by Robert A. Harris
Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, Md. 219 pages
REVIEWED BY ANDREW PLOCHER
Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language” (“Letters to a Young Poet”).
Robert A. Harris’ wonderful book, “Entering Wonderland: A Toolkit for Pastors New to a Church,” is a guide to loving and living the questions. More specifically, it’s a treasure trove of questions for a pastor or congregation to ask and to live into during the first year of a new call. “Entering Wonderland” is the distillation of years of learning from pastoral experience and coaching. Divided into two parts, which both span six-month periods, each chapter includes countless lists of “coaching assignments,” steps, tips and tools for the reader to explore and utilize. Using characters from “Alice in Wonderland” to illustrate archetypes in congregations, Harris leads the reader into the wonderful and often intimidating world of a new pastorate.
The amount of information in this 200-page book is staggering. While it may be beneficial for some to read this cover to cover, it is more easily consumed in pieces. At points in the text it seems that Harris has included everything he’s ever thought about that topic, and yet he manages to weave the themes together, finding ways to bridge discernment, trust and hope. It is a text that can easily be flipped through, dog-eared, underlined and scribbled on and is truly designed to serve as a “toolkit.”
The centerpiece of “Entering Wonderland” is Harris’ belief that a pastor must “be very intentional about not knowing.” He utilizes what he calls “11 Curious Questions” to help the reader understand congregational culture and identify norms; assess the level of trust among leaders and the congregation; evaluate the church’s current leadership; help clarify priorities; identify difficult behaviors; and learn how to build supportive relationships. In many ways, the text is one long coaching session from a seasoned pastor and coach. Wisdom and theories from leadership experts such as Steinke, Lencion and Covey are distilled into simple summaries, yet Harris uses them in refreshing ways, incorporating them into a narrative of listening and questioning with a congregation.
While centered on coaching methodology and living the questions, “Entering Wonderland” is also a well-mapped guide to the beginnings of a new pastorate. It methodically navigates the difficult terrain of listening and leading in a new context while offering concrete examples and tools such as models for agendas and retreats. There are also more personal tips on subjects like managing personal internal reactions and external responses. Harris’ coaching style, woven with optimism and realism, is a gift to the church. Whether “Entering Wonderland” becomes a go-to tool on a pastor’s shelf or only gets a periodic glance, it is an outstanding guide to remembering that curiosity may be the greatest tool in the pastoral toolkit.
ANDREW PLOCHER is the pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Olny, Maryland.