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Fresh out of Bible college, Jerry begins his first pastorate with freshman excitement. People, preparation, preaching, and potluck dinners-pretty much what he expected for his opening months in this Iowa farming community. Yet before his first anniversary as pastor. Jerry walks over a high bridge outside of town and thinks jumping might be the easiest way out. Fortunately, he concludes that a quick resignation and a change of employment is all he needs.
The first pastorate can be difficult. Certainly not all pastors contemplate suicide in their first church. There are the born naturals who, right from the start, quarterback that first congregation with Joe Montana ease. But for many of us, the first time around in ministry is especially tough.
This fact caught me by surprise.
I had the privilege of being raised in a parsonage. I cut my teeth on the hymnal and was 10 years old before I realized that not everyone went to church three times a week. Daily I observed my father in action as a pastor. He loved his work and enjoyed fruitful ministry. I grew up thinking there was no better life nor higher calling than the ministry.
My positive view of ministry was reinforced by my Bible college and seminary training. My ministries during these years only confirmed that God had directed me to serve him through the church.
As a result, I was stunned when I found myself struggling through my first pastorate. People weren't responsive. The responsibilities overwhelmed me. I never felt caught up.
I loved my church and knew I was called, but why was I so frustrated? Why the high level of anxiety? To complicate things, I added guilt to my burden: Real pastors don't feel this way, and if I was truly spiritual, I wouldn't either! After 22 months, my emotions and my marriage could no longer handle the strain, and I resigned.
Fortunately, a friend convinced me to try the pastorate one more time. Now, a happy three years later, I have come to understand my rookie experience a little better.
Pastors, even experienced ones, don't have an easy job, but the pastorate is especially difficult the first time around. Why? I see four reasons:
Veteran pastors can handle baptisms, dedications, funerals, weddings, and graduation invocations with greater ease. They may push themselves to prepare for such events, to stay fresh and say something new, but if they want to or need to coast, they can recycle something from the past.
Not so for the rookie. Every special occasion requires special preparation.
"No, I don't have any set format for premarital counseling," I answered my first set of would-be-weds. "I try to tailor it to the needs of each couple."
In actuality I didn't have anything prepared for premarital counseling, so the extra hours required for preparation had to be carved out of my schedule.
"The bread, then the cup. The bread, then the cup," I reminded myself as I led my first Communion service. Five years later I can do Communion in my sleep, but the first time around every move and word had to be charted in advance.
With anticipation I packed my file folder of homiletics class sermons as I prepared to move to my first church. My straight-A, class-evaluated, professor-dissected sermons would surely carry me for a while. Reality soon set in, however, when I realized how foreign my classroom collection seemed to my Pennsylvania people. My training had developed my sermon skills, but it quickly became clear that the sermons themselves were unusable.
One church and a thousands miles later I enjoy (without apology) the luxury of a sermon file. I'm determined not to live off of it, so 80 percent of my sermons are still freshly brewed. But if it was worth saying once (and at least a few are), why not say it again, with minor alterations?
I had taken the required counseling courses and even an elective in the subject. And, again, the classroom developed the skills.
Yet somehow the textbooks and case studies seemed light years away as I sat across the room from my first flesh-and-blood, crying parishioner. Rebellious teens, pornography addiction, grief, marriage conflicts-each person brought a unique need, and each need was new for me. Such subjects are never easy, but I don't feel quite the stress now that I've helped a few people through them.
In the first pastorate, every complaint or criticism seems monumental. Oh, no! I thought when a newcomer told me he thought our youth program lacked depth. I'd better call a meeting of the youth leadership right away.
It takes a few rounds in the ring before novice boxers realize they don't have to duck every swing. They learn to absorb some punches. In ministry, we soon learn that some individuals use complaining as a means of control; the more we jump, the more they complain. Others have a negative spirit to which we need to minister rather than reacting to their pet issues.
Certainly some complaints and concerns are valid and worthy of our response. But they are tougher to discern the first time around.
During those early months of struggle, I had no hope that the pastorate would ever be different. And the thought of feeling this way for a lifetime seemed like a life sentence to occupational purgatory. Reality, however, has turned out much better than early impressions.
It is with good reason that the struggling young pastor can optimistically say, "Many things will be easier in my next church. I'll have sermons in the file, and the basics of ministry will be second nature. I'll be much better prepared to face the daily surprises."
In my first church, I was too proud to admit I was hurting. I would rally my strength to look good on Sunday and then slither back into depression on Monday. Not until I was ready to resign did I tell the church leadership of my emotional weariness.
I'm now convinced that hiding my feelings was a mistake. I'm not advocating that we bring our personal struggles into the pulpit every Sunday, but I gained no benefit from hiding my pain.
I have since learned I can ask for help from key lay leaders. Admitting some of my concerns about our Sunday evening service has helped us begin discussing what we can do about it. Revealing I have difficulty preparing seasonal messages brought warm words of support and care from people. Honestly discussing my concerns about my salary package has resulted in a system that allows me to better use clergy tax benefits.
I'm convinced that the open-heart, open-mouth policy works best for me.
In sum, I've learned that first pastorates are tough. But I've also learned ministry does get better with practice.
- John Stumbo
Alliance Missionary Church
Mountain Lake, Minnesota
Leadership Spring 1991 p. 100-1
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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