Bruce Epperly, in this week's missive from the Alban Institute says:
New pastors are most successful in the transition from seminary to their first congregation when they expect and accept imperfection as an essential ingredient in the art of ministry.
While some congregations are clearly dysfunctional and may even fall into the category of clergy killers, most congregations are healthy enough to provide adequate support, challenge, and acceptance for pastors embarking on their first call.
A good pastor needs to join appropriate boundaries with curiosity about the human condition. In Tending to the Holy, Kate Epperly and I noted that, in the spirit of North African monastics, the pastor should be "all eye" and "all sense" as she observes the physical, spiritual, and emotional environment that surrounds her. This curiosity and awareness is essential for good ministry as well.
One of my favorite detective shows is Columbo. In that series, the cagey Columbo appears to be clueless as he fumbles his way through murder investigations. He solves cases, so it appears, only by accident and good luck. While pastors may not wish to be viewed by their congregants as the dumbest person in the room, pastors as observers, spiritual ethnographers, and keepers of secrets always know more than they can tell. To keep confidentiality and promote healing within the congregation, pastors often have to play dumb in situations in which they know more than they can let on.
New pastors enter a multidimensional, nuanced, and confusing world when they begin their first call. Things are not always as they seem. They may intuit certain unspoken communal understandings, past experiences of misconduct and betrayal, feuds and alliances, and secrets that "everybody knows about." Successful pastors take time to listen well to the spoken and unspoken messages of their congregants in order to discern how best to minister. Observation enables pastors not only to be healers but also to avoid issues of triangulation and unintentional offense. Careful observation also forces pastors to listen before they speak and to speak to the real, rather than assumed, situations in their congregation's life.
Any clergy out there interested in sharing their initial experiences in their first post-seminary assignments? Any lay folks interested in sharing their experiences with newbie priests?