Move well to Start well and Stay well

"I want this move to be the best I've ever had. How I start determines so much about my first year of ministry. My first year of ministry impacts not only my current church, but my family and my future. I want this to go well so that my next move goes well, too."

- Me back in 2015

While the Gospels make clear Jesus is Lord over the seas and the Church, most people in ministry know that the water level of the local church rises and falls based on the presence (or absence) of faithful, effective, and grounded clergy leaders. If you are for the local church, and all of the life-giving ministries that happen through her, you must be for the women and men who serve her as pastors. This is not a move away from Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or the ministry of all believers; quite the opposite. An emphasis on caring for and guiding clergy and their families acknowledges the Great Commission of Jesus, relies on the power given through the Holy Spirit, and is intended to equip all the saints for the ministry of the Kingdom.

It has been in my transitions from one place to another that I have been most in need of returning to the fundamental question of ministry and life, Who Am I? Moving prompts inward reflection. My first word would be to return to this question often, and seek trusted persons to join you in probing its depths. Effective ministry is grounded in a sense of being God's Beloved. That is not something that can be maintained without grace (and grace-filled effort).

Beyond the internal work, there is a place for the practical. Everything below is intended and offered as a gift to friends and colleagues as guidance on the journey of ministry, especially as ministry finds you in the midst of moving.

Many of these sections offer practical ideas, and most are commonsense. You have surely heard or done most of them. I want that to be the case. When I hear something that makes me think, "I knew that," it triggers an internal sense of recovering a truth I put away and needed to find again. 

Grace and peace to you in the chaos of these days of serving faithfully while also waiting patiently (or not-so) for the next thing to arrive.

Learn their story - Part 1 - Use Numbers

I have been doing this since first learning in 2007 we would move to serve the Waverly Hall & Ellerslie churches in what was a revitalization project with NRCD. It was only in 2012, in my first DMin class, that I learned what I was doing had a name: ethnography. It was in January 2018 that I learned it was trendy when Jon Acuff gave his entire time in front of NextGen Pastors to the importance of data (see Day 12). 

I went back to the historical SGAUMC Journals that every church has sitting on the shelves of their unused library and thumbed through them to find the metrics I think help paint an image of their reality at the time. Taken together, I could see the trends and impacts of neighborhood changes, pastoral appointments, and other unique drivers of the church's health.

This is what it has looked like, in the past for me. Copy these, rework them, trash them. Have fun. 

Bonaire UMC first prepared for moved in June 2015

Epworth UMC first prepared for moved in June 2010

Learn their story - Part 2 - Use Photos

Some of the really great neuroscience on how our brains encode information proves that connecting names and faces is critical to learning and retaining. 

Ask for a copy of the most current church directory in advance, and spent time just thumbing through it. This is a way to earn points early on!

Tell them your story

Everyone believe they are the hero of their own story (see Donald Miller's work at Storybrand). BUT...that does not mean the women and men in the church you are going to serve don't desperately want to know something about you. The widespread adoption of Social Media has helped them (and maybe hurt us, depending on what you post publicly) to do this. I think people also benefit from getting something from you in the mail.

I have found that the hours it takes to write, edit, print, label, stuff, and mail a letter out to the congregation offers a return that is priceless

Tell them who you are, include a photo if you can, and time its delivery to arrive on the day you become their pastor. You will invariably be in touch with someone who helps in the office. Ask them, well in advance, to help you arrive well by printing you labels for all of the members (and regular visitors if they have them) of the church. It has taken some coaxing, and I've even had to format the XLS sheet myself based on what they've sent, but it is so worth it. Here are some sample letters:

To Bonaire UMC, June 2015

To Epworth UMC, June 2010

Learn their story - Part 3 - Use Words

Offering Listening Sessions with Leaders in my first month is something I picked up from Thad Haygood a decade ago. How you do it is far less important than that you do it, but here are some ideas on how to organize them:

Who: Any person in leadership, especially Committee Chairpersons and Ministry Team Leaders

What: A 30-35 minute session of getting to know them, listening to how they came to the church, and some of their dreams for the future. They will naturally talk about the challenges, too.

When: For the first 4-5 weeks, until everyone feels like they've been heard. Depending on your routine, find 3-4 openings/day for three days/week. You can allow the leaders to self-select times, but I also know some pastors have the Secretary make phone calls directly and line them up. Consider offering 1-2 times a week after typical business hours, for laypeople who work but would still want to meet.

Where: Typically, the church office works well.

How: Include a short blurb in the bulletin on your first Sunday. Invite people to sign up on a clipboard outside your office door for a time that works best for them. 

I have used a simple one-sheet guide to help capture some of their thoughts. I used to have them fill it out before we started, but some people want to make it perfect. So, I started just keeping it with me and scribbling in shorthand as they talked.

Here is a version of the first two weeks of slots I offered to Bonaire Church leaders.

Stay Current with your Conference Forms

Call it insider information, but Kirk and I heard over and again for 14 years from Mom how important it is for moving pastors to return the updated Compensation forms to the Director of Administrative Services Office. These forms help to ensure you are getting paid correctly, your retirement benefits are being properly deducted, your beneficiaries are up to date, and a host of other small things that are a HUGE thing in certain scenarios.

In 2015, some of these forms (compensation, housing withholding, accounts reimbursable) were signed before I arrived because the church I was moving to was not planning another Church Council meeting before the end of July. It feels like a hassle, but getting these things right is important.

Take a day off in your first week

If Genesis 1 and Exodus 20 are not enough to convince you of how fundamental this is to your life and ministry, nothing I can say here will help you. But, here goes anyway: take a day off during the week after your first Sunday. Set the pattern early of taking Sabbath each week.  

As for me, I have been taking Mondays off since early 2015. I used to claim Friday as my day off, but I was the worst! I would come flying into a Thursday afternoon with 7 things left to finish before Sunday. I would make a deal with myself to only work on Friday morning and to leave as soon as I was caught up. Of course, I would find that Sunday and Monday came with simmering resentment that I would often project onto the church, instead of correctly pointing it back at its true home (my own lack of planning).

Don't be like old me. 

Don't take a Sunday off during the Summer, but do take a Sunday off

Again, this is something you already know: people's worship habits have devolved so much in the past 1-2 decades, that you will still be meeting long-time members for the first time well into August. It is what it is.

So, our family takes 1-2 little trips away during that first summer, but I am in the pulpit each Sunday. With Julie working as a school teacher, getting away during the summer is critical for our mental health. We almost always spend a few days at Lake Junaluska with our Carruth cousins around the 4th, and will surely put our toes in the sand on the beach somewhere, too.

Our pattern for the past two moves has been to schedule my first weekend away to be on Labor Day. Maybe Fall Break would work better for your family? Either way, go somewhere. For, as important as it is to show people you work, it is also important to show them that you rest. Again, it is a big deal for how we have been made.

Suggested Reading (in all your free time...)

I am kidding! Who has time to read? When things slow down, though, these have been really helpful to me in ministry.

  • Despite not being completed before his untimely death, Rabbi Edwin Friedman's truth-telling and prescriptions for how organizations can navigate the new realities of the world is phenomenal. A must read.

  • I read and implemented Andy's practical ideas in 2007. I find this book to be grounded in the way the world now experiences spoken word communication moments. I also find that is overlaps a lot with the ideas found in Tom Long's Witness of Preaching (a single claim, focus and function, preacher comes out from the people, etc.).

  • This was required reading back for the Moving Pastor's Workshop, back in 2010 I think. Even reading a summary PDF (like this one here) would be helpful. I especially appreciated the conversations that every incoming pastor should have with the SPR around often unspoken expectations.

  • Also a required reading for a former Moving Pastors workshop, this book should be read by every person. Really good practical wisdom for all varieties of personalities.

  • I wanted to study the intersection of the congregation's expectations with the pastor's own sense of identity and calling, especially after moving to a new church. After extensive reading and qualitative research, I found Henri Nouwen's principles from Life as the Beloved to be a framework for ministry.