Congregations and New Pastors: A How To Guide
This is the time of the year when the Church receives many men into the Office of the Holy Ministry. We Lutherans have a particularly beautiful word for the Office of the Holy Ministry, used in our beloved Book of Concord. It is the word Predigtamt, or “Preaching Office.” The man who serves in the pastoral ministry is, first and foremost, one who comes into our midst to be a spokesman for Jesus Christ. Our Lord Christ told His apostles, and all those who would, through the ages, stand in the office of public preaching and teaching of the Word, “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (Matt. 10:40). So, as a congregation receives a new pastor, it should receive the man as One whom the Lord has sent to be His spokesman. As St. Paul says, “Here is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” (1 Cor. 4:1). Your pastor is the ambassador of Christ, as St. Paul explains of the ministry, “We are ambassadors of Christ, God making His appeal through us.” (2 Cor. 5:20). Receive your new pastor with thanks and joy. Thanks, for the gift God has now given you. Joy, that the Lord continues to answer the prayer Jesus told us to always keep praying: “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.” (Matt. 9:37).
Receive your new pastor with understanding and charity. If the man you are receiving is new to the ministry, do not expect him to be an expert in all things. Do not expect him to have the wisdom that comes with greater experience. Be patient with a man who is new to the ministry. He will make mistakes. He will learn as he goes. He will stumble and fall on occasion. Forgive him, even as the Lord has forgiven you. Focus on the Word He brings and the Sacraments He administers, not so much on him and his personality. Some men are, by nature, gregarious and outgoing. Others are more shy and retiring. Every pastor, every man, is unique and different. There is no one “perfect pastor” and no pastor is a clone of another. So, don’t expect your pastor to be “just like” some other favorite pastor in the past. Don’t let your pastor be hearing constantly, “But Pastor So-and-So did it this way.” That gets very old, very quickly. And, if a pastor is a young man, keep in mind St. Paul’s advice to young Pastor Timothy, “Let no one despise you for your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12).
Don’t allow yourself, or your family, and friends, to fall into the trap of making one of the items on your Sunday lunch menu “roast pastor.” Sadly, sometimes people find themselves gossiping about the pastor, or his family. If you have a true concern with your pastor, about something he said, or did, please make it a point of going directly to your pastor with your concerns. Give him the opportunity to hear you out and then give him the opportunity to explain himself and help clear up something you may have misunderstood.
Be careful about playing the “Pastor, people are saying” game. Sometimes when people have a concern to express, they choose to approach the pastor with these words: “People are saying, Pastor…” and then proceed to recount something to the pastor. If a member of your congregation has something to say to the pastor, don’t let them tell you and then encourage you to tell the pastor. Instead, if, or when, you hear a person beginning to complain about the pastor, or offer some kind of criticism, please encourage that person to go speak to the pastor.
Welcome your pastor’s family into your home. Don’t assume “everyone is inviting the pastor over” for in fact, what might be the case is that everyone is assuming everyone else is, and in fact, nobody is. Please make sure your pastor and his family does not have to spend a holiday by themselves, alone, perhaps far from their loved ones. Your new pastor loves you, as the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made him the overseer. Receive him then as a father in Christ, one who has care of your very soul, for indeed he does.
Your pastor is not a mind-reader. He will not simply “know” or “sense” when somebody is sick or hospitalized or needs pastoral care. If you, or a member of your family, need to go to the hospital, do not think your pastor will find out about it simply by hearing about it from somebody else. Please let your pastor know. He wants to be your pastor and bring you the comfort and promises of God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper at those moments when we find ourselves, or our family members, in crisis. Do not hesitate to call your pastor, at any time of day or night, when a loved one dies. He wants to know, right away and to come to your side and support and encourage you at these particularly dark and sad moments when death touches us. Nor is your pastor a miracle-worker, though of course miracles never cease. But your pastor should not be the “last resort” when your marriage is having problems, or when you face a struggle or problem in your life. You will be greatly blessed by God when you turn to your pastor for the private confession and absolution it is his privilege to provide for you, in keeping with his duties. Go to him sooner, rather than later. Turn to your pastor for spiritual counsel and help when you face issues and challenges that feel overwhelming. He will cherish the opportunity to be your pastor. Let him be pastor to you.
Your pastor may come into your congregation with suggestions and new ideas for your congregation. He may do things differently than your last pastor, or other pastors. And if, in his enthusiasm, he fails adequately to explain what he is doing, don’t become upset or angry. Speak gently to him and let him know your feelings. But also do consider that sometimes changes are good and even necessary. If however your congregation chooses not to accept some of the things your pastor is doing, don’t “go to war” over it. Sometimes your pastor has been influenced by other pastors in our church who have particular hobby-horses they like to ride and axes they like to grind, on all sides of these kinds of potentially emotional issues. Particularly inexperienced pastors are prone to these kinds of influences. Gently make suggestions and where necessary, offer corrections in a spirit of humility. And by all means, do not fault your pastor when he makes use of the approved hymnals and other worship materials from our Church. If your pastor asks the congregation to learn a new hymn it has not sung before, go ahead, learn it. You will never learn anything new unless you try it. There are so many wonderful things to learn from our new hymnal. So, enjoy it and don’t begrudge your pastor’s desire to help your congregation grow in its worship life.
Respect your pastor’s privacy and his family’s privacy. Just because your pastor may live in a church-owned house gives absolutely nobody in your congregation the right to treat the house as “public property” and come barging in to it. If your congregation provides a parsonage, than take care of it and keep it well repaired and maintained. Understand that unless it truly is a genuine life/death emergency, or some other profound spiritual crisis, your pastor and his family would very much appreciate not being interrupted during the meal time, or in the later hours of the evening. Your pastor will need time with his wife and children. They, in turn, will need time with their husband and father. Encourage your pastor to take a day off once a week and to spend time with his family. It is very easy for a pastor, quite literally, to work non-stop, all day long and into the evenings, every day of the week. The pastoral ministry is certainly not a 9-5 job, but don’t let your pastor be so consumed with his work he falls into bad habits of neglecting his family and his own personal needs.
As for your pastor’s wife, here it is very important to understand that your pastor is the man with the call to be your pastor, not the pastor’s wife. Her call is to be your pastor’s wife, and the mother of your pastor’s children. Do not tell her things that you should be telling your pastor. It is inappropriate and not helpful. Do not use the pastor’s wife to relay information to the pastor. Just give the pastor a call, drop him an e-mail, etc. Your pastor and his wife will be very polite, and will probably never tell you that they really would appreciate it if you would keep these distinctions clear. A pastor’s wife will want very much to support her husband’s ministry and will be a loved member of your parish, in short order, but keep in mind that the pastor is the pastor, not his wife.
Pay your pastor as well as your congregation can afford to pay him, not just enough to make it from paycheck to your paycheck. Your pastor has not taken a vow of poverty and your congregation should not treat him as if he has. Never balance your congregation’s budget on the back of your pastor and his family. Take care of him, as is your duty toward him. “The laborer is worthy of his hire” and “Do not muzzle the ox while he is treading out the grain.” (1 Timothy 5:18). If you don’t know what you should pay your pastor, your circuit counselor and district office can help provide good guidelines and advice. Make sure your pastor has time for true vacations. Make it possible for him to get away from the pulpit, from time to time, with a substitute preacher. Provide funds for your pastor to increase his learning and skills, by attending seminars, classes and adding to his library.
By all means, hold your pastor accountable to preach and proclaim the Word of God purely, according to the Lutheran Confessions, even as he has promised to do in his ordination. But even as you do, do not ask or expect your pastor to act, and preach, and teach contrary to the public confession of our Synod. For example, when your pastor can not commune your Methodist aunt, or a member of your family that is not a communicant member of our church, or is a member of a church with which we are not in fellowship, do not fault your pastor for carrying out his duties to be a faithful steward of the Lord’s Supper. Don’t be angry with your pastor when he points out the problem with singing secular pop love songs at a wedding, or not permitting some non-Christian organization from being involved in a church funeral. Don’t be upset if your pastor can not participate in a public community worship service where all gods, and all opinions about God, are treated as merely being equally true points of view. Don’t demand that your pastor act contrary to his ordination and contrary to the doctrines and practices of the church in which he is now an ordained minister. It is unfair and wrong to demand your pastor to “make exceptions” that are actually actions contrary to God’s Word. Don’t expect your pastor to do something contrary to his ordination vows and that would be a sin against his conscience.
Finally, pray for your pastor. Daily. Ask God to guide, strengthen, protect and keep your pastor and his family safe. Ask God to bless your pastor’s ministry. Pray for your pastor as he conducts his ministry. Remember his preaching in your prayers. Pray for him as he makes his many sick calls and speaks and ministers to people in your congregation. And then, let your pastor know you are praying for him. If you really want to surprise and delight your pastor, ask him how he is doing. Ask him how you can help him. Your pastor is not a spiritual superman. He has his moments of sadness and doubt and discouragement. He needs your encouragement, just like you need his. Remember him in your prayers but then demonstrate your commitment to be praying for him by letting him know about your prayers and seeking out ways to encourage him and help him. Recall what God’s Word teaches us: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
May God bless all new pastors and the congregations they serve!