Advice for New Pastors, Part Two

Allan Hugh Cole, professor at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, has edited a book for new pastors, From Midterms to Ministry (Eerdmans). I was asked to write a chapter in the volume, recounting my own journey from seminary to the parish, drawing out any implications that my experience had for new pastors.

This month, thousands of new pastors will emerge from seminary, a few of them coming to join the ranks of the North Alabama Conference. I therefore offer these thoughts in the next few weeks, hoping that they will be helpful to those of us who are new in the pastoral ministry and those who are not.

Recently, I asked a group of our best and brightest new pastors what they would like most from the church and from me as their bishop. I was surprised to hear them all respond: “Supervision!” They yearn for help with the move between these two worlds because they realize the inadequacy of their preparation. Churches and judicatories must take this move more seriously and must develop better means of mentoring and supervising new pastors through this process.

As someone who now works with new pastors on that move from the world of the theological school to the world of the parish, I have some specific suggestions:

  1. Devise ways to learn to speak their language. Laity sometimes complain that their young pastor, in sermons, uses “religious” words like “spiritual practice,” “liberation,” “empowerment,” “intentional community” (this is an actual list a layperson collected and sent to me) that no one understands and no one recalls having heard in Scripture. Such “preacher talk” makes the pastor seem detached, alien, and aloof from the people and hinders leadership.
  2. At the same time, prepare yourself to become a teacher of the church’s peculiar speech to a people who may have forgotten how to use it. This may seem contrary to my first suggestion. My friend, Stanley Hauerwas, says that the best preparation for being a pastor today is previously to have taught high school French. The skills required to drill French verbs into the heads of adolescents are the skills that pastors need to teach our people how to speak the gospel. Trouble is, most seminarians are more skilled, upon graduation from school, to be able to describe the world anthropologically than theologically. They have learned to use the language of Marxist analysis or feminist criticism better than the language of Zion. We must be person who lovingly cultivate and actively use the church’s peculiar speech.
  3. Keep telling yourself that the difference in thought between the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence; it’s just different ways of thinking that arise out of life in different worlds. I recommend reading novels (Flannery O’Connor saved me in my first parish by writing true stories that sounded like they were written by one of my parishioners) in order to appreciate the thought and the speech of people who, while having never been initiated into the narrow confines of the world of theological education, are thinking deeply.
  4. Remind yourself that while the seminary has an important role to play in the life of the church, it is the seminary that must be accountable to the church, not vice versa. It is my prejudice that, if you have difficulty making the transition from seminary to parish it is probably a criticism of the seminary. The Christian faith is to be studied and critically examined only for the purpose of its embodiment. Christians are those who are to become that which we profess. The purpose of theological discernment is not to devise something that is interesting to say to the modern world but rather to rock the modern world with the church’s demonstration that Jesus Christ is Lord and all other little lordlets are not.

Will Willimon

6 thoughts on “Advice for New Pastors, Part Two

  1. Three comments on this post: (1) In Local Church in Mission with Ken Carder at Duke Divinity School, many students who read Tex Sample's Blue Collar Resistance And the Politics of Jesus: Doing Ministry With Working Class Whites (Abingdon Press, 2006) had aha moments such as, "The people in my congregation are just speaking a different language! I get it now!"(2) I had never known where that word "peculiar" comes from until I recently found it reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Discipleship (Fortress, 2001), 143-144. He writes about Matthew 5:47, "At this point the word appears toward which the whole fifth chapter is pointed, in which everything already said is summarized: what is Christian is what is 'peculiar,'περισσὸν, the extraordinary, irregular, not self-evident." This "peculiar" is the translation of the "more" in "And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:47 NRSV). (3) Yes, Gallup found that one's immediate supervisor is the most important factor in job satisfaction. You can put up with a lot if you like your supervisor. Here is the quote: "The talented employee may join a company because of its charismatic leaders, its generous benefits, and its world class training programs, but how long that employee stays and how productive they are while they are there is determined by their relationship with their immediate supervisor" (Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, First Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, pp. 11-12). I have given my advice for new pastors at my post: 8 pieces of advice for a new pastorand I have suggested ways for pastors to get the supervision they want in:How to meet with your supervisorThanks again, Will for addressing these topics. I am doing lots with Stanley Hauerwas these days and I appreciate your translation of these ideas into pastoral ministry.


  2. I need you as my research assistant! I’m going to check out the Bonhoeffer quote.Also, Tex Sample really saved my life when I pastured a blue collar inner city church in S.C. He has some great insights on cross-cultural ministry among white people!WillNow see, this wasn’t turgid at all.


  3. As a very recent (this past Sunday) graduate of Duke Divinity, I would have to echo the cry of your new pastors for better supervision. At least in the United Methodist Church as I have experienced it, it is thought to be a great idea to put the ‘best and brightest’ new pastors under the supervision of an experienced head pastor of a healthy church. In some cases, ‘healthy’ means ‘large’ and nothing else, leaving new pastors to be crushed and burned out by a dysfunctional church system in their first years of ministry.And even in a happier set of circumstances–an actually healthy church–the pastor who has nurtured and shepherded a healthy church body is still not necessarily good at mentoring. The ability to mentor new pastors is not the same skill as growing healthy lay disciples, even if the two skillsets do overlap.Part of the answer, for me, is to identify those who do have gifts for mentoring and then to use those people, both as supervisors and to train supervisors. The other part of the answer is to recognize that the ability to mentor well is a learned skill which talented pastors can improve if they take the time and if they are provided with training.If training is not provided so that mentors learn to supervise well, then it might be better for the new pastors simply to be given their own smaller churches in which to make their own mistakes. I know of at least a handful of cases in which a bright and passionate pastor was put into a church staff where he (and these cases were men) wasn’t mentored, and a few years later, the church to which he was reappointed received someone who was basically fresh from seminary, who was falling into all the same problems that you name in your post, having failed to receive good supervision in those lost years in an associate position.I truly enjoy your four specific suggestions. I wouldn’t have thought of at least a couple of those words as “religious”, had you not pointed out their strangeness. And it seems like your point about learning the voice of the laity has a lot to do with our continuing problems with creating hard and unnecessarily strict Clergy/Laity distinctions.Again, thanks for your words.Nick


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