There is an oft-spoken rule to starting ministry in a new church. It’s more of a “guideline” or “suggestion” than a rule, really. There’s nothing carved in stone. But it’s pretty well reinforced. And it goes something like this:
When starting off in a new church, don’t try anything new for a year.
There are some variations on this I’ve heard, but the general meaning is the same. Some pastors go off into new churches full of ideas and suggestions and new ways of worship and doing things and they are fully convinced that their way of doing things is the right way of doing things so that everything else should be brushed aside. Aside from the ego involved in such a perspective, coming into a new ministry setting and changing everything implies that the work of predecessors and faithful members that preceded you was misguided or irrelevant or just plain wrong. It also means changing things without getting “the lay of the land” first; figuring out why things have been done the way they’ve been done and determining a congregation’s threshold for change in the future.
Just like individuals, congregations (which, of course, are made up of individuals) get uncomfortable when too many things around them start changing. We ALL like the familiar. We ALL get in ruts of doing things the same way they’ve always been done because it’s comfortable. We ALL prefer to stay on the beaten path at points in our lives. While we may look romantically at adventure and braving the unknown, I think we ALL like to feel safe.
And while no one is laying down a law for new clergy that says they can’t try anything new for a year at all, there is a sense that coming into a new church and shaking things up too much is going to end up badly for everyone. The congregation may feel threatened or feel like there’s no connection to their history that got them to that place. And the pastor may feel like she flying solo with little support from anyone else. So, at least for a while, there is an expectation for our clergy to figuratively “tread water” for a while. Yes, some new things can be tried. Yes, new hymns can be introduced or new classes taught. Yes, you can begin to do some visioning. But, as with literal “treading water,” you’re not really going anywhere.
I don’t want say that this period of time is wasted as if “treading water” is a bad thing here. You may not be “going anywhere” but this is the time to discern through prayer and observation, through studying the church and community, where it is that you need to go. When clergy get to churches they need to learn about the church, its history, its peoples, their preferences. They need to test some of the boundaries to start learning where change is needed or where the “growing edges” are for congregation and the neighborhood around it. They need to see where authority rests, who the saints of the church are, who are the ones who have been forgotten. They need to assess the community and learn the rhythms of a new town, with potentially totally different industries and community events than they are used to. They need to build up trust and respect and, just as they learn the congregation, the congregation needs to learn them. It’s a learning process. And without doing all of these, a pastor won’t understand what ministry, new or old, should look like in this new setting.
To throw in another metaphor, when I’m in a city and need to get from one place to another I often pull out a map (digital at this point) and examine it so I can find my way from Point A to Point B. When beginning a new pastorate you need to spend time looking at “the map” so you get a good picture of the people, the church, and the community. This way you get the lay of the land before heading out. You figure out where you are (Point A) and get a sense of where it is you need to be headed (Point B).
(Now we return to the water metaphor).
I’ve been in Seward and Moose Pass for nine months now. It’s not been “a year” as prescribed in the unwritten rule for pastors. But it’s been long enough. For the most part, I’ve been treading water. I’ve tried to keep many things the way they’ve been. Our committees have been the same. I haven’t shaken worship up too much. I haven’t branched out to new ministries in the community very much. And I’ve been trying to get a sense from each of the congregations..who they are, what they find important, what their histories and personalities are, and who they want to be. It’s been a very active time even if we haven’t moved much. It’s been productive.
But I can tell that persons are ready for some more at this point. I’m seeing and hearing an openness to exploring what it is God wants from us and that it might be something more…something deeper…something more engaging…something different.
This is not to say that where things are now, in either church, is bad. It’s not saying that at all. But it is to say that I think persons know God has a plan for them and that will be leading them someplace. Where that is we don’t know right yet and it could take a while to figure out where that is. We will probably try some things that will fail miserably. We will probably make some mistakes. And I bet we’ll know when something gets too uncomfortable.
But it’s time to stop treading water. It’s now time to swim.
And I’m excited about where God may be leading us.