Hello, senior seminarians everywhere. You are among the slew of new pastors soon to be unleashed upon unsuspecting congregations and parishes all across America. The Church of Christ trembles with excitement.
Obviously, it is far too late in the game for anybody to repair all the practical weaknesses of your relig-biz education, but I can touch on a few things.
First: Sheep have teeth and some of them bite. Try not to internalize it or take it personally. Some of them will bite any shepherd and you are merely the latest target of convenience. Treat them respectfully but cautiously, remembering what you share with them in baptism. But to avoid damage to your own soul, try to imagine how you would minister to them if they actually liked you, and then be that kind of pastor.
Second: Keep in mind the congregation probably knows more about pastoral ministry than you. Yet the singular temptation of any first-year pastor is to assume you have a blank slate. A couple weeks in the parish looking around at things, assessing the state of the Sunday school or catechetical education or the decrepit office equipment, with your head simply bubbling with all the latest liturgical gizmos plus a really whiz-bang theory about the authorship of John, and you will wonder how this creaky old congregation ever managed to survive without you.
Don’t fall for it, not even when you hear it from a parishioner. That’s another thing. If the sheep doesn’t bite it may fawn over you, leaving wool-encrusted lanolin smears on your clergy shirt. Do keep a level head.
In any case, the congregants weren’t looking for someone to “fix” them. They were seeking someone to tend to pastoral care, give a nice sermon, and administer the sacraments. If they wanted fixing they could be watching Dr. Phil re-runs without all the doctrinal baggage.
So do no harm. By that I mean spend your first year doing nothing. Doing “something” is always harmful, except visiting; do lots and lots of visiting. Keep track of your visits and, without padding, publish the numbers in the newsletter so people will know you’re doing your job. Start with the homebound, monthly at least; then the elderly and the retired. Along the way learn the names of all the kids.
When you’ve met those groups, move up the food chain and visit everyone who attends regularly. Once completed, go to the marginal members, but don’t expect anyone marginal to suddenly show up regularly. No, your purpose in visiting them is to understand what they think is the matter with everybody else. They will likely be wrong, but at least you will know their perceptions.
Do not get sidetracked with other agendas, yours or someone else’s. Visiting should occupy your first year in the parish. Make appointments—never drop by unannounced (that’s not a pastoral visit but an intrusion)—and keep notes.
Third: What your new parishioners know instinctively and you don’t is that you have been trained for a church that doesn’t exist. You have lived for a while now within the upper stratospheric reaches of theological academia, reading books, writing papers, and chasing grades. After several years immersed in the rarefied coffee-klatch theological conjectures dominating your seminary study group, you will think everyone talks like that. They don’t. When you arrive in your first congregation you must understand no one is interested in reading your senior year systematics summary, and a wise first-year pastor will keep his GPA to himself.
Thing is, you will no longer receive a formal grade for anything you do, not ever. You will never know in fact how well you are doing. This can be very disorienting. Instead, you will have to settle for a mumbled “Nice sermon, Pastor” from someone on the way out of worship who really means to say, “I like you.”
Fourth: About that sermon, keep it short. If you can’t say “Jesus loves you” in three words, two thousand more won’t help. Pick one thing the lectionary text says to you, or to your congregation as you judge it, and say that. If the Scripture text seems to say more than one thing, fine, but the lectionary cycles every three years and you’ll get another chance later. Be patient. Find but one needful thing and stay with it. Avoid three-point sermons like you would a three-item memorized grocery list. Nobody ever remembers the third item.
As for being a great preacher, give that up right now. It ought to be a relief to know you are not expected to preach a great sermon, not when an honest one will do better. Honest sermons are far easier to speak than great ones. An honest homily names life for what it is, describes the condition we are in and why we are in it, and announces the promised remedy of Jesus Christ at hand.
Finally, if what we say about the Good News is even halfway true, you will be doing important work, the most important work you’ve ever done for anybody. Don’t think you can do it alone. Organize a prayer group and meet regularly with three parishioners you trust implicitly for critique, support, and, as the name says, prayer. You’re going to need it, trust me, even on the good days.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew's Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.