Life is like a mountain railroad,
With an Engineer that’s brave;
We must make the run successful,
From the cradle to the grave;
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels;
Never falter, never quail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle,
And your eye upon the rail.
Blessed Savior, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.
Most of us, I’m sure, have heard the spiritual, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” Perhaps this was where I came up with the metaphor of a transcontinental railroad for the church. Those of us who are called to take over the throttle are like the engineer. On a railroad, an engineer can only work 12-hour shift. Then they must hand the throttle off to someone else. Likewise, most pastors only lead a congregation through a certain period. Unless we have planted the church, Christ has already worked through someone else to organize the congregation. And once we leave a pastorate, another shepherd takes over. It’s always been that way. We’re not called to take the “church train” to heaven, but to faithfully move it a little further down the line. Faithfully starting and finishing a pastorate well benefits the church and our own wellbeing.
As I move closer to the end of my ministry, hopefully I’m able to offer some ideas I’ve gained over the years as to how you might make your transitions easier. I’ve garnered these ideas from 33-years of ordained ministry in five different locations.
If called to a new congregation, it is important you first take the time to say goodbye to your previous call. If you fail to do this, you may bring unresolved issues with you into your new setting. We need to celebrate our successes while we mourn and confess our failures and disappointments. If you serve a small church without staff, you might consider writing down your thoughts and things the interim pastor should know when they arrive. Go through the membership of the church you’re leaving and write short statements about those over whom you are concerned. If the church doesn’t have a shut-in list, make it. Record notes about who may be facing surgery or battling an illness. Also noting who takes care of things like decorating for Christmas and working on the plumbing can be of great help to the one who follows you. However, do not put personal grievances in the list. People respond to people differently, and we should not bias those who come after us.
Learn Your New Community
Hopefully, you began to learn about the community before you accepted the call. That’s why the Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) created a “Church Information Form.” But don’t limit your research to that document.
Here are some ways to learn about your new community:
- In addition to following up on references supplied by the Pastor Nominating Committee, check with clergy from neighboring churches including other denominations. Ask open ended questions. What do they know about the church calling you? What kind of ministries are there within the community? And what are the community’s needs? This conversation may also lead you into relationships that will be helpful during your ministry.
- Hang out for an hour or two in the morning at a coffee shop or in an evening at a bar just to listen to conversations around you.
- Have the PNC send you the local newspaper (or read it online) as soon as you accept the call.
- Join online Facebook and Nextdoor groups for the community.
- If there are books about your local community, read them! As a seminary student, I served a year as a student pastor in Virginia City, Nev. Before I arrived, I read Louis L’Amour’s Comstock Lode, a novel set in Virginia City. L’Amour used the name of a member of the church as a bartender in the book. This bit of knowledge helped seal our friendship. I also read Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which tells of his time in the city. In my current position, which are two historic rock churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I read Richard Davids’, The Man Who Moved a Mountain. It’s the story of Bob Childress, who started six of the “Rock Churches” in the Virginia mountains. People like to hear that you are familiar with the area in which God has called you to serve.
- When you arrive at your new call, meet with key local leaders. They don’t have to be members of your church, but you need to know people like the city managers, mayor, police chief, sheriff, food pantry manager, school superintendent, principals, newspaper editor, etc.
- Arrange with the police chief or sheriff to ride along with an officer for a morning or afternoon. This is a wonderful way to learn more about the community and perhaps gain ideas for future ministry projects.
When you arrive on site at your new call, your task within the church you are to serve is to listen! Don’t try to start new programs right away. Spent a few months getting to know people.
Here are some suggestions to help you meet and listen to people:
- Have each member of the Pastor Nominating Committee host a small gathering in their homes. Each member invites 8-12 people within the congregation over for drinks or dessert. Have the PNC member introduce you to the group. Ask people what they like about their church (keep the mood positive). Also let people ask you questions. Get to know the people and let them become comfortable with you.
- Visit community meetings such as city council, county commissioners, township meetings, etc.
- Seek invitations to civic groups like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Ruritans. At this point, you just want to get to know more people. Later, they may invite you back as a member or to do a presentation, but for now you just want to listen to what’s important in your community and help people know you.
When you are new to a congregation, your first task is to get to know people and let them become comfortable with you. At first, don’t try to change things. That can come later. Instead, focus on learning about the people God entrusted you to minister, as well as the community into which you serve. Remember, when Jesus sent out the disciples, he told them to stay where they have been invited and not to look for better accommodations. When you are new in a community, your priority is to accept everyone equally and let no one feel as if you’re not interested in them. Later, if you know people and they trust you, they’ll be willing to listen to you as you guide them into God’s future.
One more thing
After I meet with people for the first time, I often jot down interesting parts of their story into a journal. But I wish I had done this in a more systematic manner such as using a spreadsheet with tabs. If you’re in a small church, it’s easy to keep such notes in a journal, but when you have 500+ members, it’s harder to remember everyone and what you know about them.
Keeping such stories and information in a database could make it easier to remember key dates, who is related to who, as well as recalling those stories when needed. Often, I’ve gone back through journals to find a story someone told me in the past. Then I draw upon those stories if called to speak at an event honoring them or at their funeral. Find a way to collect such stories. They’ll come in handy, but always use them responsibly.
If you have been called to a new ministry, congratulations as you take over the throttle. But remember, it is not your ministry. You are called to take the train a little further down the line. You are working on behalf of your Savior and our Lord Jesus Christ. Focus your ministry on him as you love and serve as a shepherd over the people he has called.
The Rev. Jeff Garrison ’90 currently serves two historical rock churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Southwestern Virginia. He recently visited Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and its neighborhood for the first time in three decades and wrote about it on his blog, fromarockyhillside.com.
This is the second in a series on “seasons of change.” Other stories include:
Retiring from pastoral ministry (Aug. 15)
The mysterious and the manageable (Aug. 29)
Starting Seminary (Sept. 6)