A HEART-WARMING QUESTION
A few months ago a church elder emailed Pastor Church Resources to ask if we had any advice for their church on how to welcome their new pastor. What a wonderful question!
It’s the kind of question that reveals good will, good will that helps to get a ministry relationship off to a great start. Gestures of welcome and hospitality live long in the memory of any pastor, and those memories provide encouragement for later on, when there are times of ministry challenge.
The elder’s question immediately brought to my mind two experiences. At the start of my second charge a thoughtful church leader provided me with a list of people that he thought I should get to know. The people on the list were not current leaders or office bearers. However, they were all people to whom the church historically looked for anchor and wisdom. This is not a precise category, and sometimes unelected voices in a congregation have too much influence. However, the conversations that I had with the people on that list helped me to get up to speed quickly on the character and ethos of the congregation. And by following up on that list I helped the church to know that I was interested in knowing people rather than just fulfilling ministry functions.
The second experience that came to mind was related to my first charge. As I was talking with the church about a possible call I told the council, tongue in cheek, that I would be happy living wherever I could have the three "G"s: Grass (a lawn), a garage, and a grill. My wife and I were living in a downtown apartment at the time and didn't have any of those things. More importantly, these things symbolized for us a long-anticipated shift from student life to a more settled life. Well, the parsonage that we moved into had plenty of grass. That's one. It also had a huge garage. That's two. And when I hit the button on the garage door opener for the first time, the door came up to reveal a brand new gas grill with a big, red bow on it. That's three. What fun! That gesture set the tone for a wonderful ministry relationship.
SUGGESTIONS FOR WELCOMING A NEW PASTOR
As my colleagues and I pooled our thoughts in response to the elder’s question we came up with a few things that might be helpful to congregations welcoming new pastors:
- Provide your pastor with opportunities and time to establish relationships. Ministry, even ministry in large churches, rises out of relationships with people, as the elders in my first story recognized. Relationships take time. Allow your pastor the kind of schedule, early on, that leaves plenty of room for that. A number of churches have arranged for their new pastors not to preach for the first month so that those pastors can connect with people rather than spend hours in the study writing sermons. You might even offer to arrange meetings with key leaders in the congregation and with shut-ins as a kind of orientation for your pastor (and for the people with whom your pastor is meeting!). The first week, month, and year is prime season for establishing the relationships on which ministry is built.
- Set realistic expectations for everyone. Sometimes a congregation has unrealistic expectations for its new pastor: It is looking for a messiah (and some pastors like to present themselves that way!). Sometimes a pastor has unrealistic expectations for the congregation: He or she assumes that most people are highly motivated to love one another and bless their world. Councils should communicate honestly with new pastors about the challenges that they, pastor and council, will face together and they should communicate honestly with their congregations that their new pastor is wonderfully human—gifted and broken and being restored.
- Be clear. Developing clarity with everyone, at the outset, about what your pastor’s job is and is not helps ensure a healthy ministry relationship. So does clarity about how your pastor will communicate to council and to the congregation as well as how your congregation and council will communicate to your pastor. Is encouragement of one another an expectation for the relationship? How will council handle complaints about the pastor? What kind of feedback can the pastor expect to get from council?
- Prepare the work environment.
- Have a work space ready to go, complete with a new computer and readily available IT support.
- Make sure that all other staff people are aware of when the new pastor will arrive and are prepared to welcome him or her. If the church has a large staff you might even set up a schedule of initial one-on-ones.
- Line up people to orient the pastor to various elements of her or his work life. If there is an expectation that the pastor teach a class or two then have the person in charge of discipleship or education meet with the pastor to orient him or her to the program. If there is an expectation that the pastor have projected slides to go with her or his preaching then connect the pastor with the person who coordinates that.
- Welcome the family. If the pastor is married then there is a pastor’s spouse and possibly children to think about. What will make them feel welcome?
- Encourage congregation members to gather basic food items and household necessities for the pastor’s family (ask the pastor ahead of time about food allergies).
- Provide a list of area services (recommended banks, grocery stores, family entertainment, gas stations, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, libraries, cable/internet services, doctors, dentists, etc.).
- Consider taking the pastor’s family out to some local entertainment spots, restaurants, parks, etc., or take up a gift card collection for the pastor’s family.
- Designate 2-3 trusted families who can “adopt” the pastor’s family for the first couple of months and be the people to go to with questions about the church and the community.
- If the church owns a parsonage then make sure that it is clean and fully functional before the pastor’s family moves in. In my first charge we were not only met by a new grill but by a clean house and a fully stocked fridge and pantry. If you’re planning to do some repainting or remodeling include the pastor’s family in decisions about decor and arrangements.
One final thing to mention is this: As you anticipate the arrival of a new pastor simply ask him or her what he or she needs in order to get a great start. You might be surprised by what your new pastor is hoping for that you are not thinking about. Just ask!
Maybe this seems like a lot of effort and investment in a pastor. But this is an important relationship. As we like to say at Pastor Church Resources, in the heart of every pastor should be the flourishing of the congregation and in the heart of every congregation should be the flourishing of the pastor.
The elder that I mentioned earlier must have been able to mobilize the congregation for providing a welcome to their new pastor because I just heard from their new pastor! He informed me that both the church and the wider community have given him encouragement in his calling. That sounds like a great ministry partnership in the making!