By Israel Galindo
During my years in parish ministry I offered spiritual direction for clergy in the area. In the span of two years, four pastors came to me with what seemed to be the same symptoms. Each felt a sense of restlessness, malaise, and vague anxiety about the future of his or her current congregational ministry. Puzzled that their struggles seemed so similar, I looked for a common factor in these pastors’ lives and their widely differing church contexts.
The only common element all four shared was the length of time they had served their current parishes. Each was in either the seventh or eighth year with one congregation. Moreover, none of these pastors had previously stayed with one parish for more than five years. Could this common thread of short pastoral tenure be the source of their restlessness?
After informal surveys, as well as conversations with pastors and denominational staff, I’m convinced that important dynamics are at work in a pastor’s tenure at one church. In my view, a particular pattern marks the pastor’s first 10 years in one parish. The pattern is shaped by several elements. First, the dynamics of the corporate relationship inform how a pastor is called or appointed to a church, begins his or her ministry there, and moves into the role of pastoral leadership. Second, the pastor’s unique relationship with a congregation manifests itself in a predictable ministerial life cycle. The existence of such a cycle suggests that a pastor’s experience in the parish can be anticipated and managed.
First Year: “Which Door Does This Key Open?”
For most clergy, the first year at a new church is filled with excitement and challenge. You work to get to know the members (who’s who, who does what and, if it’s a small congregation, maybe even who’s related to whom). This “getting to know you” phase is accomplished by providing basic pastoral care, visiting with members, and meeting with as many church groups as possible. You blunder through discovering the “turf” that people think belongs to them, and you manage to put out a few fires—mostly issues neglected during the interim between “settled” pastors.
During the honeymoon, you work at understanding the church’s history, listening for stories that define the congregation’s personality and identity. The early months offer the perfect opportunity to “get dumb” and ask questions that you won’t be able to get away with later. Taking an “observer” stance in the first year of ministry at a new call or appointment allows you to discover the church’s rhythms, habits, and practices.
In the first year, ministry management consists of giving attention to basic pastoral and leadership functions—fixing failed administrative practices, for example. These often are simple inconveniences for which no one has taken responsibility. During the first weeks at my first executive position, I was puzzled that one of the secretaries would occasionally peek into my office and say, “Dr. Galindo, a box was just delivered. Where do you want it?”
My immediate thought was, “It’s just a box. Put it anywhere!” But I realized that what the secretary really wanted was an administrative decision. The question had less to do with where to put the box than it did with the system’s relief that someone was on board whose job it was to make decisions.
During your first year you may tinker with the worship service—but don’t tamper with it! Most churches will allow the “new” minister some leeway in tweaking the worship service. After all, they know you went to seminary, and they assume you know a little about worship and liturgy. But most ministers seem too eager to make major overhauls of worship—usually, regrettably, informed more by personal preference than by theology. Making too many changes in the worship service threatens a primary source of corporate identity, and the wise pastor will patiently take time to observe which worship practices are important to the congregation’s identity before tampering with the liturgy.
During your first year in a parish, three other ministry management details are critical. First, negotiate a fair salary package with the church, and open a retirement account. Second, get into the habit of reading all those books you didn’t finish in seminary. It’s amazing how many clergy stop reading after seminary—and it shows in their sermons! Third, find a support group; it may make the difference between thriving in ministry and suffering early burnout.
Second Year: Extend the Honeymoon
In your second year, the honeymoon is about over, so enjoy it and try to extend the goodwill. With one year’s routines under your wing, you know what’s coming next as the year rolls on. Now you can anticipate what’s around the corner in the life of the church; you can plan ahead and make wise changes.
Now you can anticipate problems and make changes to address them. Realize, however, that most of these changes will be administrative—fixing procedures already in place that are broken, streamlining current practices for efficiency and effectiveness, shoring up existing structures, and promoting better communication and integration in church ministries and organization. Basically you’ll be addressing people’s points of anxiety and solving difficulties and inconveniences. But if you try to make essential changes, you’ll likely run into quick resistance and sabotage.
The truth is that organizations and people don’t like to be changed—regardless of what they may say or ask for. Some parishioners are beginning to get to know you, and most members will take your lead with caution. Remember, they’ve seen pastors and staff come and go. At this stage, they don’t expect anything different from you. One pastor told of this experience:
I instituted a major program during my first two years at the church, and I’ll never forget what one good deacon said to me: “I hope this is the right thing for us to do because, remember, I was here long before you got here, and I’ll be here long after you’re gone.” Meaning: “Don’t leave us with something that’s going to mess us up, or that we’ll have to live with.” Guess what? He was right! I’m gone and he’s still there.
During your second year at the church, people aren’t ready to make changes that challenge the ways they relate, think, or function. Remember, some of them have learned that all they need to do is wait you out! They’ve seen staff come and go, and they’re not yet willing to invest emotionally in you or your ideas—no matter how logical, rational, or appropriate they may be. The wise pastor who is restless for “change” will find ways to make high-profile, low-risk changes.
Ministry management in your second year should involve writing a case study of your church. By now you know enough about the church and its people to begin to understand the congregation. Categorize the church in terms of its congregational size, stance, and style. Size is an important indicator—but not because bigger is better, or because a larger church is “more real” than a small one.1 Size, while having no theological significance for the congregation’s effectiveness, is a determinative factor in faith formation. The nature of group formation and the way people relate to one another help “shape” the faith of those who are part of the group. The congregation’s size gives “shape” to its members. Understanding that dynamic will help you know what pastoral leadership to provide.
Determine your church’s stance—how it views its mission and ministry. Often a congregation’s stance is determined by its immediate context, as with the urban ministry church, the university church, the country club church, or the community church.
Sometimes a church’s stance is determined by theology, as with the mission church, the pillar church, the shepherd church, or the outreach church. Understanding the congregation’s stance will put you in touch with its values, myths, self-identity, vision, and practices.
Determine your church’s style. By style, I mean the kind of corporate spirituality your church embraces. Basic congregational spirituality styles include the head, heart, pilgrim, mystic, servant, and crusader spiritualities.
Writing such a case study will help you begin to shape and articulate a vision for your ministry tenure in this congregation. Note that the vision to be worked on at this stage concerns your ministry. The vision you will develop for the congregation comes later. Get clear about yourself first, before you attempt to shape a vision for your congregation.
Third Year: Hitting Your Stride
During your third year of ministry you’re feeling comfortable with your role. You know what needs to be done, and you know how to do it. You’ve gotten to know some of the people in your congregation, and you have some “fans” among them.
By your third year you have a clear enough idea of the parish and have gathered enough information to begin pondering what needs to be addressed in the life of the church. But heed this caution: The more clearly you make known the direction in which you want to lead the church, the more creative the resistance and sabotage will become. The wise pastor knows not to take such resistance personally, understanding that change is hard for churches.
If you are a new pastor, and have survived your first pastorate so far, you will have learned more about yourself and about church than you learned in seminary—or than you are likely to learn for most of your remaining ministry years. Why? The learning curve is steep in these first three years. And since what you need to learn is directly correlated with your survival, the learning is meaningful and powerful. Authors Michael and Deborah Jinkins point out that the quantity of new demands placed on beginning pastors correlates positively with their level of competence. Most pastors will not reach a “comfort zone” where ministry demands and competence meet until well into their third year.2
During your third year at a church, ministry management involves decisions about your stewardship of ministry. To organize the leadership functions that you will provide from now on, decide how you will invest your time and talents—on what and in whom. The demands on your time and attention seem endless, and they come from a myriad of sources. You can spend your ministry attending to problems, peccadilloes, the art of keeping people happy, the management of conflict (or the perpetual avoidance of it), and any number of other tasks that, in the end, will never yield lasting results or encourage maturity and growth in your congregation. Or you can realize that you are human and have limited personal resources—and can decide to invest yourself only in those people and ministries that will make a difference in the long run.
Fourth Year: The Year of Discontent
Something happens to most of us during our fourth year at a church. We get restless. Not uncommonly, we find ourselves sitting in the office, looking out the window, and wondering what other ministry opportunities may lie ahead of us. The fourth year is often a time of low energy. Problems at the church that were previously a challenge have become merely a nuisance; we suspect that we may be solving the same problems over and over. During this year of malaise and ennui, you may, “just in case,” update your résumé and keep it on your personal computer’s hard drive.
One hazard faced by many pastors at this point: they may start paying the price for their lack of study and purposeful work in personal growth and professional development. If all you have is a bag of tricks, you may start running out of surprises to pull out of the bag (and believe me, some parishioners will notice). This malaise and lack of purpose may explain, at least in part, the phenomenon of pervasive turnover of parish pastors before the five-year mark.
Ministry management during “the winter of our discontent” involves recapturing the passion of your calling amid the details and drudgeries of ministry’s administrative side. Now is the time to recommit yourself to reading books and journals, learning new ministry skills, and retooling for the next stages of pastoral leadership. For beginning clergy, it’s a good time to consider formal continuing education—perhaps entering a good doctor of ministry program. Seminaries require three years of ministry experience for applicants to their D.Min. programs, and for good reason—by that time new clergy are ready to learn things they were not ready to hear during their seminary tenure.
Fifth Year: The Latency Year
For most pastors the fifth year of ministry seems to be a latency year. People begin to trust you; some even like you. By now, a core group of members has come to love you. You begin to make your mark as the neighborhood pastor and find your niche in your local professional network. Having handled most administrative problems and basking in the renewed good will of a less anxious congregation, you coast a bit. You initiate creative programs or ministries and institute challenging changes. Because you enjoy by now a certain level of congregational trust, these are accepted with little resistance.
Ministry management in the fifth year includes renegotiating your salary, if you haven’t already. Many clergy are so eager to be called to a church that they are unrealistic in assessing the financial impact of a move. By now you have a more realistic idea of your personal or family financial needs. Don’t do the church a disservice by neglecting to help the board or finance committee understand the realistic financial costs of calling and keeping a good staff.
If your church does not have a sabbatical leave policy, now is the time to begin educating the congregation as to its value. Take the initiative in making possible a dialogue that will create a sabbatical leave policy.3 At the same time, inventory your personal ministry skills so that you can sharpen the competencies you’ll need for the next stage of ministry.
Sixth Year: Ministry Redirection
As several elements converge in the sixth year of ministry, it may become a time of ministry redirection. If you are a staff member in your sixth year at a church, the senior pastor has probably left by now. The new demands on you to function at higher levels of leadership make ministry challenging, exciting—and scary. Your job may include “breaking in” the interim pastor and, eventually, the new senior pastor.
During this year it’s not uncommon for both pastor and staff members to rework their résumés. Some begin considering serious inquiries from other churches, perhaps even paying a visit or two at the invitation of a search committee. This temptation to accept a new call may signal that the ministry groove you’ve created is becoming a ministry rut. It’s time to begin asking yourself questions about essential changes in your ministry leadership roles and professional goals. Will you stay in the parish ministry for the rest of your working years? Do you want to go into teaching? Will you specialize, perhaps in pastoral care and counseling? If you are an associate or assistant minister, will you seek a sole or senior pastor position? If you are a sole pastor, will you take on the challenges of leading a multiple staff? Is it time to move on to a bigger church?
Ministry management in the sixth year can include an episode of housecleaning. Start throwing out clutter—the dated stuff that has accumulated on your desk, in your files, in your library, in the church organizational structures, and in the church buildings. By now you know whether youcan throw out that ugly blue flower vase in the sanctuary without incurring the wrath of a member whose great-aunt Alice donated it. Since you know enough about “personal” and “public” territories in your church, you can safely start throwing out junk that has accumulated around the church buildings over the years. But perhaps the most important ministry management you’ll do in the sixth year is to explore seriously your sabbatical options. Be mindful, however, that as you begin to plan your sabbatical you’ll likely encounter some sabotage—from yourself and from the congregation. You’ll both develop a certain level of separation anxiety. Tell yourself that this reaction is natural. Don’t let it stop you from benefiting from an important resource for you and your church.
Seventh Year: Recharge or Burnout?
If you serve on a pastoral staff, the new senior pastor is probably on board by now. Your new boss will either take up the church’s vision and support your philosophy and approach to ministry, or will want to bring in his or her own vision of ministry. It’s time to call the district office, update the résumé, and perhaps even put out some “feelers.” If you and the new pastor have meshed and you decide to stay on, you’ll need to renegotiate your relationship and leadership function with the church.
If you’re the pastor, you’ll probably find yourself saying, “I can’t believe it’s been seven years!” And if you’re anything like those four pastors who came to me for spiritual direction, you’ll start feeling some stirrings that will blossom full-blown next year.
As for ministry management in your seventh year, it’s time for your sabbatical. Take it—no matter what.
The Eighth Year: The Pivotal Year
If you have made it to the eighth year of ministry in your congregation and decide to stay, something fascinating and powerful happens. You’ll feel an emotional shift in your relationship with your congregation—and the members will feel it also. In your eighth year you’ll notice that a whole generation of children who have grown up in the church are beginning to leave. You’ll find yourself officiating at the funerals of people who are now friends—not just “church members.” Perhaps for the first time, you’ll begin to understand what the metaphor of “pastor” really means.
At this point you will realize that the people in your congregation are the products of your ministry, and you’ll wonder what difference you are making. This realization is powerful, and it can be overwhelming.
This shift in the pastoral relationship is what drove those four ministers to seek help. All four intuitively sensed that they and their ministries were on the verge of something different and new. They were in touch with the notion that staying in their respective places of ministry, regardless of the context, would require a new way of relating and ministering. For some, the prospect of entering into a more intimate relationship with their congregations was frightening. For others, standing on the border of uncharted territory aroused fears about their competence.
Ninth Year: The Year of Commitment
If you navigate successfully the relational and emotional shifts of the eighth year, you can make an emotional commitment to your congregation. You settle comfortably into the realization that this is your church and your home. You belong here. Your congregation, meanwhile, senses whether you are staying or going, and will respond accordingly.
Your relationship with the congregation now undergoes a definite shift. It becomes deeper, more honest, more intimate, and more vulnerable. As a result of this shift, ministry becomes more about relationships and less about management. And it is that shift, I believe, that so frightened the four pastors who came to me. Ministry as management is easy, really. Clergy training does fairly well in equipping pastors for the management of ministry. But the heart of ministry, like the heart of the gospel, is not management but relationship. And having a more intimate relationship with people is more frightening than standing behind the façade of professionalism and competence in “managing” people. Tragically, too few clergy are able to make the shift. Too many seem willing to abort the possibility of a long tenure at one congregation, opting instead for the safety of minister-as-manager in a string of short-term pastorates.
Tenth Year: Ministry Begins
If you have lasted up to the tenth year and have invested well in your tenure of ministry, you and your congregation share a mutual relationship of trust, a shared corporate identity, and a common vision of ministry. Your relationship with the congregation can provide the resources to begin working on whom you can become. Because your pastoral leadership function will take on new directions, now is the time to quit recycling sermons. More important, now is the time to begin thinking about the life of this congregation two or three generations into the future.
Now is the time your ministry begins.
- See Alice Mann, The In-Between Church: Navigating Size Transitions in Congregations (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1998). See also Gary L. McIntosh, One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Bringing Out the Best in Any Size Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Revell, 1999).
- Michael and Deborah Jinkins, “Surviving Frustration in the First Years of Ministry,” Congregations (January/February 1994): 6–9.
- See A. Richard Bullock and Richard J. Bruesehoff, Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 2000).
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean at the Columbia Theological Seminary