The first year of a pastoral assignment is often referred to as the honeymoon phase, but this can be extremely misleading. Pastors are encouraged not to make any changes but continue to love the people and preach grace, while congregants often have unrealistic expectations of what the new pastor should be able to accomplish in their first year.
Getting the first year right demands that new pastors prioritize listening to stories of the congregants. Why have they remained members of the congregation? What are their fondest memories? What are their dreams for their congregation? These moments of sharing must be intentional and done with regularity. Even though pastors often feel as if there is not enough time in the day, it is essential that they purposefully schedule time to listen. Only through such a pursuit can pastors effectively elicit the sort of information that is crucial in determining the immediate needs of the congregation.
Listen to build community
In Ed Wimberly’s book, African American Pastoral Care, he argues that storytelling is one of the strongest approaches to restoring relational practices within the congregation. Each congregant must find space within congregational life to share their redemptive stories. These stories allow new pastors to more effectively interpret the meaning of what is said or what is not being said. Most often, the tendency is to fill the silence with meaningless statement, even though allowing the silence to be a time of reflection and understanding often promotes greater insight and a level of comfort. This type of listening involves all the senses. It is a search for understanding and meaning in a manner that invites collaboration and reciprocity.
Listening must be an active process, not a passive one that only hears the word spoken. It is important that pastors set aside adequate time to reflect on what they have heard. Listening creates the opportunity to build community, engage in deeper relationships, and develop a greater sense of cohesion that allows pastors to discern better how to prepare the congregation to take the next step.
Listen before offering solutions
Fighting the temptation to share new visions for the congregation is critical during the first year. Wimberly raises another concern that pastors may be tempted to imperialistically rely on their own life experiences to think “my way is the only way.” In other words, offering solutions too quickly, too often could mean that pastors are doing so before they have a true understanding and appreciation of the congregation.
Established congregations want to know that they are understood before they are ready to begin discussing solutions and change. New pastors are invited to come along as the congregation shares their victories, their joys, and their struggles. As the bond between the pastor and the people is developed and celebrated, it is integrated into the narrative of what God is doing in and through the congregation.
Developing deeper relationships during the first year will give the pastor a window into what issues are causing confusion or even anxiety in the congregation and what questions they are seeking to answer in their own lives. If pastors wish to preach sermons that the congregation will crave, they need to know what matters most to the congregation. Pastors must care about and connect to the concerns in their congregation and the communities they are part of. In other words, the relational ties in and outside of the church are essential for spiritual growth and engagement in the village.
Listen to learn who are leaders
An additional benefit of listening and observing others is that pastors soon discover who is most influential and trusted within the congregation and the larger community. The “opinion shapers” are the people who make a difference in the congregation. Pastors must be intentional in spending time listening to them and hearing their insights. Asking broad questions, as well as personal ones, is the best way to gain insight into others. At the same time, developing true relationships is a two-way street. It requires pastors to be willing to share about themselves – not only painting with broad brushstrokes but sharing the fine details about their lives and experience.
Tips for getting started
Don’t go overboard and block out a half-day to listen each week. That’s just not a practical approach that you can consistently keep up. Instead, start with blocking out just a half-hour after worship services or Bible study. Everyone can find a half-hour in his or her week to listen. That is a big step in showing that you care about what your congregation is saying. Be prepared with some common questions and be willing to add your own experiences. Here are some examples:
- Where is your hometown?
- What is your job?
- What would you do if money were not an object?
- Who is your favorite superhero, Bible character, Bible verse?
- Tell me something you are good at?
- What gives you hope?
- What have your struggles and challenges taught you?
The important of spending time listening, sharing, laughing together, and crying together cannot be overstated. Building community takes time to nurture relationship, takes courage to be vulnerable, and takes establishing trust so a congregation can grow in love, respect, and compassion for one another.
This article is adapted from Fishing Differently: Ministry Formation in the Marketplace by Sidney S. Williams, Jr. (Certa Publishing, 2018) Used by permission. The book is available at Amazon.