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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Top Ten Tips for a New Call

Our question this week comes from a minister who has just begun a new call and is looking for some wisdom from her colleagues. She writes:

This week I started a new (part-time, interim, but you've got to start somewhere) call at a small, rural church. I spent my first four years in ministry as an associate, so this is my first time as a solo pastor. What are your top ten tips for getting off to a good start in a new call?

Great question! And the matriarchs have some great answers. Read on:

Jennifer writes:
1 - Listen.
2 - Invite people to share their stories.
3 - Ask people about their hopes and concerns.
4 - Talk with the oldest and the youngest.
5 - Spend time with people who have a harder time getting to worship.
6 - Listen.
7 - Get to know your neighbors and community partners.
8 - Listen to other staff/judicatory leaders/other folks about their sense of things with your new congregation.
9 - Pray and listen.
10 - Listen for and respond to the Spirit's unique transforming message through all of the above.

Muthah+ offers:

  1. Be yourself but be respectful of them.  They have been church for a long time and will be a long time after you leave.
  2. An interim gig is a tough one for a brand new pastor.  Know the work you must do as an interim.  Know what the parameters of your ministry are from your judicatory and what you are expected to do as an interim by the parish. Make sure that your congregation is aware of those structures.  Part-time can get VERY sticky if you do not set up what you can do in the x number of hours you are scheduled to work.  All too often you will end up working full-time and then set up false expectations for the church for future pastors. 
  3. Often times Interims are when parishioners are scared and bereft--they are not at their best.  They may just want to take it out on you.  Keep detached from their frustrations for the interim process.  Do not allow yourself to take on their complaints as your own.  You are just the focal point for their frustration.  Detachment is the name of the game.
  4. Listen, Listen, Listen.  It is the hardest thing for many preachers to do.  If there are kids in the parish go to their school events if possible.
  5. Visit anyone older than 50 and/or anyone who is home during the day-time.  Always call first.  This is still important to the older members of small towns.  If they aren't working, visit.  If they don't want you to visit in their home, take them out to the local beanery and have lunch or a soda.
  6. Figure out who the matriarchs and patriarchs are in the parish.  They will be doing most of the ministry. You will be only the chaplain but they need to know you are available.  Work with these men and women even when they seem to be wrong.  Cajole them into the newness rather than butt heads with them.  They have more cache with the parish than you will ever have no matter how long you are there.  And be aware of the parish divisions or cliques or 'families' that they represent.
  7. Do not expect them to change for you.  They have had so many pastors over the years that they see clergy as a flash in the pan.  Try to get them to describe for you their experiences of previous pastors and what the liked. (Try not to let them tell you horror stories--but help them dwell on what they liked in previous pastors so they can figure out what they want for the future.)
  8. Do as much teaching as they can tolerate.  It may be just a few parishioners who will come to adult ed. things but do what you can to raise the educational level in the congregation. 
  9. Visit hospitals and nursing homes.  In rural situations it is a must.  You may see some horrific things.  They need you there as an ombudsman.
  10. Love 'em even when they aren't lovely. 
And kathrynzj puts it this way:
Interim and part-time in a small, rural church?
1 - Visit
2 - Visit
3 - Visit
4 - Learn about their "family" dynamics
5 - Lead good worship.
6-10 - Repeat 1-5

It is very hard to keep within the boundaries of part-time hours but for both yourself and the person who is going to come next, please do your best. 

Prayers ascending for you and this new call to ministry!


Hmm, I'm sensing a theme here, and it has to do with listening! Really good, solid advice, all the way around, from our dear matriarchs. What say the rest of you? What would you add to what has already been said? Any anecdotes to share from your own similar experiences? Please join the conversation in our comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. Listen, listen, listen..... in an interim it can provide clues to what you need to do.

    My learning from rural churches is presence is HIGHLY valued! Go to EVERYTHING you can - sports, plays, etc.

  2. I took my 2nd call as interim pastor. Loved that church and those people.
    I agree totally with the listen part. It is so important to listen and make sure they know they are heard.
    Also, in respect to being in a rural call, you may need to think through the best ways to be involved in community or area.
    My hangout was a small greasy spoon place. It was where the locals were. I also went to the local farm stand to buy fruits and veggies. You get to know people, support local economy and build r'ships.
    The town had an annual Christmas parade. Everyone went to it and it was fun. It is good to be seen at local events.
    I know this isn't a list, but I thought of these as I read others' comments.
    Final thought, don't underestimate what a small, rural church can do. The church where I served had a craft bazaar fundraiser. In one day, they had raised almost $3,000 to support homes for mentally challenged people. They are a group of smart, generous, creative people and they rock!

  3. I agree too. Listen and then listen some more. And be a visible, caring presence.

  4. Umm. I was going to say listen and love them. But I think others have mentioned those words, too. B-)

  5. Ha! Ruth, yeah, there is a definite theme here, eh?

    Good stuff, y'all! Keep the comments coming!

  6. As a pastor in a smallish town, smallish congregation, somewhat ruralish, I can give a hearty "amen" to the advice given by the matriarchs. This is my first call - I've been here 6 years. Listen to them, love them, learn from them. If you haven't already done so, read Kathleen Norris' "Dakota." It was very helpful to me in describing something of the joys and challenges of being a pastor of a small church in a rural community where pastors come & go, but families have been there for decades. She also writes quite beautifully of the mighty mission that occurs in small, rural churches.

  7. I was going to say what Kathrynzj said! but got waylaid on a Wednesdsay night.

    My first call was in a small rural parish, and visiting and being really genuinely curious about who the people are and their stories is the very first order of business. And will help you be a better preacher, and pastor, too.

  8. It really helps, too, if you can practise beforehand, NOT gasping-in-horror at what you discover.


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