April 8, 2019—Beginning a ministry at a new church is an exciting experience. New challenges, a fresh start, promising possibilities, new relationships, can all be energizing. For most clergy, the first year at a new church is filled with excitement and stimulating challenge. You work at getting to know the members (who’s who, who does what and, if it’s a small congregation, maybe even who’s related to whom). This “getting to know you” phase is accomplished by providing basic pastoral care, visiting with members, memorizing names and family connections, and meeting with as many church groups as possible.
During the honeymoon, you work at understanding the church’s history, listening for stories that define the congregation’s personality and identity. The early months offer the perfect opportunity to “get dumb” and ask questions that you won’t be able to get away with later. Taking an “observer” stance in the first year of ministry at a new call or appointment allows you to discover the church’s rhythms, habits, and practices.(1)
During the honeymoon everyone loves you, their “new pastor,” but that’s more projection than anything else, so don’t take it personally. The church members will give you lots of leeway in making small administrative and cosmetic changes. They’ll patiently entertain your notions about the direction and the vision for the church as you see it. And while they may nod and smile in affirmation, remember they’ve heard the same from every “new pastor” they’ve seen come and go—and they really didn’t believe them either.
By year two, however, the honeymoon wanes, and by year three, you can anticipate your first “big family fight.” Pastors who are unaware of this pattern can be taken aback. “What happened? Everything was going so well!” “What have I done to cause people to be so reactive?”
The answer can be as simple as appreciating what we know: people don’t like change, and by year three, you’re starting to make changes. In some cases the pastor may be bringing the threat of health and responsibility to a dysfunctional system. It may be you are having to hold an underfunctoning or recalcitrant staff member accountable (a long entrenched church secretary, or a beloved established pastoral staff associate). It may be you are challenging an underfunctioning committee to step up. It may be you are pushing for a policy or procedure to ensure more accountability. The rationale is less significant than the discomfort of change and accountability you are imposing. From the perspective of a few, that’s not what they called you for as “pastor.”
What To Do When the Honeymoon Is Over
The natural reactivity most clergy experience during the third or fourth year at their new church can feel like being under attack, and sometimes, that may be the case. But it can help to keep some things in mind: (1) this is a natural pattern in most pastor-church relations, (2) while the reactivity may center around you, it’s really more about people’s response to the anxiety they experience about change, and (3) it is usually a very few loud voices that engage in acting out through gossip, resistance, undermining, and sabotage. And while those actions feel aggressive, they are actually symptoms of weakness and irresponsibility.
So, what are ways to respond to this normative and unsettling phenomenon?
1. Remember that it is a common pattern, so, don’t take it personal. While it is not about you, it involves you, you’re “the pastor.” Determine what your pastoral response may be. You have more agency than you think when you are anxious, so work on your own reactivity when feeling under threat—real or imagined. You were called to be the leader; you don’t have the luxury to abdicate that responsibility.
2. Decide if you want to stay. Now that the honeymoon is over and you understand the congregation better, decide if you want to commit to a long relationship. Does the church have the capacity to develop and be adaptive to challenge? In the long run, can you do good ministry here? Remember that realistically, a leader can only accomplish what the system allows.
3. Cultivate your resources. While that reactive vocal minority can grab your attention, you’ll do better to invest your time and energy in the mature, wise, and less reactive persons in your congregation. Find them, they usually are not trying to get your attention. Trying to convince your critics they are wrong will not likely get you anywhere (in fact that behavior will only tend to confirm their suspicions and feed their paranoia), but influencing the mature persons in the congregation can provide a corrective and foster responsibility. Pastoral leaders cultivate a culture—can you cultivate a culture where the mature members (or pastoral leaders for that matter) will never be done in by the immature?
4. Practice courage. Perhaps the biggest failure I see in this all-too-common situation is a failure on the part of pastors to take on the irresponsible ones. That necessitates practicing courage—which is difficult for conflict-averse clergy. One common error is to assume that while the pattern is not uncommon, that people who are acting out in the form of personal attacks or subversion are acting “normal.”
It can help to picture a Meter and to determine where individuals plot on the dial. Picture a meter with a scale from Normal, Neurotic, to Pathological. For individuals within Normal, it’s fine to be nice and reasonable. For those registering as Neurotic or Pathological, however, the rules are different. They are immune to nice. And, as Rabbi Edwin Friedman cautioned, avoid the trap of holding an unreasonable faith in reasonableness when people lack the ability, or willingness, to be reasonable.
Like it or not, leaders often have the responsibility to contain the toxic elements in the system to help ensure the health of the system and to protect the most vulnerable.
Understanding the common pattern in congregations which reminds us that the honeymoon is short-lived can be helpful. After that, you can expect the first major pastor-church conflict. It suggests that about year three of your tenure the system is seeking a new homeostasis—and admittedly, you the pastor are part of the cause for that. It can be helpful to remind yourself that there will be a new normal once you establish yourself. That takes ten years. Are you in it for the long haul? If so, remember that it requires courage, clarity of vision, and commitment to get past the first family fight.
(1)For more about common patterns in the first ten years of ministry see “Staying Put: A Look at the First 10 Years of Ministry”
Do you want help with leadership development? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. Learn more about Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.