How To Care For Your New Pastor

Delivered July 21, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Theme: A potpourri of exhortations concerning Central’s new pastor.

Sermon Text:
I Thessalonians 5:12-22
and Psalm 93

The New Testament lesson today is taken from the Book of 1st Thessalonians, Chapter 5, Verses 12-22. In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, it seems that the apostle was trying as usual to give guidance to a sticky situation. Apparently one or some of those in leadership had become heavy handed or there was some kind of conflict or tension, at least in the opinion of some of the flock, things just weren’t the way they ought to be. And so therefore, Paul was trying to remind the congregation of his day about the importance of pastoral leadership and spiritual leadership and authority, but he also reminds the leaders to be patient in their responsibilities and the exercise of their authority in relationships. So listen to the end or toward the end of 1st Thessalonians, Chapter 5, starting with Verse 12.

“Now we ask you brothers to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard and love because of their work. Live in peach with each other. And we urge you brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else. Be joyful always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good; avoid every kind of evil.”

As I wrap up my preaching and pastoral responsibilities, I thought about what would be helpful to share for the future in terms of the relationship that Central would begin and develop with its next pastor, which we believe and hope will be not too long a time. Parenthetically, it is interesting to note in this text that it says, “Respect those who labor among you.” That’s in the plural. In the New Testament Church, there necessarily wasn’t just one pastor, there was a plurality of elders, yet today in many congregations and many situations, right or wrong, we do have certain expectations of a person who is designated the pastor. And I simply want to walk you through the handout that you will find in today’s bulletin and encourage you to fill in the blanks as I give them to you, as you take notes and then later maybe discuss these with others, maybe in a small group or in your family. These are not an exposition of the text as it were. These are reflections from experience. And so I would like to share with you ten brief points on how to care for your next pastor, or for your new pastor.

#1. Let your new pastor dream his/her own dreams. And let me just say grammatically I have his or her there, but I took out her on all the other ones just for expediency sake. But expect that your pastor will have a vision for the future. And don’t necessarily tie it to any vision that has been spoken in the past. It may be something completely new. Pray that God would make that vision clear, not just to the pastor but to all the leaders and that when it is made clear that there would be an effort for all to marshal the forces and move toward that vision. In this text Paul says, “Do not quench the spirit”. I think it would be safe to say, it would be a quenching of the spirit if folks did not cooperate and support the vision that God had clearly given the leadership of the church.

#2. Let your pastor be himself. Expect differences from anyone and everyone who has ever been in this position before. If the person is unusually funny, great. That’s good. If they are unusually serious, that’s okay too. Just let them be themselves. Appreciate their uniqueness as a person, because in the 21st century, the pastoral role is very challenging. The pastor, many times, experiences a tension in their role, on one hand he is supposed to be the spiritual leader of the flock, and on another hand he is reimbursed or paid or hired, supported by the people of the church. So sometimes folks can think he is an employee, instead of a spiritual leader. And when that happens, that’s the recipe for problems. So let him be himself and let him lead in ways that will keep everyone focused on Christ.

#3. Commit to stand with him through hard times. You know hard times and difficult times eventually come, conflict is inevitable in most places, because we are human beings. Did you know that the average length of time in the Southern Baptist denomination was three years? You know I am thinking to myself this two year interim may have outlasted a lot of intentional installed pastorates for most congregations, why? Because many times there is difficulty and tension. People have different goals and instead of this employee mind-set, think of the relationship between pastor and people as a covenant. Something akin to marriage. We know in marriage, divorce is not the first solution. Divorce is the absolute last resort, if there are no other solutions. We know the stages of marriage, fantasy and then disillusionment, then acceptance and then love, deep love. And we know from a marriage relationship that we have all heard the term honeymoon stage, we know what that is like. The other can do no wrong. They just are perfect and it’s really a distortion of our perceptions. And one of the problems of a successful interim time is that it seems like you never move out of the honeymoon stage. Things just seem to be so good and focused and that’s not always the case, but sometimes that can happen. And so, if anybody is permanent more than passed that stage, disillusionment starts to show up. And it’s then that you have to stick with the covenant of supporting one another. See your new pastor can’t come in and say all this and so I am saying this. Be committed to that person for the long haul; we know that in a good marriage there is a reciprocity. Like for me, I can’t just say as a husband, “Okay I just really want you to be a good wife and it’s all up to you to be a good wife.” You see being a good husband leads to having a good wife. Being a good wife leads to having a good husband. You see we can call one another into a being and into fullness or wholeness, or we can call one another to wither because of how we behave toward one another.

A Lutheran farmer was talking to his neighbor and he was talking about how a pastor had just come and how he wasn’t quite sure about the person and that gave the neighbor a chance to start complaining about his pastor. And the first person the farmer said, “Well you know we are not quite sure about this young man, but we have been praying and if he is good, we are going to be grateful to God. But if he is not, we are going to make him even better.” And that’s the kind of attitude that should accompany any congregation as they welcome a new pastor. I have every reason to believe that the person that Central calls is going to be excellent, but somehow there may be differences and so help him and support him in every way.

#4. Let your new pastor lead. Let them lead. You know it’s a difficult thing for any leader to come into a new situation and before anything is on the table, to sense that people just have their arms crossed and just are not going to be led, for whatever reason. And so I challenge the session members and the elders to give this person your allegiance, follow him as he follows Christ. Again the text says, “esteem pastors very highly in love because of their work” and when he gets out front and says okay we are going to go in this direction – follow. I have seen a funny thing happen in congregations. Many times they will grow and get complex and I have seen it happen and we have all heard the stories about when a congregation grows, new members will take an old member’s seats, they will take their pew and how that creates all kind of tension or it gets to a certain size and people don’t like it; here’s the refrain – “I don’t know anybody around here anymore.” And so a new pastor will come into a church and it will grow and things will get more complex and ambiguous and then let’s say that time ends and then after that let’s say the congregation starts to shrink a little bit, and it goes back to its original size. Now I am not suggesting that any of that is going to happen here, I am just saying that what happens in the mind-set of people many times is that this is a good thing. It’s like losing weight you know. People think- now I know everybody, now things don’t seem so complex anymore, things are simpler. Be careful about that. Be careful about that because that’s got nothing to do with Jesus’ command to go out and to compel people to come in. And so as the pastor leads, as the church grows in size and becomes more complex and something different than it is right now, support and let them lead.

#5. I almost feel like I don’t even have to say this, but I will say it anyway. During the search, the home stretch of the search, don’t lobby for certain candidates. Now I know that most people around here are thinking, we will just about take any candidate that the PNC would like to offer. It’s okay to suggest people, don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to suggest people, but don’t lobby for certain types of candidates, because that only leads to divisiveness eventually. But it goes without saying.

#6. Here’s a tough one. Support your new pastor even when they can’t publicly explain why certain decisions or actions have been made. You see you need to bear in mind that pastors and leaders frequently cannot defend themselves publicly in order to protect the guilty. And professional ethics sometimes demands silence over issues that are very sensitive. If a tough decision takes place, support your pastor amid the criticism that always comes on the heels of tough decisions.

#7. Release him/her from being your best buddy. If a church has above 100 people in attendance or even membership that’s more than anyone alone can socially involve themselves with. You know, you hardly even know 60 or 70 people by their first name, if you are here for a long time. Let the pastor love you. They will of course, but don’t try to spend large amounts of time, because if a person is stretched too thin, then they will be ineffective. And I know that when new pastors come folks have all kinds of expectations, just give those over to God and if you are able to spend time, fine. If not, let that be okay too.

#8. Let your pastor’s spouse be themselves. Again, don’t anticipate a certain personality type. Don’t expect that they will necessarily invest themselves in ministry here. And don’t expect them to be doing particular ministries or be like former pastor’s spouses. Just love them in to finding their place. Don’t put that expectation on them to fill in and play piano whenever it’s needed. Alright?

#9. Look for opportunities to encourage and affirm your new pastor. Again, I am preaching to the choir. Just from my experience, I know from verbal comments, from written notes, you all are a loving bunch and I know that the next person is going to experience that. But you know that person will not have had the advantage of being on the staff of this church 20 years ago. I don’t think. That person will not have that advantage more than likely. And I was able to hit the ground running and I knew so many people. And so, in new ways look for ways to affirm and encourage the new pastor in every way possible, in prayer especially. Because the church will reap huge benefits especially when you pray, pray for the pastor. You have all heard the line that “poor preaching is God’s joke on a prayerless congregation”. Have you ever heard that? That’s true and as you pray for this person you are going to benefit. And remember that an installed pastor will need to work in a different way than an interim pastor works. You see, an interim pastor can come in and be obnoxious in the short term, can push and prod and even ignore certain things because of the time frame and so you have to expect that interims and installed pastors are going to work with a difference sense and the pressure may be even greater on the installed pastor over time and relationships will need to work in a different way.

#10. Stay focused on the big picture. I think about the only issue that would make me personally think about separating from a church if I were across the pew, so to speak, would be that the pastor in a Christian Church would deny the reality of Jesus Christ and therefore dilute the power of the gospel. You see when we get focused on issues, and there are many issues to get focused on, they can become idols and then they lead to divisiveness. Ask this question, will the issue that I am concerned about be important a year from now? Will it matter 5 or 10 years from now? Better yet, will it matter in eternity? Because the big picture is loving one another and that will go on for all eternity. Because love never ends, never fails. And I know that sometimes conscience will compel us to move from one place to the next, but if that ever happens, if that desire to separate happens, it should happen on the heels of a great deal of prayer, a great deal of conversation and dialogue. Be at peace with one another the scripture says, as far as it depends upon you. And better yet listen to this way of working together and sticking together. It comes through an illustration of a pastor who many many years ago joined 14 other pastors in what was called a “T” group experience. Do you remember “T” groups? These transactional groups, these learning labs of really deepening relationships. They went on a “T” group experience, these 15 clergymen for 10 days. And in this environment the gloves were able to come off, people were able to take down their masks, they were able to share who they were with one another and true sharing and caring took place. They got to know each other deeply over the course of those 10 days. Near the end of the 10 days, the trainer of this group did a rather startling thing. He said, “I want you preachers to go line yourselves up along the wall and do that in the order of importance that you are to the group. Most important on this end, least important on this end.” And the one who was sharing this story said that they went to the middle, they didn’t want to appear too arrogant. Then the trainer said, “and also once you are in place, if you want to move anybody you go ahead and move them.” And so he got moved down to the bottom, towards the bottom of the line, very humbling experience. It was a good lesson in humility he said and then the trainer took the top half of the group, stuck them in a circle and put the bottom half of the group around them. To the people in the middle of the circle, the supposedly important people, he gave a task to come to consensus on a very controversial issue. Well these important people came into this discussion task thinking I am really important and I have to show how important I am and so I need to really save face with whatever happens. So you can imagine what happened was that they completely neutralized one another, they nullified each others efforts and they got nowhere. They were completely stuck. Then the trainer reversed the two groups. And the second group went into the conversation thinking we need each other. You know perhaps we better listen to and support each other because we are “not so important”. And the very opposite thing took place. They reached the goal of what they were trying to do. He said that they made an excellent team as they worked together and as they shared the functions of leadership in the group and as they called forth the contributions of each person. You see, that’s the way church ought to be.

And just let me say personally as we wrap up here that it has been an incredible privilege to be part of your team, to be a team member for two years and I just want you to give consideration to what I have shared with you today and think about it often over these next few months and my guess is that your new pastor when they are called will be here for at least 20 years give or take a decade. I really believe that it will be a long term relationship. And in it all, trust Christ, work together as that bottom half of the group did, so to speak, and support your new pastor and I guarantee you that even though there have been tremendously fruitful days, that the best days for Central Church are still in the future. Let us pray.

Lord, we thank you for your love and grace, for the ministry that we have shared together and more importantly we thank you for the ministry of your church, which is everywhere around this world. And we pray that you would enable Central Church to move forward in a very strong way as we love one another and as we continue to support and pray for one another. Be with the PNC Lord and guide them to discover who that person is, who will come to be the pastor for the next chapter of the life of this church. We pray it in Jesus name. Amen.