Navigating the Ministry Stages

This edition of Mentor Online is adapted from materials by Herb Miller.

A clergyperson’s service with each congregation unfolds in six predictable stages. Effective clergy navigate these stages without get- ring washed overboard.

Stage one — Honeymoon — This getting-acquainted period is a glorious time. Unless the new pastor does something truly stupid or immoral, these are happy months. Since neither party in the marriage is well acquainted with the other yet, each has little about which to complain.

Stage two — Sighting hidden icebergs — This period runs from year one through year two in small churches, year one through year three in midsize churches, and year one through year five in large churches. Icebergs invisible at the honeymoon stage begin looking formidable. Both parties learn the real truth about each other-the good, the bad, the ugly. Following the same time schedule as in marriages, irritation is a symptom. Faultfinding increases. Divorce court looms in the distance.

Stage three — Liking you anyway — Clergy enter this pleasant phase after a major crisis or series of small confrontations-at approximately three-to-five years—sometimes seven years in large churches. At this stage, pastor and parish reach a positive relationship. They know each other, flaws and all. And they like each other anyway.

Stage four — Specialization — The pastor gets bored, though she/he may not recognize or admit it. Seven times around the church-season cycle leaves a pastor with few surprises. People appreciate their pastor but do not say so as often. In unconscious response to boredom and/or affirmation needs, the pastor devotes more time to a specialized field. Examples: counseling, civic work, denominational service, Holy Land tours, public speaking, writing, scouting or Lions Club: the possibility list is infinite. The big difference between effective pastors and less effective colleagues: specialization does not cause effective pastors to neglect their congregational responsibilities.

Stage five — Rocking-chair temptations — At ten years beyond the starting gate, the pastor knows the parish personalities and foibles. He/she knows how to get things done with minimum time expenditure. The three great temptations at all six stages are to whine, shine or recline. In this fifth stage, the “recline temptation” dominates. Effective clergy overcome this temptation to homestead in a rocking chair on the church’s front porch. They attend seminars, read books and research new ideas. They do not grow stale; they grow wiser.

Stage six — Benevolent grandfather years — Twenty years into their tenure, pastors perform weddings for children whose mothers they visited in the hospital at delivery time. Clergypersons who make it this distance have developed immense pastoral skill. Parishioners now view them as “family” and think of them in the same way they do their grandfather: He/She has always been here; we expect he/she always will. This is a delightful, dangerous stage. Delightful because self-confidence has never been higher; dangerous because sunbathing in this relational warmth can distract pastors from energetically and creatively sprinting for the finish line.

The Bottom Line — Through which stage are you navigating pastor? Is your lay leadership crew assisting or hindering this stage of the voyage?

Published by

Retired Lutheran (ELCA) clergyperson. Founder & owner of Brookover Leadership Development & Consulting, Inc. (1967)

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