Supporting those new to ministry

How may the church, local and corporate, provide better orientation and care for young pastors?

Joe A. Webb, DMin, is pastor of the Nambour and Yandina churches in South Queensland, Australia.

How can we help new pastoral families settle into ministry with their faith, work, and family intact? While we rightly expect those who enter ministry to look after themselves, like anyone in a new situation, they need help in a number of areas because of the pressures involved and the perceived expectations of the church and the conference. Many pressures would be lifted if leadership could provide some initial direction in at least four significant areas: the initial move, the new congregation, a review period, and a continuing strategy.

The initial move

Ministry almost always involves a move, a move away from the familiar. When a pastor's family moves to a new place, they have to find new schools, doctors, bargain shopping, and the list goes on. As a result there is stress and tension. The pastoral couple should be aware of the stresses that anyone normally experiences under such circumstances, and take intentional steps to work through them early in their ministry.

When first moving into ministry, or moving to a new parish, the family must take a realistic amount of time to set up house and organize life in the new location. This should not be left to the nonministry spouse while the minister races off each day to get acquainted with the church folk and become immersed in all the intricacies of ministry.

The time needed to settle down may vary from family to family, and from place to place. On average, one to two weeks is sufficient to get the home organized enough to be able to focus with some degree of comfort on church work.

It took us a number of years, and many moves, to work out that my wife does not move well. In fact it takes a good six months or more for her to be sufficiently settled, to begin getting involved in the new church. We both understand this every time we move, and I don't ask her to join me on the rostrum on the first Sabbath, or to stand with me at the door after the service. Neither do we accept invitations to lunch in the first few months at a new church.

This is not to suggest that every family that enters ministry or moves should do as we do, but it is important that every family feel they have the reasonable right to take time and to settle in.

Some young ministers who spend a few weeks each year at youth and teen camps consider this as part of their holidays. Who are they kidding? They may really enjoy what they do, but this is their work, not a holiday. Families need to realize the importance of holiday times and guard them, knowing it is crucial and completely legitimate to do so.

The new congregation

Pastors know that if they are not careful about family time, church work will take up all their time.

Early in my ministry I tried to get through all of the church work. In reality I never did, and I never have. There is always a list of tasks to do. Those new to ministry must realize that to complete the tasks at the top of a carefully prioritized list each day is ample achievement.

Church members don't intentionally set out to burn out their pastor. Generally they simply don't see the big picture that is involved in ministry, nor can they really be expected to see it as the pastor does. Therefore, the congregation needs to be made aware of what is important to the new minister, and where his or her priorities lie.

Over a period of time the ministerial family and the congregation will get to know each other. It is important, though, that the minister spell out how he or she operates.This needs to be done as soon as possible after arrival at a new parish.

What specific things should be mentioned?

As soon as I enter a new parish I make some points to the congregation just before my first sermon. This only takes a few moments. After a very brief review of my family I tell the people what is important to me. I stress that my family is very important to me. Special family days such as anniversaries and birthdays are important. I point out that by God's grace I will serve this congregation as faithfully as I can, but that it is important to me that I hold the initiative to decide on the priorities and scheduling of my work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Time management is a skill in which all ministers must be exceptional. If they manage time carefully, they should always have time set aside to spend with family. The biggest problem for ministers, however, is not time management, but time protection. Having set aside certain times for family and other personal pursuits, many pastors do not honor this commitment, and again and again this time is the first to be sacrificed when an extra meeting needs to be called or something else that seems urgent or compelling comes up.

There is no law that says ministers must be out late every night. Schedule two nights a week to be home. Likewise no law requires that every hour of every day be devoted to church work. Some ministers have suggested that each day can be divided into morning, afternoon, and evening. They say that one of these periods should be spent at home. Let me has ten to say, however, this is not at home doing ministry work. It is easy to be in the house, but not be at home.

Set aside a full day each week for personal and family activities. Plan to do special things with your spouse and children. Of course, if your spouse works and/or your children are at school, you must set aside other times to be with them. And remember again not to just set aside time, but to guard it.

Emergencies do, often enough, demand that we deviate from the best-laid plans. Our partners under stand that these unavoidable times and circumstances are part of our work. But if an emergency takes away planned family time, that time must be replaced as soon as possible.

I remember what it was like when we first entered ministry. We all want the conference to see that they have made a good investment in us. We want them to understand that we are handling ministry very well. We certainly do not want bad reports reaching the conference president from church members. Concerns such as these prompt those new to ministry, and even some not so new, to slide into the mold of trying to be all things to all people, in all situations, all of the time. That is, all people except their families and friends.

It is good for congregations to be told where you as a minister are coming from. I have received nothing but support from the church family when they understand the importance of my immediate family.

We must stress the fact that if pas tors do not organize themselves in these areas, and learn to protect their family and personal time, becoming comfortable with their priorities, there will be constant, stressful pull between family and work. When at work we will feel guilty because we are not with family; and when with family we will feel we are not doing the best in ministry because we aren't at work.

A review period

Anything that is worth implementing is worth evaluating. It is easy to assume that all family members are adjusting well to the ministry task. It is wise to set aside a period when you will, as a family, evaluate this new experience. Perhaps one month after the assignment is a good time to sit down and ask some questions about how each family member is coping with all that is new.

Of course this is not a time to dis cuss if you want to stay or pack up and go. Although you may have felt that way during the past month, which is perfectly normal, this evalu ation is a time to review and possibly readjust.

Total honesty is needed at this time. If the spouse is not coping with the initial move into ministry, this must be stated.

In our early years in ministry, my wife felt very isolated from family and friends, and even from me. Occasionally, when I asked how she was, she would say everything was fine. She did not want to add to my burdens and thought it best that no one in the church or conference know that the pastor's wife was having a personal struggle.

A review period is not just a time to get things off your chest, although such an experience can be good. If evaluation does not lead to adjustment in areas that have a revealed need, then such periods will be a waste of time.

A continuing strategy

Those strategies that help new ministers and their families cope with the stresses of entering ministry can also, with some modification, help them continue to cope with transfers and other life stresses, such as when a child leaves home to gain employment or to go to college.

It is highly regrettable that for me that it took so many years in ministry, as a clergy husband and father, to assign the importance to these areas that they by all means deserve and need. With a continuing strategy comes the ever-present focus on time. Manage it and guard it.


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Joe A. Webb, DMin, is pastor of the Nambour and Yandina churches in South Queensland, Australia.

April 2005

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