Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Valuing the assocate pastor: finding a young pastor with decades of experience

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent.  For Christians, Lent is a holy season of fasting, penitence, and preparation for the coming joy and hope of resurrection on Easter.

For United Methodists, it is also "appointment season," in which bishops and district superintendents are prayerfully considering the appointment of pastors to communities in which there happen to be United Methodist churches.  Talk about a season of preparation!

My wife and I are both United Methodist clergy, and this time last year, we were anticipating a change in appointments.  We had both "put in" for a move, which is sometimes a bit of a roll of the dice!  Sure, the cabinet has to appoint us somewhere, but they can appoint us to any church (or group of churches) anywhere within the bounds of the annual conference.

Last year at this time, we were hearing rumors and speculation about where people thought we might be going.  "I heard such-and-such a church was told they'll be getting a young clergy couple; I think that might be you two!"  "This church needs a pastor who can lead them in this way, and we think that's right up your alley."  For about a three-month period, as our travels took us around various parts of the conference, every United Methodist church we drove past, whether we previously knew anything about it or not, we'd say aloud, "I wonder if we're going there?"

None of those rumors were true, as it turned out, and we went, separately, to two churches we had previously known nothing about that have turned out to be wonderful.  The cabinet did right by us!

When a pastor is moving, we fill out a profile that describes an ideal ministry setting.  Most pastors, whether they admit it or not, have one that often looks like, "A growing church, one that's open to change and new ideas, with strong lay leadership, one that pays its apportionments and is debt-free, where everyone gets along, that has a great children's ministry and talented musicians, and one that will give me an X% raise over my current salary."

Churches, likewise, have a similar expectation in their profile: "A young pastor who can accept a low salary yet who has 30 years of experience, with small children who are photogenic, well-behaved, and won't require too much of her time; one with energy and new ideas and can lead us in bold, new directions while respecting our traditions and the way we do ministry here; one who preaches like Billy Graham, has administrative gifts, provides excellent pastoral care, can raise money, whose spouse plays the piano/organ/guitar/ harpsichord/banjo, and who enjoy working, together, with the youth."

If you serve on your church's SPRC, that profile may look eerily familiar!

Yet, there is one seeming contradiction in that profile that is somewhat possible.  The young pastor with decades of experience.

How so?  Think of the associate pastor appointments.  If you are a senior pastor, a DS making appointments, or a member of your congregation's SPRC, pay attention to this!

I was fortunate to receive my first appointment as an associate in a congregation who understood their role in mentoring a fresh-out-of-seminary associate pastor, who not only put me to work but also coached and mentored me along the way, who gave me responsibilities and opportunities to try new ministries, and the also the time and space to reflect on the mistakes and successes I made along the way.  I thank that church for accepting my gifts, overlooking my weaknesses, and giving me an opportunity grow.

I worked under two senior pastors in that setting - both of whom took responsibility to mentor and invest in me.  I made plenty of mistakes, had sharp disagreements with both, and learned different things from both.  But because of their investment in me and a relationship that was mentoring as much as ministry, even as a young pastor, I benefitted from the collective decades of their experience.

Young pastor, with decades of experience.  Not my own experience, but somebody else who passed their experience to me.

Now, in my current appointment, I have other pastoral staff working with me.  With the demands of schedule and a wonderful growing ministry, it would be easy to say, "Go, do your job, and report back to me only if there's a problem."  But I'm finding that some time together to pray, plan, reflect, discern, and play is good and necessary.  I find I am learning as much from them as I hope I am passing along to them.

In this season of appointment-making, pay attention to the potential value of the associate pastor appointments.  I know many churches are tempted to slash associate positions as a budget-saving measure.  You may save a few bucks, but there are long-term costs both to your congregation and the wider church that far exceed the dollar savings you'll realize in the short term.

If you are a senior pastor with one or more associates, please make an investment in them.  You are providing them with tools and resources that will serve the church and world for years to come.  If you serve on your congregation's SPRC, have some conversation with your pastoral staff about how they are spending time together and having mentoring conversations.  You, too, are making a gift to the church, not only your church, that will reap dividends for decades.

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