Too often neither new ministers nor the churches they serve understand all the ways to help make their first year successful.
Every year here at Abilene (Texas) Christian University, men and women receive degrees in theology and head off to their first work in a congregation. They pack a U-Haul, say goodbye to friends, eat their last West Texas barbecue and jalapeño cornbread, and embark. They are soon hip-deep in teenage angst, finding replacement teachers, or visiting the sick. They will try to remember what we have taught them about Scripture and systematic theology and church history, as well as conflict management and homiletics. Our students are now ministers.
The good news is a great many of them survive and flourish. They enjoy long and meaningful careers as they bear witness to the grace of God. Some, on the other hand, find that fatigue, discouragement, and other attacks on the soul cut short their work. A few fall into corruption. Yet, their successors keep coming to us to learn, and they keep returning to the church to serve. For that, I am thankful.
Still, as a teacher of ministers, I wonder how to make that first ministry better. Recently, I sat with a young woman whose children’s ministry position was about to end, painfully and without ceremony. We talked about what she could learn from the situation, what to celebrate, and what to put behind. I listened with dismay—but not surprise—at the stories of failed church leadership that blighted her first job. She will survive, and her husband will support her well. But still, what could be different?
How to Care for New Ministers
Maybe this is a point at which we who are church leaders could ask ourselves, What do new, especially young, ministers need to flourish, and what should we expect from them? Let me take the need side first and make a few suggestions, in no particular order.
First, we all need accountability. Unfortunately, for too many people, that has become a negative word, perhaps because so many use it as a euphemism for harsh criticism. But all of us need affirmation in what we do well and honest critique of what we could do better. We need regular, meaningful feedback from supervisors who care about us enough to be honest. Without accountability, we all are prone to adopt irresponsible, self-promoting, or defensive ways of doing our work.
Second, as all ministers soon learn, churches have many unstated expectations. Those expectations need to be stated, if possible in writing. For example, elders or church committees should not just assume that a young minister needs to be “professional.” Elders and/or committees should draw on the best literature available to describe what that means for ministers (as opposed to accountants or lawyers). Twenty-somethings are new at being adults. One good strategy is to allow the new minister to shadow an older, more mature minister for a year.
Third, young ministers often are recently married or still single and dating. Churches need to support either situation by calling ministers to Christian integrity. For the married, churches can encourage healthy boundaries that protect marriages and children. For the single person, strong emotional support is in order. A healthy minister is a more effective minister.
Fourth, all ministers need to keep learning. Ministers feed the church best when they are being fed. In moving from seminary to congregation, first-time ministers go from a world in which they know the least to one in which they know the most—at least about theology. They have banked a lot of knowledge, but they need to frequently replenish their accounts. It is appropriate for churches to make sure their minister is learning how to work more effectively.
Fifth, young ministers need spiritual mentors. Seminary, when done well, does not involve just books and papers. It involves worship, mentoring, spiritual accountability, and other practices that feed the soul. Those experiences need to continue into one’s first ministry, and so ministers need times of prayer and contemplation occupying far more than the two or three hours a week of congregational worship. They need time for solitude, silence, prayer, and the presence of people who will ask nothing of them at such times except that they be themselves before God.
Sixth, we need to pay people appropriately. No minister should ever live at a level that makes us forgetful of the suffering of the human race. But neither should churches use the poverty of the world as an excuse for stinginess. Congregations should pay young ministers in a way that will allow them to have the stability to function well in their roles.
Seventh, we need to ask how we can contribute to a minister after he or she moves to the next church. People move, but it matters whether that move is a relief or a bittersweet transition. How elders and other church leaders support the young minister when he or she is learning how to lead will make a difference in the lives not only of the individuals involved, but in the ways they serve for decades to follow.
What Churches Should Expect
Now, what should churches receive in return? What should even the youngest minister be ready to do?
First, the minister should work hard. It is reasonable for someone to golf once a week, but not every day. Young men and women serving the church must put away adolescent behaviors. The church member who sweats on the assembly line or sits hunched over the column of figures on the ledger has the right to expect that the church’s called, ordained leaders work hard. Given the extraordinary needs of our broken world, God has the right to expect that too.
Second, young ministers need to be present in the lives of their people. Ministers need to learn the names and stories of church members. If they work with children or teens—and even if they don’t—they need to be at band concerts and basketball games. They need to visit the nursing homes and pray with the sick and the elderly. Arguably, the most important thing a first-year minister can do is to listen and learn.
Third, young ministers should be visible in the activities of the church. I counsel my students taking a first job to make sure they do something with the whole congregation as often as possible. They should not think of themselves as the youth minister or the children’s minister, but as the church’s minister. Church members will also begin to view the new ministers as more than just specialty ministers. This task is difficult for women in ministry at this point in our history, but doubly vital for them.
Fourth, young ministers need to stay in an intense learning mode. Not everything can be taught in three years of seminary, and even the best student needs time to figure out what to do with all he or she knows. Churches have the right to expect that those who teach and preach will do their own work, not just crib lessons from someone else. They should expect their leaders to keep thinking.
Fifth, young ministers need to be willing to be uncomfortable. I have on my desk a quotation from the great 19th-century preacher David Lipscomb: “Young preachers need to learn how to go into the homes of the poor, eat corn bread and fat meat, sleep on straw beds in houses with dirt floors, and be tormented at night with bedbugs.” It doesn’t sound very exciting, but our sermons on sacrifice fall flat unless we seek to live coherently.
Sixth, young ministers need to show grace in handling criticism, one of the most difficult skills any leader must learn. We need neither uncritical lovers nor unloving critics. The task here is to try to learn from our critics without being overwhelmed by them.
Seventh, and finally, a major task of the young minister is to develop the self-image of the confident leader. We see the abusive leader all the time—the rah-rah individual who exchanges integrity for charisma, long-term success for sizzle, and the demanding challenge of building up the whole community for something he calls creativity.
But there are other kinds of leaders committed to the church’s calling to revere God and serve people. These leaders make long-term differences. Young ministers can become such people.
Hopes and Dreams
Each year at graduation and the launching of new ministries, I wonder what my students will do. Most will succeed in answering God’s call to long-term ministry in some form. With many, my colleagues and I will enter into lifelong friendships that will allow us to learn together and serve each other. And to all, we send our hopes and dreams that they, too, can make the world a little better than any of us found it.
A key to that success is a well-placed first ministry. My prayer is that congregations will receive them well and send them out to perform the important tasks of bearing good news to a hurting world.
Mark W. Hamilton is professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Theology, Abilene (Texas) Christian University.