For Christopher Crotwell, a Columbia Theological Seminary graduate who’s pastor of New Providence Church in Raphine, Va., the Company of New Pastors “allowed me to fill a hole I wasn’t sure how I was going to fill” after graduation.
Here’s some of what Crotwell found in the Lilly Endowment-funded program for first-call pastors:
– A group of peers he could bounce ideas off of — people who were honest with him, who cared about him, who would tell him when he had a great plan and when he wasn’t making much sense.
– A support group that helped this solo pastor of a country church feel more connected, less alone.
– People who would hold him accountable for spending time each day in prayer and reading Scripture. “Mea culpa, let me confess,” Crotwell admitted. Without that push towards spiritual discipline, “busyness can really start to draw your attention” away from God. But with regular attention, he knows, the Bible can provide “the walking-around words that are going to permeate the day.”
First-call pastors who’ve participated in the Company of New Pastors say it’s helped them with everything from the spiritual to the practical — and their comments shed some light on difficulties that ministers in their first jobs often face.
Life in the fishbowl. Particularly in small towns, people keep careful track of the pastor — there’s little privacy — and sometimes-strong expectations of what a minister should and shouldn’t do. Jennifer Kemp, pastor of Washington Church, says she may drive the only red Toyota Corolla in Washington, Illinois — so it’s easy for folks in this town of 13,000 to keep track of where she’s been and what she’s up to.
When her fiancé moved to town, he was startled when a church member complimented him for hanging the new curtains she’d noticed while driving by — a reminder of how closely people were watching.
People from the congregation think, “A pastor is this, a pastor does that,” Crotwell said. “A pastor is meant to stand here and smile or stand there and prophesy. … You will feel pressure to be things maybe you’re not.”
And for single pastors, particularly in small towns, it can be hard to find friends outside of the congregation to hang around with, to confide in, to date. The hours are long, the work demanding. It’s hard to come home to a dark apartment.
Fun with senior pastors. For associate pastors, the realities of working hand-in-glove with a senior pastor can be challenging. Some are reluctant to share control; others are tired and hand over responsibility for everything. Sometimes what the job description states and what the congregation needs don’t match.
Often, associates “feel they are cogs in a machine,” not free to use their own gifs for ministry, said Sheldon Sorge, of the Office of Theology and Worship at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A).
But a transition-into-ministry program provides a “reality check” for first-call pastors about what’s reasonable and unreasonable in a particular situation, said Ken Green, an associate at Second Church in Indianapolis, a time-and-a-half job he shares with his wife, Tassie.
First-call pastors have questions about “what is the culture of this place and why do they do it this way? How open are they to change?” Green said. “Forming your own identity as a pastor is really a big issue.”
No time to think. Wonjae Choi, a 2002 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and pastor of First Church in Clarks Summit, Pa., said she particularly valued the opportunity the Company provided to help her think theologically — and to challenge her congregation to do the same.
“You do just get bogged down in the day-to-day drama and tragedy of parish ministry,” and with all the details — “trying to fix the copier … and set up the chairs,” Choi said. “You can get quickly trapped in the detail work of parish life. You run yourself ragged and don’t always think about why you’re doing it.”
Green said, referring to some of the books on theology his group was assigned to read: “There’s no way I would have done that kind of reading without the accountability.” But when he did, he found ideas from the books and the discussions filtering into his sermons, floating through his mind.
Listening for God. Participants also said the group helped them test their own sense of call — to figure out if they were really hearing the call of God or more their own voices.
With others praying about it and listening too, “you’re not only captive to what you think is best or what you want,” Sorge said. “You get access to something beyond yourself. And that’s what call is all about — call is about something beyond us claiming us.”
It’s also important, young pastors say, to have a support system outside the congregation.
“It can be very isolating as a solo pastor,” Kemp said. “You are constantly on call to be a beacon, a signpost for your flock. There isn’t anybody else to blow steam off with.”
She made a friend through playing volleyball — and now the two women meet for an hour every Tuesday morning to pray. There, “I’m as real as it gets,” Kemp said. “I need something like that to stay alive, to stay fresh, or I’m going to be one of those who burns out and says, ‘No more.’ “