Monday, June 23, 2008

Don't Change Anything Your First Year

A year ago tomorrow, on WNCC’s U-haul Day, I packed up the family and moved to Thomasville. Tomorrow, more families will uproot and head to their new appointments. One of my goals for my first year as the minister here was to follow the advice I had heard many times at Divinity School. That advice was: Don’t change anything for your first year. I thought there was no better time to attempt to do this and so I settled in, and changed nothing. And now that I am at the end of that first year, I thought I would jot down a couple of my observations.

Not changing anything can be difficult but I think the positives outweigh them in the end. There were two major challenges. One was the stagnate feeling. I didn’t change worship styles or order, major organizational structures or how they celebrated the holidays. This past year it feels like they have been going through the motions and lacked passion and zeal. This may be because of the hardships they went through before my arrival. Their minister was asked to leave the church and denomination the Thursday before Christmas of 2006. Two interim ministers took to the pulpit over the next 6 months. When I arrived I was the third minister of 2007, which anyone familiar with the UMC system knows this was a rare situation and can weigh heavy on a congregation. Whatever the reason, we have been still for this year which at times have felt like we have been dragging along.

Second, there are times when you feel like you are wearing someone else’s shoes. This, I think, is any new pastor’s feelings. We are walking into a congregation that has a history. They have existed long before you arrived and will long after you leave. As United Methodist ministers we are transient and floating authorizes who come and eventually go. When I arrived I slipped into the pulpit and church life but it felt like it hasn’t been my own. Not changing anything proves to be a test of will power and determination because it can be uncomfortable to do worship in a way you might not enjoy or celebrate holidays in a way that is unfamiliar. The first year feels like wearing someone’s shoes. It just doesn’t feel like your own.

These two negatives are outweighed by the positives though. Because of my congregation’s situation (although this would be true for every congregation) I needed to feel them out for a bit. I needed to see how people were feeling. I had to find out what the views of the church leaders were. What did they think about the health of the congregation and how and when we should move forward. I needed to understand who the players were and what games were being played. To walk into a new congregation and interrupt their history with your own version will create more problems for change in the future.

Not changing anything for that first year provided me opportunities to simply love on the congregation. I took this first year to get to know everyone. Who was related to who? Who has served on what committee and who hasn’t? Which people needed my fullest attention and which ones were simply a squeaky wheel looking for grease. At the end of this year I can look out at the congregation and know where people are in life. It is amazing, at the end of the year I do not see faces, I see people, souls, situations, struggles, and joys. I have fallen in love with the congregation and in turn they have fallen in love with me.

Not changing things has enabled them to know me for me, not my agendas or views I could have thrusted upon them. As we move into the second year I can start to get a picture of where God is leading us as a congregation. This year has allowed us to build trust. We are now at the point that they may listen to my reflections and feelings about where God is leading the church. They now trust me enough to know I care about this congregation and the lives of the people that make it up. I am not here to hurt and crush their history but for us to live into it and thrive by being the congregation God is calling us to be.

Whenever my next move is, hopefully years from now (hint, hint Bishop, like you’re reading this), I will probably do this again. I say that now as this year ends. The real results will be seen five years from now. Was the first year worth the trouble and inner struggle? Was it meaningful to the congregation to have them know me and me them before we took off on God’s adventure? Time will tell but I do know I feel good about where my ministry is. We are poised to do great things in Thomasville in the name of God. Not changing anything has something to do with it. Maybe those professors and ministers knew what they were talking about?

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