In the beginning…


I was asked by a couple of very thoughtful people yesterday, “When you began as a young pastor, did you feel like you were thrown to the wolves?”

It didn’t take long for me to answer, “Yes.” But the response surprised me when it came out of my mouth.

“What made you stay?” They asked.

And I rambled for a while. I said when I was about to hang up my stole for the last time, a search committee called me out of the blue, and it was my dream church. It had an amazing ministry to the homeless, it was welcoming of LGBT men and women, and it had a diverse, intergenerational congregation. The Clerk of Session was in her 20s. And it even had those elements that I wanted badly, but I felt kind of greedy about admitting it: beautiful architecture and soaring music.

It was a clear sign. And so I put the stole back on. And I’m so thankful that I did….

Even with the teeth marks, I’m glad I took the path that I did, beginning with two small parishes as a solo pastor. Not being an associate during my first call formed my pastoral identity. Preaching every week helped me to find my voice. And I developed a leadership style that wouldn’t have emerged if I had been on a staff.

But, small churches are hard. There’s no doubt about it. Some of them have open secrets that will make you shudder when you find them out. Those families have a hundred of years of history together. And the pastor’s always an outsider…

So, what would you say to the students who are reading this? What’s the best path for new pastors? Is it better for APs? Did you ever feel like you were thrown to the wolves? What made you stay?


9 thoughts on “In the beginning…

  1. I started as an asst pastor (something we no longer have in the PCUSA). I don’t think I could have handled the isolation of a small church. I really, really admire folks who have gone straight into a small church and learned the ropes in that method. The problem, as Tribal Church suggests, is that a lot of very small churches are incredibly inbred and neurotic. So the things we learn can be counterproductive when we get to a healthier setting. Of course, mid size and large congregations have their own issues. But there is something about the issues being spread out over a larger number of people that makes me more comfortable dealing with it.
    I also had the good fortune of working with an absolutely wonderful human being as an asst. He taught me so many of the things I have found effective in ministry. In my second call, an associate pastor position, the pastor was a great guy but not as much of a teacher. Nonetheless, I learned stuff in both settings.
    So I think one really has to look at one’s own personality and understand what one can tolerate and what one can’t tolerate. If you can handle a small church (without question, these folks should be paid much more than big steeple pastors), fine. But if one wants a place where one can get more feedback on performance, hear ideas about what works and doesn’t work, etc, then I think an associate pastor’s job can be fine.
    All of that being said, when I finally went into a church as a solo pastor, the church wasn’t neurotic. In fact, the emotional health of the congregation (70% of the members were over 70!) was the single most crucial factor in totally turning the congregation around to where it is thriving today with 50% of the members under 45. So don’t give up on small churches. Some of them are gems waiting for some sound leadership.

  2. Is it sad I am dying to get eaten? I will go where I am called. “What made you stay?”, is the question I want answered. Small churches cannot afford pastors, what can be done with that?

  3. Not easier for first-call Associates, but hard in a different way, I’m sure. At first, I was so grateful to have a senior pastor for feedback, suggestions, etc. But it stunted me for the reasons you suggest, Carol–it took forever for me to develop my own style, my own identity, my own leadership. Once those started to mature and I started to settle in, I felt stifled and stunted and like someone was looking over my shoulder all the time.

    I stayed in ministry past that because I was sure that the AP thing was not my calling anymore, if it ever had been, that some other kind of ministry would be different and better and more for me. And it has been. The transition has been difficult as well, but for me, the grass was greener on the other side of the fence. I’ve been at small churches ever since, part-time, and much, much happier. Not that it’s any easier, but I’m much more settled into my identity and practice as a pastor.

    Good questions. Thanks.

  4. i wrestled long and hard with the decision between solo and associate. i had the good fortune of having a cpe supervisor who offered me some helpful advice. he said, “churches are resilient.” his point was that a pastor who has worked through at least some of their own issues, who is self-aware, and who is not a malevolent demon will probably not do any damage to a church, even if they come with little to no experience. if you screw up a couple of sermons (or a whole season’s worth, for that matter), or if you drop the ball at session from time to time, those things will not make or break a church — they are resilient.

    he gave me permission to think about the solo route and it has been very fruitful for me. more than anything, i feel that effective leadership is something that can be gained in that position and is an invaluable gift wherever and however you serve in the future.

    leadership is learned at a painfully slow rate, which further reinforces the value of the question, “What made you stay?” something i’ve learned to dwell upon in staying is whether the itch that makes me want to leave my current call is from a fear that things are hopeless for the small church, or whether the fear is that something truly amazing could possibly happen (or emerge, if you will) and i want to run and hide from God’s presence.

    sorry to ramble on…

  5. wow, I wouldn’t trade my first experience as a solo pastor in a small church for ANYTHING. Despite the fact that all that you say is true, that we are always an outsider, and that there are secrets, and that everyone is related, and that they are often in many ways SOOOOO conservative, and despite that fact that it seems in some ways like living in another country. So, consider it a cultural experience.

    They need pastors. Desperately. That’s one thing.

    I know, some of the churches are dysfunctional, and eat pastors for breakfast. But, a lot of them aren’t. They’re just small, and probably declining.

    In my churches, they were not disappointed that they didn’t get a man. They were grateful that a pastor wanted to come to their community. They weren’t all full of themselves with all of the requirements they wanted their pastor to have. They were humble. Oh, there were a couple of stinkers. There was a retired pastor in the community who was an absolute gift to me. He had served them as an interim pastor for about a year before I came, and he wrote me a letter when I got the call, telling me that he was going to 1) support me as pastor, and 2) not do any pastoral acts when requested. And he stuck to it. I knew if someone called him to request that he do a funeral, he would refuse.

    I have found that many of our rural churches are much more willing to have a woman pastor than our “progressive” city churches are. I have had a difficult time moving out of the associate position since moving here, but in the rural state where I served previously, I was offered two Sr. Pastor positions.

    when I was installed, the three ladies’ aids each gave me a hand made quilt. My first Easter was on my birthday, and they made a cake (between easter services, kind of early for cake…). They threw a surprise party for me on my 40th birthday.

    But, these churches are dying. It is very depressing, sometimes.

    Sorry to ramble on. maybe it’s a post….

  6. Yes. It seems like solo pastorates, as difficult as they are, are a good place to develop leadership. And if you have a senior/head of staff who’s a nightmare, then your first call will be a nightmare too.

    I just hope we can find ways to better support pastors. Actually, it seems like we are…

    Diane, that’s very interesting about rural churches being much more willing to have a woman pastor. So true.

    I spoke to a seminary prof who said he was shocked about it. Everyone assumed that the big, liberal, urban churches would be the first to call women, and that they would really have to work hard to get the rural churches to follow suit.

    Strangely enough, it’s been the opposite.

  7. I served first as a co-pastor (with my spouse), then a solo pastor, and am now an associate. There is no way I would have wanted to be an associate in my first call. I feel much more confident in my pastoral identity now. Good post.

  8. It’s interesting, because I was highly encouraged to take an AP during my first call. There was a sense that a good mentor would help me, and maybe that’s true. But I’ve also heard the horror stories. You know, the ego-seniors who don’t allow their associates become too good at anything….

    So, as Ryan asked, small churches can’t afford pastors, what’s to be done about that?

    Well, I’m not sure how it is in all denominations, but in the PC we have (I think)

    -40 percent of our churches with empty pulpits
    -more seminary students for each viable job (Ryan, did you say 5 to 1? Five students for each job?)

    So, the denomination can take its money and begin funding new pastors. We can see the small churches as a training ground for new ministers. Make sure the pastors live comfortably and have a lot of support from other clergy.

    Then we could take the rest of the money and plant new churches.

    I think we like sitting on money a lot more than we like investing it into something new… but who knows? Maybe that will change.

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