Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Tenuous Tenure—Part Two: Putting Out Fires in the Pastor-Parish Rotisserie


Participating in preventative pastoral visitation.

This post continues the thoughts found in “Tenuous Tenure—Part One: The Dangers and Damage of the Pastor-Parish Rotisserie.” As promised, we are examining the first of three stages of ministry that occur both with congregations’ new pastors and communities’ new churches.

Putting Out Fires
I was initially oblivious to being immersed in this first stage of ministry, but only until—as Helen Keller so aptly describes in her essay “Everything Has a Name” (chapter four of The Story of My Life) —I knew what to call it. “Putting Out Fires” involves the cycle of complaint and response that affects most pastors in their initial months or years of service to a congregation. Unspoken expectations are suppressed beneath a congregation’s eagerness to “fill the pulpit.” Thus, during the selection process, assumptions that “we have found the perfect pastor” lay the foundation for disappointment when the pastor is found to be an actual human person, complete with their own peculiarities and preferences, some of which do not match the peculiarities and preferences of various parties among their new parishioners.

Sometimes you need to call in reinforcements.
As various points of difference become known, the relatively new pastor makes the rounds of the church’s members—smoothing ruffled feathers, explaining perfectly innocent motivations behind purportedly egregious actions, and simply apologizing for being less-than or simply other-than. How so? Pastors are judged to be less-than when they fail to give “twenty percent of their time and attention to each of the eight to ten major tasks of ministry.” In fact, most parishioners feel that as much as half of the pastor’s attention should be given to one area of responsibility, with another significant portion given to each of two or three others, with the remaining tasks requiring little more than the occasional lip-service to appease other members whose priorities are mistaken. Usually and unfortunately, there are significant numbers who have lobbied for the inclusion of each of the eight to ten tasks as being “the highest priority” in the written job description.

Pastors are also judged to be other-than, for failing to live up to nostalgic versions of prior pastors or other, equally fictional characters. The criticism, “That’s not how Pastor Blank used to do this” has applied equally to one church’s “dearly-departed” retiree whom I succeeded, as well as to another congregation’s “newly-beloved” predecessor…whom they had fired.

Reinforcements need to do more than "show up."
When Fire-Fighting Backfires
How does any pastor survive this initial phase of adjustment? The fact is, most don’t. There are several reasons that the average pastoral tenure ends up being less than two years. In some cases, the pastor succumbs to the physical, mental, or spiritual illnesses that accompany attempts to live up to conflicting expectations, and finally determines that “I made a mistake in coming to this church.” In other cases, a congregation’s conflicting expectations congeal into agreement around the idea that “we made a mistake in hiring this pastor.” 

But there IS a good reason to put the fires out.
The same conflicts occur within new congregations. The initial promises that church-planters implicitly represent (and sometimes explicitly make) to a community proclaim the unique necessity of yet another church, creating “ministry as it is not currently available” in the community’s previously existing congregations. As much as new churches may seek to focus on unmet needs, they cannot help but attract the disgruntled who have either already left or are awaiting an attractive alternative to their prior commitments in other congregations. The conflicting expectations that meet a pastor hired by an established congregation are nothing in comparison to the pressures of this combination. Some in the community will expect the new church to fulfill its promises to fill specific needs for a specific segment of the population. Meanwhile, the majority of new members will expect the church to quickly realize that their higher priority must be to address whatever failings caused them to become dissatisfied with their previous church(es). Compounding the new ministry’s difficulties, the disgruntled rarely agree on what an appropriate level or type of “gruntlement” would look like.

The Reward for Surviving the Firefighting
A congregation’s new pastor and a community’s new church: both face a daunting challenge in staying ahead of the fires while adjusting their vision and mission in ministry to the course Christ sets for them. The benchmark deadlines for having survived this initial phase are generally set at two years for a pastorate and five years for a congregation. Those who do survive to reach the second phase do so by learning an important skill that is based on an important shift in perspective. That means going from “Putting out fires” to “Spinning the plates.”

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