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Honeymoon vs. Trial: Surviving the Critical First Years

by Glenn E. Ludwig

The first years in any profession can be critical years. It is the time when one develops professional identity. It is a time of learning what one was not taught in any academic school about the profession. It is a time of developing working models that can carry one through an entire career. Beginning that profession in a positive, constructive, healthy, and creative way is, therefore, crucial.

The ministry is no exception to this hypothesis. Whether this is a first call or a fourth call to serve, how one begins can set the tone for later years. We have all known clergy who began badly, for a myriad of reasons, and never recovered from that beginning. The likelihood of a pastorate becoming long term can be somewhat determined by how the ministry in that setting began. Those critical first years must be navigated with wisdom, maturity, and integrity.

The Old Myth

Many have been around long enough to have heard the old myth about beginning a pastorate. The conventional wisdom, seemingly passed down through seminaries and word of mouth, went something like this: The beginning of a relationship between a pastor and a congregation is the "honeymoon period." Remember that?

It was taught, or at least assumed, that the start of any ministerial relationship had many of the same qualities of that period we call a honeymoon—that time right after a man and woman join in marriage. Although this period could be brief, it was nevertheless thought that the longer one could maintain that honeymoon feeling, the better off one was.

Many of the same characteristics of a couple enjoying that beginning stage of marriage also seemed to describe the beginning of a pastorate. First, there is the getting-to-know-you part. We think we know the person whom we are marrying, but soon discover there are things about which we were clueless. The beginning of a pastoral relationship is much the same. We are learning about one another and, in a congregational setting, that can take some time.

Second, the beginning of a marriage relationship is characterized as a time of idealism. He married a beautiful Queen; she married the charming Prince. In a congregational setting, the congregation might feel that they have called their "perfect" pastor, and the pastor feels that this is the "perfect" place for him or her. It is a wonderful feeling, to be sure. Not very realistic, but wonderful.

The period of idealism will ultimately give way in a marriage to some reality. She isn’t the ideal he had envisioned and he is really something less than what she had bargained for. Realism, however discouraging, takes the place of idealism.

The same is true in a pastoral relationship. The pastor begins to see that this "perfect" call comes with some imperfections and the congregation begins to notice that the pastor is not the ideal pastor they had wanted.

Third, a honeymoon period is exciting. Everything is new and fresh. Some have said that being "in love" can affect our senses. Our sense of smell is heightened, as is our sense of color. There have been studies showing that in this stage of relationship, our bodies produce a chemical response caused by the other person.

Now, this physiological change has never been proven to be the case with a pastor and congregation, but there is something of the same kind of excitement about a new call. Everything is fresh. All the human encounters are new and ripe with possibilities. There is no history to repeat, forgive, or overcome. The future is open and exciting. It is, all in all, a wonderful place to be.

Two Basic Approaches Advocated in the Myth

The myth has given birth to two very different approaches as to how one handles this honeymoon period in a pastorate. In fact, the approaches are so different as to be polar opposites of one another.

The first approach to the supposed honeymoon period advocates that the pastor should make all the changes he or she can during this time. The philosophy behind this approach tells us that since the congregation "loves" the pastor so much, make changes before the "in love-ness" fades. For instance, if the pastor wants to change something in the worship service, now is a good time. The congregation will be more accepting of the change and will likely go along with it. If the pastor wants to change a program, or add a program that otherwise has not been done, now is a good time. The congregation will be more open to new ideas in the honeymoon period and the pastor should strike while the iron is hot. If the pastor wants to move to a different form of administrative management, now is the time, according to proponents of this approach. The congregation believes that the pastor is the ideal person for them and will more openly embrace such a change. The examples are endless, but the philosophy is the same—make as many changes as you want and can during this time period. You may not get this chance again.

The second approach stands opposite to the one just espoused—make few if any changes during the honeymoon period. The working philosophy behind this approach advocates that we should not use up all our pastoral currency during the initial stages of ministry; we may need some for later. This approach calls for a period of listening and learning about the parish and its people. One needs to learn something of the particular setting of the congregation, including the culture and norms of operation. A pastor needs to develop relationships so that future decisions can be made in a spirit of dialogue and mutuality. It is important to "pay your dues," so to speak—get to know the people, offer faithful service, and build upon relationships so that ministry can flourish collegially rather then by pastoral fiat.

The wisdom of both of these approaches assumes that there is a honeymoon period at the beginning of a pastor’s relationship with a congregation and her people. But what if, in reality, that honeymoon period does not exist?

As I listen to pastors and have observed ministry for almost three decades, I would contend that the honeymoon period is a thing of the past. It may have existed at one time in North American pastorates, but it seems to me that today people are more realistic, if not skeptical, of those in authority, be it a pastor, a principal, or the local police. A cultural mindset seems to have developed that does not take authority for granted, and, therefore, expects those in authority positions to earn the respect and trust of those they serve.

Andrew Greeley, writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, weighs in on a personal note with his experience: "I learned very quickly in my first assignment that respect was no longer given, save in a superficial way. It had to be earned by the display of professional competence. That is all the more true today."1

My experience and observations support Greeley’s assertions. The honeymoon period, if it ever indeed existed, is a thing of the past. What has replaced it (or, at least, what most pastors experience) is, for lack of better words, a period of trial and testing.

The Reality That Replaces the Myth

Theories abound regarding interpersonal relationships, group dynamics, and group growth. They may differ in terminology, but all of them offer a way to systematize what happens when people come together in one group or another. But even if the terminology differs, they all agree that there is a process with developmental stages for all groups.

One of the clearer versions comes from Richard C. Weber in an article titled "The Group: A Cycle from Birth to Death."2 Weber claims that all groups proceed through three major stages of development comparable to a person’s infant, adolescent, and adult stages. In turn, each stage has four dimensions that need attention: group behavior, group tasks/issues, interpersonal issues, and leadership issues. Here is how those dimensions play out in each of the stages Weber identifies:

TBALE ONE

As a pastor enters into a new relationship with a congregation, a new group, if you will, has been formed. What Weber’s proposal illustrates (as do other process theories) is that there are many dynamics moving through group relationships. What used to be considered a honeymoon period, illustrated by the infancy period of Weber, has either been dramatically the congregation. Is this pastor who he or she claims to be? Are the skills of our new pastor matched to our needs?

Comparisons often abound with past pastors and, specifically, with the immediate predecessor. Is our new pastor as good a preacher, or as friendly, or as attentive to me as the last pastor (now often raised to near-sainthood), or as good an administrator? I know of one pastor who got himself into trouble because he did not arrive early to church on Sunday mornings to make the coffee for the volunteers who would be coming to help lead worship, as the former pastor always had done.

Most of the time the questions being asked of the pastor never reach the ears of the person who is "on trial." She or he may not even sense the issues but the questions are there, the comparisons are being made, and judgments are being rendered. And all of this seems to come to a head, or at least becomes more obvious to a pastor, in the first crises of one’s ministry.

Those First Crises

Whether the crisis be personal (a death or accident), interpersonal (a fight between two organizations in the church or between leaders), or administrative (a budget crisis), how the new pastor handles any one or all of them will be keenly noticed. As muscles of the human body are tested by resistance, now the strength or weakness of the pastor becomes tested and observed. There are two keys to successfully maneuvering through this minefield.

Response vs. Reaction

First, it is important for any leader of any organization to know the difference between responding to a stimulus and reacting to one. Then, one must be deliberate in responding to the crisis presented.

Reacting is an automatic and often immediate action. When we touch a hot bowl, we do not have to think about pulling our hand away. We just react. It does not require any thought. It is quick, immediate, automatic, and decisive.

Responding, on the other hand, is a thoughtful and deliberate action. When someone makes a hurtful comment to us, our first reaction may be to sling one back. But often that just escalates the rhetoric and makes things worse. A response measures the words by engaging the brain and thought processes before engaging the mouth.

How many of us, simply as human beings relating to others, have said or done things we wish we had not? Remember that old saying about hindsight being 20/20? But as we mature and learn to monitor ourselves in healthy ways, we find ways to keep ourselves from reacting and saying or doing things we will later regret.

In those first critical years of ministry, as a pastor seeks to establish him or herself, crisis will occur. Someone will die in the parish and the pastor needs to respond appropriately to the crisis and the family. A squabble will break out between the property committee and the youth group over the state of the youth room. The finance committee will sound the alarm that the giving level has dropped off and that bills may not be able to be paid this month. The list of potential crises could go on for some pages here.

It is important for the pastor to be perceived, in the midst of such crises, as a thoughtful, deliberate, calming presence. By responding appropriately to each crisis, the pastor goes a long way toward developing relationships based on trust and respect.

Integrity for the Long Haul

Second, it is equally important for the pastor to act at all times with integrity. Integrity is one of those concepts that is sometimes difficult to explain and nail down. I have always said it is kind of like rhythm: We recognize it more quickly in its absence that in its presence. Integrity has to do with character, trustworthiness, and maturity.

The dictionary defines integrity as: (1) an unimpaired condition: soundness; (2) adherence to a code of moral, artistic, or other values; (3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided. Synonyms for integrity include honesty and unity.

For a pastor who is in it for the long haul, integrity is a critical condition. Will the pastor follow through on what he promised? Is the pastor as good as her word? Did the pastor honor the confidentiality of what was shared in private prayer at a bedside? Do the pastor’s actions match her words? Is there depth to the preaching that lets the congregation know that the pastor believes what is being spoken with sincerity and conviction? Does the pastor look me in the eye as we talk in the narthex? Can the pastor admit when he is wrong?

Without soundness of character, a pastor’s credibility is seriously threatened. I would contend that a pastor who lacks integrity will not have the emotional and psychological maturity to survive over the long haul.

When lack of integrity is exposed, any trust that had been developed between a pastor and a congregation is seriously threatened. And when trust does not exist, the opportunities for future ministry will be limited.

Getting Started on the Right Foot

So, how does a pastor get started on the right foot? Is there any magical formula to follow? Are there are clear guidelines? What are some of the principles about getting started that apply to any potentially long-term pastorate?

Whole books have been written on this single issue, but there are three, maybe four, important principles for a pastor to keep in mind as he or she begins in a relationship with a congregation that may lead to a long-term ministry.

Being Clear about Goals and Priorities

Starting up any ministry has the potential to overwhelm even the bravest of ministerial souls. There is so much to learn about the history of the parish, about the way the parish operates, about the people one is called to serve, about the cultural setting of the congregation, and about any staff that are already in place, both paid and volunteer. There is also much to assimilate— the tempo of the culture and how that affects the congregation; the congregation’s values, spoken and unspoken; how this congregation understands the pastoral office, just to name a few. And then there is much to do—like visiting the sick and hospitalized, organizing for ministry, preparing sermons for a group of people we do not know, getting the office in shape, finding a home or getting the manse or parsonage in order—the list could go on.

All of this can easily lead to a sense of overload for a new pastor in a new setting. One of the ways to lessen the impact of that overload is to set clear initial goals and priorities for ministry. Some have suggested that one should (a) keep those first priorities short term, for they will surely change over time, and (b) to state them early, especially to the leadership. Obviously, one of the first general goals would be to get to know the people. Under that global goal the pastor might articulate how he or she is going to accomplish that goal. For instance, when I first came to my current call, I stated my early goal of getting to know people, and then I offered ways I intended to do that: visiting in the home in the first month of all the council members and their families; doing a staff retreat early on with both paid and volunteer staff so that we could share visions and dreams and get to know the gifts we all bring to this ministry we share; and setting up Sunday evening coffee-and-dessert meetings in the church not only to get to know people but to listen to their stories, concerns, and joys. These steps helped me to get started on a clear and decisive path in the ministry that would have otherwise been overwhelming in a large congregation.

Sticking to these early goals and priorities for ministry is important. As we all know, it is easy to get sidetracked as the immediate replaces the important. We should keep those early goals in front of us and assess our ministry on a weekly basis to see how what we did matched or did not match those stated goals.

After six months, revise and edit those goals as other goals and priorities become fairly clear. Do this again after one year. Listening to staff, to leaders, and to members early on will help direct a discerning pastor into ministry goals that will speak to the needs and concerns of the people he or she is called to serve.

One final example from my own experience: My first church council (what we called them back then) meeting went until 1:45 A.M. When I got home, I discovered my wife had locked and bolted me out of the parsonage.

It was one of the worst meetings I had ever attended. In our church system, the council president runs the meetings. In this case, the meeting was ripe with dissension and argumentation. The council had the practice of beginning every meeting with what they called "joys and concerns" of the congregation. It was nothing more than an open forum for gripes and complaints, with people getting extremely defensive as areas of their ministry responsibility came under attack. After a half-hour of such attacks, counterattacks, and growing anger and frustration, we were then supposed to do the business of Christian ministry. Ha! Three people left the meeting in anger and frustration before it was over. I soon discovered that over the past six years half of the council resigned every year because the whole experience was unrewarding.

When my wife let me in and I explained to her, "No, we did not go out to get a drink after the meeting," it became clear to me that one of the goals for my early ministry must be to change the way we talked and dealt with one another, both in council meetings and around the church. As I listened to people before services and at meetings, there was a strong undercurrent of griping and complaining. It was a church pitched in a minor key. That had to change if we were ever going to be effective in ministry and be the people of God who learn to live with and love one another.

We lived out that goal in numerous ways: we started each council meeting with scripturally based devotions and personal sharing; I made it clear that I am willing to listen to any concerns people have, but the one who shares the concern must be willing to work with me to fix the problem; and we learned to laugh together in healthy and healing ways. It sounds like a small thing, but it set the tone for future ministry. I dare say that if we had not turned around the tone of this congregation, I am not sure I would be writing this book and talking about long-term pastorates, at least not in this place.

Pastoral Care in Crises

Certainly a pastor never wishes for personal crises among members, but life brings them and when they come, it is a great opportunity to get to know people. Crises become a quick and immediate way to gain access to our members. We have the unique opportunity and privilege to be invited into people’s homes, hearts, and lives during times of need—illness, accidents, hospitalizations, death, divorce or separation. It is a chance to imprint on the congregation and its members that we are caring, available, responsive, supportive, and competent.

What message does it send our members when they know that if they call us with an emergency that we will respond appropriately and immediately? Whether pastors know it or not, members of our congregations talk to one another. Yes, the gripers are always with us and spread their "good cheer" rather often and easily. But so do those who have been faithfully served by a new pastor.

Solid and dependable pastoral care needs to be among the pastor’s early goals and priorities. While it is true that such a concern should always be part of our ministry, my point here is to emphasize its importance as a critical step in establishing a ministry. When we miss an opportunity, for whatever reason, there are those who will remember; when we serve an opportunity, we make supporters and friends.

Developing eloping Mutual Accountability

A third principle to apply to the beginning of any ministry would be to develop mutual accountability, both among and between the staff and the leadership of the church. This means that we all deliberately take responsibility for our areas of ministry, share openly what is happening in those areas, seek advice and counsel from one another, support one another, and hold one another responsible. As this mutual accountability is practiced, there begins to form a growing awareness that (a) ministry is what we all are about, not just those whom we pay to do things, and that (b) we as pastors value, appreciate, and welcome the counsel and support of those who are part of our fellowship.

There are various ways to accomplish this development:

So, is there a honeymoon period at the beginning of a ministry that can be enjoyed for a while, or is the start-up of any ministry more like a trial period of testing and evaluation? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Observation would seem to indicate that whatever honeymoon period there is has been shortened in our society as people seem less willing to embrace new leadership with open arms as they perhaps once were. But in both images, honeymoon or trial, getting off on the right foot is extremely important.

Which leads us to a fourth operating principle to consider, important enough to warrant a chapter unto itself: The central issue in any relationship, be it marriage, friendship, work, or ministry, is the development of trust between the persons involved. That topic will gain our full attention in the next chapter.

Glenn E. Ludwig is the Senior Pastor of First Lutheran Church in Ellicott City, MD and author of books and numerous journal articles.

Notes

1. Andrew Greeley, "Are Lay Catholics Getting Their Money’s Worth?" Context (Chicago: Claretian Publications, 2001), 3.

2. Richard C. Weber, "The Group: A Cycle from Birth to Death," in Reading Book for Human Relations Training (Arlington, Va.: National Training Laboratories, 1982), 68-71.

Adapted from In It for the Long Haul: Building Effective Long-Term Pastorates by Glenn E. Ludwig(Bethesda, Md.: The Alban Institute, 2002). Copyright © 2002 by The Alban Institute, Inc. All rights reserved.