With fall comes the return of students to school and the end of summer vacations, but also the practical beginning of new pastoral appointments made at spring annual conferences. Among the clergy are those serving their first appointments following seminary graduation.
I remember the excitement and anxiety of my first appointment fresh out of seminary. I went to a new state and had a new bride as well. Fortunately, I was appointed as an associate pastor, so I had the benefit of receiving on-the-job training without the full weight of pastoral responsibilities on my shoulders. But I still made my share of mistakes!
I am mindful of the many young men and women who, after years of study, sacrifice, preparation and dreaming, are beginning the journey of pastoral ministry. They are a gift to the Church, and we are looking to them to give leadership to a still-emerging 21st-century United Methodism. I am hopeful.Yet, I should offer a few suggestions borne out of my early failings and later learnings.
First, take the time to learn and know your local church context. There is a world of difference between discussing church ministry in a distant seminary classroom, and the local church setting where you are appointed. Minister in real time with real people. Every local church context, like every individual, is unique.
Second, remember that the people of the congregation are not clients waiting for your clinical or professional services. They are God’s children awaiting your pastoral shepherding. And they certainly are not adversaries, or students expecting you to teach them all you have learned in your three- or four-year theological school journey—in two months! What is that saying? People don’t care how much you know until they have learned how much you care.
Third, have an open mind and an open heart. The people will teach you how to be a real pastor. Mrs. Quill taught me how to pray for the homebound. Mr. Jackson showed me what genuine faith was in the face of tragedy. Mrs. Hall taught me the meaning of forgiveness. Earl revealed how to be a pastor to those with whom you disagree. So many lessons learned from those I was sent to lead!
Fourth, be patient. The congregation was there when you arrived, and in all likelihood will be there when the bishop appoints you elsewhere. Change is tricky! People must be led, not pushed. And above all, always be sure you are not leading where YOU want the congregation to go, but where you have discerned God wants them to go.
Fifth, preach pastorally even when preaching prophetically. The pulpit must never become a platform for scolding the congregation or particular individuals with whom you might be in some conflict. And remember, the more controversial and sensitive the issue addressed in your sermon is, the more sensitively it should be handled. Remember that prophetic preaching is not having a temper tantrum in the pulpit! I have developed my own definition of prophetic preaching: It is saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right people, in the right way.
Sixth, above all else, remember you must be what you preach and proclaim. You cannot just preach love, you must be love, and forgiveness and generosity and yes, Christ. When the congregation looks at you, they should better see Him!
So, new pastors, wherever you serve—in a county seat town, open country, a suburban or metropolitan area, or any other setting—know that an old, retired bishop in Georgia is rooting for you.
And of course, praying for you. We have been awaiting your arrival!
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.