Ministry Tenure

Now That I’m in the Wrong Church

You’ve met with the Search Committee.  The middle judicatory has assured you of a church with promise.  You’ve accepted the invite (AKA “call”).  The movers have delivered all your worldly goods.  The receptions of welcome have been pure celebration.  Camelot has opened its doors to you and you have entered with grand hopes like Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

So if everything is so wonderful, why was that one woman so concerned about your happiness and general welfare?  Her look was most sincere when she said “I hope and pray you’ll be OK here.”

What?  Why didn’t she follow the regular protocol of saying nice, fuzzy things, like “we’re so happy you’re here” and “we’ve waited a long time for someone like you?”  Why did that one woman linger through the fellowship time waiting to express her sincere hope you will be OK, instead of the safer words of general hope welcome.  What’s behind that?  Does she know something that everyone else has been too nice to say?  Is there something that the Search Committee forget or intentionally avoided telling you?  Perhaps of all the well-wishers today, this one of bland joy bore the most love and genuine concern?

Keep your paranoia under control.  Not every church is going to be a bad experience just waiting to happen. Neither is every good wish phony.  Neither is every veiled word of caution legitimate.  A mature counsel beckons “Discernment.”  Don’t automatically believe everything you hear, good or bad.

But those comments spoken early in the ministry honeymoon, that first year of excused bliss, usually carry some word vital to your success or mere survival.  That woman in question may be trying to warn you, as awkward as it may be, bearing a painful omen of warning.  Dangerous things may be hidden just out of sight.   Pay attention to all of these messages and let nothing escape your attention.  If there is a crucial word you need to hear someone will try to tell you, but do not expect grand oratory.  It’s the outcast, the ones lacking the nominal acceptance that have the most courage to let you know.  Others will play along to retain their standing in this sub-community.

Following is a list of items you need to consider from those first weeks and months of your ministry.  Those comments will fit somewhere in these items,

1) Innocent expressions of love, anticipating positive regard for your happiness are probably best intentions of blessing.  Don’t dismiss every good word.  Hear, receive and allow the blessing to flow.

2) Preemptive efforts of favoritism to garner your favor.  Some of those “ego strokes” bear a hidden agenda to gain entry into the inner workings of the church or social institute.  Pay attention, some people are using you to gain greater power in this place.  If painful conflict has affected this group, those still fighting a war will feel a great pull to get you on their “side.”

Ironically, some of those first efforts may well signal who your first antagonists will be.  That first inappropriate dinner invite (perhaps even before you’ve had a chance to officially accept the call), is actually the effort to gain special favor.  However, when you do not respond to that plan, preferring to rightfully treat everyone on the same level, they will resent the failed favor.  The Search Committee Chair offering to take you out for dinner during the process of relocation is a special, warranted hospitality.  Appreciate the kindness.  But when someone not in that capacity tries to step in prematurely, watch out!  Don’t judge prematurely, it may be only awkward manners, but on the other hand it could be the clue you need where your guard must be ready to rise.

I don’t know how to measure the statistics since it so subjective, but from experience and interviews this principle has an eerie way of playing itself out.  That first awkward, inappropriate dinner invite carried a concealed motive.  When ministers have reflected about conflict situations, sure enough the chief instigators were also the ones who attempted those early alliances.  In fact, some ministers believe the very first inappropriate “get together” will reveal your first, eventual opposition.  Don’t judge too quick and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but don’t dismiss it out of hand, either.

Again note, do not consider the Chair of the Search Committee or other key officer in this paradigm.  They have too much at stake for your success.  If you fail in your ministry the blame and suspicion will come back on them.  Why did they allow such a “terrible” minister to take this position?  But if you succeed, just look out on that person and watch their pride.  Your success is also their success.  Don’t you know that in personal conversations out of your ear-shot they are bragging, “Yep, I knew as soon as I met him/her that they would be a great fit for us.”  That person will usually be your best ally.  Make sure they are on your Pastor-Parish Committee.

3) Passive-Dependents wanting your favored attention and as much of your time as they can seize.  Beware! This group of personality disorder will drain your energies fast.  At first, it’s quite an ego boost to counseling skills and they will make you feel bigger than Sigmund Freud.  But know this, the greatest skilled counselor will exercise serious caution to take them on because they know that such a conflicted person does not really want to get better.  They are not seeking a cure to their loneliness, anxiety, rejection by husband/wife, or whatever other plight they may bring to you.  They only want your time and energy and they will drain it to the dregs if you do not watch out.  For your sake and the welfare of your ministry establish your boundaries quick.  Be nice.  It’s true they are hurting, but counseling sessions may extend for years and their progress will register at nil after all this time.  Getting better is your goal, but it’s simply not theirs.

4) Disappointed or even rejected members from the previous ministry, or even the minister themself.  They have been waiting to see what the new minister may be like.  They have been holding their pain in hope that their place may be reaffirmed.  They see the early opportunity for acceptance.  It failed before, but they are trying (perhaps it appears desperately so) to give this church one more chance.  You just might be right up there close to Messiah status.  Their previous pain leads them to over evaluate the next situation and glamorize your place too much.  Appreciate the ego strokes, but do not believe them too deeply.

5) Compassionate member who saw what happened to the previous minister and is timidly searching for a way to warn you.  The pain they withstood from previous encounters may degrade the tactfulness of their efforts.  Those “clumsy” statements may be your most reliable efforts.

Again, keep your paranoia under control.  Not every melodramatic expression is a cloaked warning, but some are.  Most ministries will be good and worthy of a certain degree of trust.  Be free with your compassion, but cautious with those “blessed art thou” comments.

However, dangerous ministries are not a figment of anyone’s imagination.  They do exist.  That’s just hard reality.  What triggers the harm is personality mismatches and clashes.  The values between minister and church are too far apart.  And sometimes another fearful reality exists not nearly as rare as we would wish, when a sociopath is present (see the “Antagonists” page and subpages of this site).

Perhaps all of the above mentioned scenarios will exist in any given church.  Some points will be more evident than others, but a wise minister knows by experience to be on the watch and aware of these motives at work in their new ministry.  Patience is so valuable.  Use that first year to make the most of the honeymoon and pay attention.  Keep notes if you, but observe with grave attention to those brought to the attention of your care.

But in those unfortunate situation where you realize too late that you have just agreed to the wrong church, that the clashes of values and interests are serious, you must make the most of this.   Leaving too soon will mark you as flighty, shallow or restless.  Search committees go through much work and they do not want to do it again anytime soon.

Some ministries end way too soon, simply because the minister arrived with too much zeal and enthusiasm about “changing the world” by the end of next week.   Unfortunately, that does not often happen in one’s first ministry.  Actually it never happens in that first proving ground.  The rule of surviving and learning the unique traditions and values (AKA, “quirks”) calls us to go slow . . . very painfully slow.

When dealing with a contentious ministry, a realistic time line for a safe and effective ministry might run as follows,

Year One, Learn to appreciate everything in your new surroundings.  As Stephen Covey explains in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.  Appreciate the way things are and change nothing until the reasons become clear to you.  They may make little sense, but until you understand their importance to the local populace, you may be tampering with a sensitive landmine without knowing it.  Why take such an unnecessary risk that may bear high stakes for little gain? Until you gain the feel of the terrain seek to appreciate the traditions.  Ask lots of How, What, When and Where questions.

Year Two, continue to appreciate and love the people of your church and community.  The would be reformer may cautiously begin to ask more Why questions.  Get the people to reflect for themselves.  Guide them to the point of self-discovery where those traditions may have lost the “point” over the years and no longer bear relevance.  Again, questions and not assertions are to be your preferred strategy.  A question always allows a return to a safe defense.  Questions allow you to probe the terrain and history while beginning the process of motivating toward better things.  Take notice of how Jesus handled his antagonists — it’s always with questions returned to questions.

Year Three, begin to mention alternative ideas.  Always note these are not official proposals, but simply vague ponderings of how a different idea may look in an old situation.  Do not stir up suspicions prematurely for these will defeat the entirety of your ministry, not just this one round.  Remember Jesus words about new wine in old wineskins, good outcomes are doubtful but seed thoughts may cultivate a healthier ground for future change.

Year Four, make your gradual progress from wondering about notions to outright suggestions for a better and smoother turn of processes.  But you must have individuals on your side and if at all possible have the long established members propose new ideas.  Support their cultivated ideas, and others hearing these new ideas from familiar friends will lessen the suspicions from this new person (AKA “you”) who will unfortunately but probably be gone soon (just like the others who have proceeded you).

Follow the counsel of Sun Tzu,

A leader is best . . .

When people barely know he exists.

Not so good . . .

When people obey and acclaim him.

Worse when they despise him.

But of a good leader . . .

Who talks little

When his work is done,

His aim fulfilled,

They will say . . . “We did it ourselves.”

                                    Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.)

Our ego may be our defeat to effective service.

Year Five, guide the new event into reality, but ever so slowly.  Does everyone understand the need and especially the urgency of this new idea?  Remember, the idea will continue to take time to develop and gain its own hold on the system.  Not everyone will be on board, but then full adoption never happens in real life.  The best you can hope to attain is a good majority and then proceed with the courage of these innovators.

Heed the wisdom of Machiavelli,

We must bear in mind, then, that there is nothing more difficult and dangerous, or more doubtful of success, than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state.

For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things, whilst those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders.  This indifference arises in part from fear of their adversaries who were favored by the existing laws, and partly from the incredulity of men who have no faith in anything new that is not the result of well-established experience.

Hence it is that, whenever the opponents of the new order of things have the opportunity to attack it, they will do it with the zeal of partisans, whilst the others defend it but feebly, so that it is dangerous to rely upon the latter.

Niccolò Machiavelli
The Prince, Chapter 6
1513 A.D.










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