to read anything by Peter Steinke.

    Mompriest's advice to discern the antagonist comments from the rest is good. As I write this, I'm thinking of the constructive feedback I receive gratefully, and that which I take with a grain of salt, and how I discern which response is more appropriate. I don't know the answer - it's a gut thing, and I suppose also borne out my experience with the person.

    One approach I take, though, came as guidance from our General Presbyter. I don't give much credence to "some people are saying" comments. I encourage them 1) to have the person come to me directly, 2) offer to come with the person to talk with me, or 3) to get the person's permission to use their name in talking with me. If the person who is complaining is not willing to do any of those three things, then I won't respond to it. Maybe it's my own paranoia, but I don't much like the idea of a committee that parishioners can go to to just dump on the pastor outside of her presence. It doesn't seem to foster healthy communication nor loving one another like Christ loved us and as he commanded us.

    I'm so sorry that you are going through this, and lifting prayers.

  7. I'm not a Rev, but found this information very useful for dealing with my (much smaller) unit of counselors. Thanks very much to all.

  8. In the position that I am in right now, it is the Senior Pastor who gets all the flack... and ignores it. He often comes into staff meetings and tells us quotes from the lambastings he receives (which are justified) and laughs them off. While I recognize that you can please anyone, I think the fact that you are listening is a very positive sign. Even if the church has dysfunctional systems, your listening is going to eventually build a stronger body. I ditto the idea of an outside reference, particularly someone who knows this church and its issues...

    praying for you!

  9. um... that should read

    "while I recognize that you CAN'T please everyone..."


  10. I don't have much original to add to what everyone is saying, other than echoing the caution about making sure any time of Pastor Parish Relations committee is a neutral committee--not the "support group" for the pastor, or the "complaint department" AGAINST the pastor.

    Another good book is called "Never Call Them Jerks" by Arthur Paul Boers.

  11. I would emphasize the part about really loving the people, even in the midst of confusion. I went through a period of conflict, which was cured in large part because I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and the treatment experience knocked me off the pedestal I didn't want to be on anyway, allowed my congregation to serve me, and opened a way for a genuine love to develop among us. I hadn't known that I was holding back part of myself.

    Entering into a discernment process with the congregation, to clarify expectations, sounds like a marvelous idea. Blessings to you.

  12. boy this takes me back -- "cold and uncommunicative" was the complaint against me...and it eventually defined itself as my refusal to divulge others' confidences to the 'gatekeepers' in the congregation so that they could in turn spill the beans to their favoured a**-kissers. The second phase was complaining bitterly whenever an announcement was made, or a plan was published, or information WAS shared, that it hadn't been shared BEFORE.

    I don't know what to advise because what I did was to hang on like a snapping turtle, and -- eventually -- outlive a good many of them... I'm not sure that was the healthiest response possible!


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