This essay is in three parts: The first set out the importance of starting well in the first 90 days of the priest’s new cure and lays out seven principles to keep in mind. This second part discusses the first of three top priorities for the new priest to focus on: pastoring individual people of the congregation. The third part will discuss two other top priorities: pastoring through administration and pastoring the congregation.
By Neal Michell
It is extremely tempting for the priest who is newly arrived at a church to spend time on the activities that give the least amount of return for his effort: setting up the office, getting his books in order, and so on. Although these first 90 days will require meetings of staff and parish leadership necessary to “keep the trains running on time,” the new rector will want to focus on pastoring in three main areas: People, Administration, and the Congregation.
Pastor Individual People
The new priest will want to establish herself as the pastor of the congregation. As clergy we lead the congregation, but we pastor individuals. We gain permission to lead not primarily through our job description but through the level of trust our members give us.
People and relationships are the foundation for congregational ministry. Just as leadership is about relationships, stewardship is about relationships, volunteer recruitment is about relationships, team work is about relationships, community is about relationships. Rick Warren, longtime pastor of Saddleback Community Church, puts it this way: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
I once interviewed a young priest as a candidate to serve as a church planter in our diocese. We used a fairly extensive application at the time. One of the questions was: Rate yourself as a preacher on a scale of 1 to 10 and explain why you rated yourself as such. He rated himself as a 10 as a preacher and explained that members of his congregation tell him “all the time” what a great preacher he is. When I interviewed his senior warden with the same question, he immediately ranked the priest at a 5 as a preacher. Average. I asked him, “would it surprise you that [your priest] rates himself as a 10 as a preacher?”
“Not at all,” came his immediate reply. “We tell him he’s a great preacher all the time. He’s really a great pastor. We love him a lot. Because he’s such a great pastor, we tell him he’s a great preacher. But he’s not. He’s really an average preacher.”
This young priest had his relationships in the parish nailed.
How does one go about developing relationships within the first 90 days? Here are several suggestions:
An excellent way for the new rector to connect with her new parishioners is through small group gatherings. Once the new rector arrives, arrange for a series of small coffee and dessert gatherings in the homes of parishioners with groups of twelve to fifteen. Schedule these for the first several weeks of the pastor’s arrival until everyone who wants to meet the new rector on this informal basis can do so.
At these gatherings the new rector should not ask questions such as, “What are your hopes and dreams for the church?” or “What is your vision for the congregation?” He should tell them his own spiritual journey, sharing stories that will give them some insight into his life as an individual and as a pastor. The rector is laying the foundation for the kind of healthy disclosure that will build community at a later time. He will want them to share their own spiritual journeys in other gatherings.
The rector’s questions should focus on getting to know parishioners, such as:
- Tell me a little about your family.
- How long have you been at St. Somewhere’s, and how did you come to be here?
- What keeps you coming to St. Somewhere’s?
By the time the pastor has prayed for her parishioners individually and met with them in these small group gatherings, the majority of parishioners will feel as though they have connected with their new rector, and she will have gone a long way in establishing herself as their pastor.
While the new rector wants to establish herself as the pastor of the congregation, she also needs to connect with the leaders and influencers of the congregation. She will begin to learn which voices to weigh more heavily. Remember the 80-20 rule, and focus first on the 20% of parishioners who do 80% of the work.
- Also, there might be persons particularly beloved in the church that ought to be visited.
- Visit with people in the community connected to the church (and I don’t mean other clergy. Let them invite you.) Ask community leaders what is St. Swithin’s reputation in the community? Learn what opportunities there are to connect St. Swithin’s with the larger community.
When you do meet with individual within the parish, remember the three Fs that people like to talk about:
- Friends – Are they from the area? Friends in the church, outside the church? Social organizations they are members of.
- Family – Inquire about their family: Kids, parents, etc.
- Fun – What are their favorite foods, restaurants, hobbies. sports, pets, etc.
These strategies for pastoring individual people should help you focus on one of your top priorities during the first 90 days. The third and final part of this post will attend to two more of them.
The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.