This essay is in three parts: The first sets out the importance of starting well in the first 90 days of a priest’s new cure. It then lays out seven perspectives to keep in the forefront of one’s mind during those first 90 days. The second and third parts, which will be published in coming weeks, will discuss the three top pastoral priorities the new rector or vicar should pursue during those first 90 days.
By Neal Michell
I came out of seminary knowing nothing about how to lead a congregation. That is not a criticism of my seminary; I had also graduated from law school not knowing how to practice law. In law school I learned how to think like a lawyer; as a practicing lawyer I actually learned how to get to the courthouse, how to file a subpoena, and how to cross examine a witness. Similarly, seminary taught me to think like a theologian; then I had to learn how to be a pastor.
After ordination, I was assigned as deacon-in-charge of two congregations. I found that I needed more than I had gleaned from three years in seminary. When it came time for my first vestry meeting, the reality hit me that I did not know what to do. Oh, certainly, I had served on a vestry before, but that was in a congregation of a church with an average Sunday attendance of 800. My church had 17 in attendance on my first Sunday. I didn’t even know how to lead a vestry meeting. This article is for the new rector or vicar in a new congregation or an ordinand who is on her own, and secondarily for the new ordinand who is a curate with a rector. (For the purposes of this article, “rector” will refer to either rector or vicar.) It will give the new rector a road map and a set of principles to help the new cleric start well and set the stage for an effective beginning of ministry.
90 days. Three months. 13 weeks. It may not seem like a very long time, and it’s not. But a lot can happen during those first 90 days.
The transition from one rector to another is fraught with both challenges and opportunities. With the departure of the previous rector there is a re-shuffling of leadership roles and relationships. The church feels vulnerable with the prospect of change, and the new rector is under a microscope
During the search process, key leaders in the parish will have formed opinions about the new rector on fairly limited information. The first 90 days provides the new rector the opportunity to affirm those positive impressions and to make inroads into the hearts of parishioners who have not had close and personal conversations with the new priest. Or, the new rector can make unfavorable initial impressions that will be hard to change.
How does a new priest prepare herself and her new congregation for a good beginning of their common life together? She does this by focusing on three areas: pastoring individual people, pastoring through administration, and pastoring the congregation as a whole. Before we examine those three areas, let’s consider seven foundational perspectives.
- The Spare Change Principle.
John Maxwell says that spare change is the “coin of the realm” in pastoral ministry. Spare change represents trust in the relationship between the congregation and the priest and between individuals in the parish and the priest. The new rector arrives with a certain amount of spare change that he will both spend and earn in those first six months. Successes earn more spare change; failures cause the priest to spend spare change. If the priest spends all his spare change — that is, if he has not replenished and added to the trust that the congregation has in him — he can expect a pastoral call from the bishop or the Canon to the Ordinary enquiring about “how things are going.”
- Get an Early Win.
Michael Watkins, in his book The First 90 Days, says it is important for the new executive to earn an “early win” to show she is learning and connecting with the organization. This is true for the pastor in the church as well.
- The Principle of Momentum.
Small Win + Small Win + Small Win = Momentum. People know whether their church has momentum or is stuck. Expectations are high for a church when the new rector finally arrives. Several parishioners once told me that when their new rector arrived and spoke the first words of the Sunday liturgy that “you could feel all the air go out of the room” collectively. He went on to make several major pastoral blunders from which neither he nor the congregation ever recovered. Look for small wins that will encourage the congregation that “things are on track.”
I know of one rector of a large church who raised money for new prayer books and hymnals within his first 90 days. As a newcomer, he recognized that the prayer books and hymnals were looking tired; the congregation was used to them. He raised the funds among the congregation for this purpose, telling them, “We’re better than this.” He sent the message that church would be doing things with excellence.
Small things such as starting the Sunday worship services on time, or making certain physical improvements to the facilities will send a signal that the church is on a course of improvement.
- Never Badmouth Your Predecessor.
Always listen to parishioners’ complaints, but never repeat them. Let them think you’re simply naïve about your predecessor. They will more likely forgive your naïveté than they will your critical nature. If you have to criticize your predecessor to feel good about yourself or to heighten your esteem in the eyes of others, you have already lost the race.
- “It’s Relationships, Stupid.”
This is based on James Carville’s motto for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign (“It’s the economy, stupid.”) Spending time with people, asking them about their spiritual journeys, their hopes and dreams for the church, their family history, and so on, are much more important and profitable than getting your books into bookcases and hanging your ordination certificates on the wall of your office.
Your parishioners want to talk to you. They want a pastor who knows them, cares about them and their spiritual life, and prays with them. One summer I came home from seminary and met with my bishop. He asked about my trip, and I mentioned that I had visited my aunt and uncle on the way, and I told him, “typically, they asked me to pray over the meal.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Yes, it’s always good to bear witness for the Lord when we are given the opportunity.” In that brief response he told me that I would now always be a pastor to people and should never make light of that opportunity and obligation.
- The Rector should be the Chief Storyteller among the congregation.
Nike has one. Microsoft even has an annual “Storytelling Summit” to help people learn how to tell stories in service of the company “creating harmony between internal messaging, external sales, and marketing, and the work that teams actually create.”
The pastor as chief storyteller listens to the stories parishioners tell, reads the histories and records of the congregation, and attempts to help the congregation “connect the dots” between the congregation, its history, its vision, and the gospel.
- Keep your Spiritual Life Healthy.
This should go without saying, but it doesn’t. It is easy to be so busy doing during the first 90 days of your new cure that you neglect the being of the spiritual life. If your spiritual life is not in a good place, you will have nothing of substance or depth to offer the souls that God has placed in your care. Reading the daily office; fasting regularly; getting a spiritual director; going to confession; having a personal retreat at least one day per month; interceding in prayer on behalf of your congregation; personal study; maintaining spiritual and theological relationships: these are examples of things that can make for a healthy spiritual life.
Excitement is contagious, and so is negativity. As the new priest, you can help to write your own history in advance by focusing strategically on your first 90 days. The next posts will address three main areas of responsibility to focus on in this strategic time.
The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.