This month we asked our bloggers what they wish they’d known as they graduated seminary and began their ministry. Here are their answers.
Tips for graduating seminarians – these lists can become quite long! I have never been one to fault seminaries for not being able to teach every skill required to be a pastor in the course of three short years. Although my seminary education was invaluable, many of the skills most needed for good ministry are ones that I have come to realize can only be built over a lifetime of service. Trustworthiness, spiritual discipline and compassion cannot be measured by exams, and wisdom usually comes with the cost of experience. But, while I continue to focus on becoming a pastor truly worthy of the congregation I serve, I have carved out a few areas of wisdom seminary didn’t cover that I have found useful to pay attention to in the meantime.
1) Policies — No one ever told me in seminary how handy a well-written policy manual would be. Well, they might have told me, but I don’t think I realized the truth of it until the rubber hit the road! When you get to that first church, start asking around — what are the policies for funerals, weddings, building use, weather closings, child safety policies and all the rest? Rules are be made to be broken sometimes, but it’s always good to know which rules you are breaking and why they were written that way in the first place. I have found that exploring church policies and procedures can reveal a treasure trove of information about past debates and debacles —and beware, the absence of a policy is sometimes just as revealing as the presence of one!
2) Personnel — For most of us the call to ministry doesn’t come in the form of a deep desire to become a human resources guru, but if you ask most pastors they will admit that the first year or two in a new job often comes with some staff turnover. Whether it is long-term staff using the transition as an opportunity to retire or unfortunate conflict, change is bound to find you. As off-putting as it can seem when, your team is down a member it’s worth it to take the extra time to reflect on staffing needs, update position descriptions and put review processes into place with the help of a strong personnel committee. Remember to celebrate those who are moving on and appreciate the ones who are new. Building a good team is important.
3) Patience — Most importantly, no matter how many policies you discover that need a refresher or how many staffing problems you encounter, patience is key. What they say about not changing too much too soon is true. As difficult as it might be, there are often good reasons for policies that seem strange to you at first and it will take time for people to mourn the loss of staff even when the parting is mutual and loving. Take your time and be willing to give your congregation time to come to know and trust you as their pastor. Patience and prayer are key to discerning what has to go on the to-do list right away and what is worth waiting on until you have spent the time and energy getting to know and earning the trust of your people.
CAITLIN THOMAS DEYERLE is pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband James, their cat Calvin, and a very rebellious puppy named Molly.