We did it. One year down, fifty-four to go (Lord willing). Our first pastor-versary – celebrating one year in pastoral ministry – has come and gone. We celebrated by posting on Facebook, attending a block party, and playing fairly poorly at softball. In the aftermath of the blur of our first year, I have tried to pause and reflect. It was hard; there is always more to do. I knew I would learn a lot in these first few years, but I admit, having spent the last decade preparing myself for this calling, I was confident I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t wrong, but I was also woefully naïve about the life of a pastor. Study is crucial, but you are never done. Internships give a taste, but in the way a popcorn-flavored jellybelly gives you a taste of popcorn. Delicious and awesome, but not quite the same thing. So, in no particular order, I want to share seven pastoral practices I wish I had started from day one.
- Home visits
Hospital visits and crisis calls are an important part of pastoral life. It is a privilege to be called in during the darker times to sit, listen, speak, and pray. However, don’t underestimate the value of sitting with people in their homes when absolutely nothing extraordinary is happening. Most of life is ordinary, and pastors have the privilege of walking with people through the ordinary and the extraordinary. Seeing God at work in the ordinary may be even more important for your parishioners. Practice looking for God in the ordinary by visiting people where the ho-hum aspects of their lives are lived – the home. Don’t be afraid to invite them to your home as well (even when its messy).
- Don’t pick the text
Whether you preach through books of the bible, through series, or choose the week’s text on Monday morning, don’t always pick the text. At regular intervals, let someone else pick it for you. Look at the Revised Common Lectionary and preach on the assigned passage. Feel the constriction of being forced to confront a passage you had no designs on engaging. Notice when you hear the voice saying, “But I don’t want to talk about that!” For all our training in biblical interpretation, we still face the temptation to set the agenda for a sermon before we encounter the text. For all that we know to avoid it, we still face the temptation to try and make scripture say what we want it to and avoid what makes us uncomfortable. One of the easiest ways to do this is through the selection of sermon texts. So, don’t always pick the text. With this practice in place, even when you encounter a text you selected yourself (or with others), you will be trained in the humility of coming to God’s Word and submitting to what God is saying through it.
- Ask for help
God is omniscient, you are not. In your interview for the position, you probably had to dance awkwardly between trying to let the search team know you were capable for the job and trying to be honest about not really knowing what you are getting into. That’s okay, they hired you knowing that you don’t know everything. Don’t try and pretend you do. Asking for help does a couple different things for you pastoral ministry. It puts you in a continual posture of humble learning. With all the gifts that God has given you, you don’t have all the gifts, but you don’t have to. With all the study you have done, you don’t have to know every answer of the top of your head. Asking people with more wisdom, maturity, and experience than you is, in fact, a sign of maturity. Asking for help also gives your congregation permission to do the same. If, by the way I live, I see asking for help as a sign of weakness and failure, why should I expect people in my congregation to ever ask for help either.
- Know your neighbors
Jesus is pretty clear that we need to love our neighbors. He is also clear that those neighbors include even people we might not normally associate with. How can you love your neighbors if you do not even know their names? How can we hope to communicate the love of Christ to people around the globe if we are not willing to even talk to families that live twenty feet from our door? Knowing our neighbors is part of our own faithful discipleship in the way of Jesus, but it also models the way for others to engage with their neighborhoods as well.
- Respect your elders
Every church has a history. Even a church plant is filled with people with histories associated with worship, prayer, and Jesus. Some good, some painful, some rich and vibrant, and some downright silly. But it is there, and it needs to be respected. There are songs that have nourished the faith of generations in your church. There are practices which have shaped the faith of your people for years. Acknowledge and respect it, even if you work to change it. It serves no one to disrespect the faith and practices of our mothers and fathers in the faith. Don’t canonize the past, but respect your elders even as you work to move the church forward in the direction God is leading.
- Invest in the community
A community is more than simply the sum of its people. It includes infrastructure and institutions. City council. School board. Neighborhood associations. Restaurants. Invest both in the people and the structures of your community. Work for the good of the city you live in (however small). By investing the structures, you can help your community catch more glimpses of the Kingdom of God, even now.
This is the easier one to overlook. In all the good work being done, we can forget to pray. We can forget to read Scripture outside of sermon preparation. We can forget to allow ourselves to encounter God through Word and Sacrament and grow in union with Christ. In all the good things, it is easy to lose sight of the most important thing – to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Doing this calls for prayer.
I cannot say that we have even begun to do all of these or mastered any one, but our hope is that by next pastor-versary we will have continued to grow into this beautiful and wonderful calling that is pastoral ministry.