New pastor, how do you build trust between you and your pew peeps? Here’s a cautionary tale.
As a fledgling ministry couple in our first church, we received a frantic phone call from a seminary colleague serving in a parish across town. Sounding like a poodle cornered by a Doberman, our friend squeaked, “Roger, the weasels are at it again!” What a cryptic statement! We knew our friends lived in a dilapidated parsonage, but why call us? Why not contact animal control? We’d nabbed a few rats, chased a few cats, but our weasel experience was limited, at best.
Then my husband’s friend (we’ll call him Clyde) reminded Roger that it was “Weasel Wednesday” night, the lay leader conclave when committees gathered to discuss church policy, politics and pay scales. For us, our affable elders were the supportive sort who prayed for us newbies as we tried out our ministry wings and picked us up when we crashed and burned.
Brother Clyde reminded us that he was not so fortunate. He ranted and raved that his deacons, those nefarious ne’er-do-wells who hired him, were certain to criticize his every move, dock his pay and generally make his life a living (well, you know, the opposite of heaven). Why would a pastor speak so ill of his leadership? He had only served at his current post for six months. Either this congregation was really dysfunctional or Clyde was pretty paranoid.
The minister listed a number of faux pas that gave us pause. Clyde had removed the mahogany pulpit hand-carved by one of the church founders the first Sunday that he preached. Wilma Hesselbrook, widow of the pulpit craftsman, hyperventilated in her pew and needed mouth to mouth. Ouch. Way to win friends and influence people! Eager to light a fire beneath the faithful, our friend delivered a fiery vision sermon on evangelism, and basically informed his congregation that they were apathetic and lazy when it came to reaching the world for Christ. Brother Clyde was frontman for "Gospel Shredders" in seminary -- a factoid he failed to mention to the pulpit committee. One can imagine their surprise when he whipped out his amp and began to strum along with "Holy, Holy, Holy." Yes, poor Clyde needed a few lessons in Christian diplomacy.
We never learned much about Clyde’s brief stint at his post. He departed the “weasel” Baptist church suddenly and left the ministry soon after. A real shame. He was a good guy with six years of Greek and Hebrew under his belt. Have you ever tried to get another job with Greek and Hebrew on your resume? Now Clyde’s happy as a clam working at Jiffy Lube.
Clyde could have benefited from some “shepherd-mentoring.” A pastor my husband Roger greatly admired told my husband that he needed to learn to play PARISH POKER. At first the gambling analogy took him aback. Brother Lubner explained that every fledgling preacher is handed a pair of “chips” when he steps into the pulpit of his new church. If Reverend Clueless rips out the organ pipes the first week and replaces them with three media screens and laser lights, he just lost all of his chips. In fact, he might just be kicked to the curb by lunchtime.
My husband’s pastorly oversight could have been a career-ender, but he squirreled away a stockpile of poker chips for such a day. Roger’s wedding mishap was both hilarious and precarious. My hubby and daughters were happily watching Sponge Bob Squarepants and scarfing pepperoni pizza when the dreaded phone call came. Deacon Harold, the father of the bride, barked, “Pastor, where are you? Roger dropped his pizza slice, donned his tux pants and bolted for the Buick. The desert sunset wedding had been timed to the minute so that the sun would set through purple clouds behind the Catalina Mountains just as the couple said “I do.”
By the time Roger arrived on the scene, it was dusk and the bridesmaids stumbled over the rocky path in their stilettos, making their way to the altar. The onlookers stood to acknowledge the bride’s grand entrance and Dad fell “splat” into a nearby prickly pear cactus. It took two sets of tweezers and a dinner fork to extricate the spines from dad’s thorny posterior. He was not a happy camper. Needless to say, Roger received no honorarium and the wedding photos were staged on the backyard patio next to the swing set.
Believe it or not, the family did not leave the church and Roger did not get fired. Why not? He had lots and lots of chips with that family. He baptized their kids, counseled their teenage son and kept vigil at Grandma’s hospital bed. Rog lost some chips that day, but the family forgave him. You see, chips are all about relationships and building trust.
So what lessons can be learned from Roger and Clyde?
Hapless Clyde lost chips because he didn’t understand the culture of his congregation and didn’t take time to know his people first. Fiery young ministers want to preach their first sermon on “vision.” Give me a break. Everyone in church knows the new parson has vision. That’s why they hired him. The first question every pew-hugger wants to know is “Pastor, do you want to know me? Are you going to take care of me?” If you answer that question in spades, your pile of “chips” will grow.
Don’t expect to pile up chips overnight. Trust must be earned. Spirituality, integrity, faithfulness and compassion are proved over years of serving others. There is no greater challenge and no greater blessing than longevity in ministry.
A little grace goes a long way. Dear servants of God, remember the weight of responsibility your lay leaders shoulder. All of your sheep are needy. Shepherd their families. Comfort their hurts. Forgive their foibles, and be patient when they are slower to change than you would like. If they know you love them deeply and are committed to them long-term, the sheep will gladly follow wherever you lead.
Deacons, elders and lay leaders remember that your pastors and wives are sheep, too. Cut them a little slack. They need your care as well. Give them friendship, forgiveness, loyalty and above all, your prayers. Ultimately we love and trust each other because we love and trust the Good Shepherd.
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