By Neal Michell
This essay is in three parts: The first essay set out the importance of the starting well in the first 90 days of the priest’s new cure and introduced seven principles to keep in the forefront of one’s mind during those first 90 days. The second part discussed how to begin Pastoring Individual People of the congregation – a top priority for any new priest. This final part discusses two other top priorities: Pastoring through Administration and Pastoring the Congregation.
Pastor through Administration
Like it or not, the church is a business, and its business is ministry. Certainly, the business side of the church must serve the ministry of the church, but the priest who neglects administration diminishes much of the contribution of lay people.
Episcopalians are fond of saying that the priest is in charge of the spiritual affairs and the laity are in charge of temporal concerns. This canard lets people off the hook in engaging the spiritual life, because that’s “the priest’s job.” Administration is a spiritual gift, and a rector who engages in it brings a more holistic view of ministry that involves both priest and laity in all aspects of the church.
When I came serve as deacon-in-charge and then rector of my first congregation I named our first stewardship campaign: “From Maintenance to Mission.” I thought this was a great slogan (which I probably had heard somewhere else). I had sensed that the congregation needed to focus less on the finances and administration of the parish and more on the mission of the parish. My idea was that I didn’t want just to keep the doors open but focus our attention and energy on reaching beyond ourselves.
I thought I was inspiring them. They thought I was not paying attention to their immediately felt need. I learned that the congregation simply wanted not to feel so pinched financially. For them, maintenance meant keeping the doors open, and they had been tottering on the precipice of not being financially viable for several yours. For them, maintenance was not a bad thing at all. We had to learn to walk together before we could run.
Clergy are in the business of “selling the invisible.” We deal with such questions as: How does one measure the spirituality of individuals and the congregation as a whole? How much confidence do people have in the rector? Staff members? Vestry? Does the congregation have faith in the direction the parish is heading? These are not easily quantifiable. As the spiritual leader of the congregation, our responsibility is to help people see through the eyes of faith.
During the first 90 days, the congregation is still evaluating the new rector. “Do I like him?” “When she preaches does she really speak to my life situation?” “Can she capably run a vestry meeting that ends at a decent hour?” The new rector should be very careful about proposing change. (Remember the Spare Change Principle from the previous article.) The only real changes the new rector should try to bring about are correcting things that are being done contrary to the canons or norms of the diocese, and financial or accounting improvements that the vestry has intended to implement or called for by the most recent audit.
Early on in the new Rector’s tenure, people are evaluating whether the new rector is competent to lead them into the future. They are looking for competency, not the “big splash.” During this time the priest has not yet earned their trust. Here are a few suggestions for building trust.
- Learn to evaluate risk versus reward. Some proposed changes are fairly easy to get passed, and some are more “big ticket” items that require a good bit of spare change. Don’t spend all your spare change early in your tenure on proposed changes of questionable value that could deplete your trust resources with the congregation.
- Don’t change the liturgy to suit your preference. Very few things in the liturgy are so absolutely wrong that they need to be change right away. When you make extensive changes to the liturgy within the first year of your arrival, you run the risk of insulting the congregation and their previous pastor, and sending the message that they don’t know what they’re doing. You are their servant, not their liturgical lord.
- Find small victories like getting the service to start on time, firming up the training of Sunday servers and Lay Eucharistic Visitors, raising the profile of the church in the community, and so on.
- What to do about the staff you Inherit
- Don’t do the “Everyone has to Resign” bit. That is very dismissive of the staff that have worked hard on behalf of the congregation. It is also the coward’s way out for clergy who are conflict averse.
- Firm up job descriptions and conduct performance reviews of all staff within the first nine months. (Don’t be too harsh. Find a colleague who has already done this and get guidance. Remember when you were an assistant and how you would want to be treated.) Tell them that reviews will be repeated annually.
- To make sure the staff is focused on common goals, tell them, “The vestry called me (never use the word “hired”) as rector to grow the church, expand the reach of the church, reach more young adults, and so on. I need for you to help me do that.”
- In your initial visit with each staff member, ask each of them to tell you what they have done that enhance the ministry of the church. Also ask them to identify three things going well at the church and three things that need improvement, and what they would do about them.
Pastor the Congregation
One of the challenges of using the lectionary for our readings each Sunday is that clergy often speak to the text, but don’t always speak to the congregation through the text. We don’t often pastor the congregation in the pulpit. Sermons often apply on a personal level while neglecting the corporate relevance. Here are a few suggestions in pastoring the congregation through the pulpit.
- Preach a two to four-part series on the vision of your church as evidenced by events from parish history.
- By telling the story of your congregation you get everyone reading off the same piece of paper.
- You interpret the story of the congregation to serve the vision that you see emerging
- Don’t mention any previous rector favorably or unfavorably, unless it is a slam dunk favorably.
- Preach your service of installation.
- Use this sermon to cast your vision. Remember, though, that it is not just your visio, it resides in the corporate soul of the congregation. You are the bearer of that vision in your time at the church.
- What specific message does the congregation need to hear at this time? Do they need to hear a message of hope? Encouragement? Affirmation of the life of the congregation and previous rector?
- If you’re the vicar of the congregation, hold a Celebration of New Ministry and do the same.
- Make sure you get this service advertised in the local media
- Have people invite their friends. It’s not really evangelism, but most Episcopalians would call it that.
The new rector should use the first 90 days to establish the new priest as role of a caring pastor of the congregation by spending his or her time listening to as many parishioners as possible. This requires great intentionality on the part of the new rector. By being intentional in these first 90 days the new rector can instill a sense of enthusiasm and develop some early momentum in this crucial time in the life of the congregation.
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.