Saturday, November 28, 2009

Five Years

Early in my ministry at my current call, I gathered with a group of fellow Eden graduates for a meal and conversation. There had been a strong contingent of us from northeast Ohio who'd attended Eden around the same time, and so we wanted to make it a point to get together occasionally for fellowship and support. That has since changed due to the arrival of children into the mix, and/or people moving away.

At any rate, during this particular gathering we'd eventually migrated to the back deck of our hosts' home, where one colleague shared something she'd observed during her time at her first church: "After three years, you'll find that the tone shifts. People will be more open and honest with you, and you will find that your relationships will change and deepen."

I respectfully disagree. That may have been when it happened for her, but for me it occurred closer to the end of Year Four.

That was when anxiety surfaced about the church's future, as well as an expressed desire for me to share some new ideas as we watch older established groups "retire." That was when my little church on the hill became more aware of its situation, or at least began voicing that awareness to me, and became more open to my role in helping move it into something different and new. That was when I began saying some hard, honest words about where we are and what we need to do.

It took four years. Four years of hospital visits and sermons and attempted youth functions and mission projects. Four years of establishing enough trust to get to this point. Four years of joy mixed with anxiety mixed with arguments about the inconsequential mixed with glimmers of hope for what could be if enough people believe and work toward it. Four years of accumulated capital, with more and more permission to spend it.

It's as frustrating a realization as anything else. What pastor wants to spend that long laying the groundwork so that s/he can enter a deeper stage of ministry after that? I asked God many times around the beginning of Year Five, "This is when we really get going? Are you serious?" And apparently, at least in this context, the answer was yes.

I've written here and there about the beginning of a more missional approach to ministry eclipsing a more traditional, attractional, social club-based approach where I am. I remember the moment when I realized that people were really latching onto this idea, and I remember when people began using the word "missional" during meetings, as naturally as could be. And I remember being so amazed, so awed by the fact that we were doing it.

It took four years, and over the course of Year Five, things started to happen. In retrospect, things were happening all along: groundwork laid, trust earned, etc. We have a way to go yet, but we're going somewhere. I think. I hope. I'm pretty sure.

Five years has been a magical milestone for me for...uh...the past five years. It has been for reasons that I didn't even really know about until I fully realized what's been happening the entire time. The big reason is because I earn a sabbatical after that time, which is already pretty much planned, reserved, and paid for.

As I collected resources for how to plan that sabbatical, I came across this article on the Alban Institute's website that describes the first ten years of a pastor's stay in one pastorate, which I've found to be pretty spot on. First, there's the description of Year Four:
Something happens to most of us during our fourth year at a church. We get restless. Not uncommonly, we find ourselves sitting in the office, looking out the window, and wondering what other ministry opportunities may lie ahead of us. The fourth year is often a time of low energy. Problems at the church that were previously a challenge have become merely a nuisance; we suspect that we may be solving the same problems over and over. During this year of malaise and ennui, you may, “just in case,” update your résumé and keep it on your personal computer’s hard drive.

One hazard faced by many pastors at this point: they may start paying the price for their lack of study and purposeful work in personal growth and professional development. If all you have is a bag of tricks, you may start running out of surprises to pull out of the bag (and believe me, some parishioners will notice). This malaise and lack of purpose may explain, at least in part, the phenomenon of pervasive turnover of parish pastors before the five-year mark.
Which, like, yeah. I felt that malaise. I looked out that window more than once. I wondered what we were doing together around that time.

But then comes the description of Year Five:
For most pastors the fifth year of ministry seems to be a latency year. People begin to trust you; some even like you. By now, a core group of members has come to love you. You begin to make your mark as the neighborhood pastor and find your niche in your local professional network. Having handled most administrative problems and basking in the renewed good will of a less anxious congregation, you coast a bit. You initiate creative programs or ministries and institute challenging changes. Because you enjoy by now a certain level of congregational trust, these are accepted with little resistance.
With the exception of the "coast a bit" phrase (I don't feel like the past year has involved a lot of coasting), the bold part is how the past year has gone. People seem less anxious, including my most vocal critics, and we've been talking about and slowly implementing some creative changes.

And here we are at the dawn of Year Six. Advent starts tomorrow. A sabbatical is mere months away. And while good things have been happening, there is promise for much more.

I give thanks for this special milestone, for me and for the church I pastor. And I look forward to what lies ahead.