A first call to ministry can be both an exciting and a terrifying opportunity, especially if that first call is a solo pastorate. If you’re a Mainline Protestant pastor you have gone through seminary, an internship, and maybe Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), but now you’re on your own. Hopefully, during this period of preparation the new pastor has received a well-rounded education that will enable this person to step out in service to God and church with confidence, but as every first call pastor knows, this is a season of firsts and you wonder if you’re ready for what will come. In fact, it is a lot like being a new parent – you have the responsibility, but are you truly ready?
Bruce Epperly has written a wonderful book that looks at many of the issues that new pastors face as they enter their calls. Much of the material that is present in the book is culled from conversations that the author has had with first call pastors over a period of about seven years. As he examines issues that range from what one learned in seminary (and things one wished one had learned) to experiencing life as an associate minister, he draws upon these conversations. Every pastor who reads this book will identify with the journeys these men and women have taken in their ministries.
The book begins by examining the world of the pastorate. Bruce notes that many first time clergy experience both grief and anticipation as they move out into the world from seminary. While one may be “itching to get into the game,” upon leaving seminary one quickly discovers that it can be lonely out there in the real world of ministry. You may experience isolation, knowing that one cannot root one’s friendship circles in the congregation but find it difficult to make connections outside the congregation. There may also be feelings of inadequacy as one takes up many firsts in ministry from weddings to funerals.
In the course of these chapters Bruce looks into such questions as the need to continually develop new skills for ministry, developing an appropriate sense of authority that matches situations, recognizing that “honeymoons” can end quickly, along with wrestling with boundary issues and self-care. Then there is the issue of innovation. Many of us are eager to come in and do a new thing, but often congregations need time to build trust before they’re ready to innovate. Then there is death – which as the title of a chapter suggests “never takes a holiday.”
Some chapters speak clearly not only to first call pastors, but to those of us who have been at this work for some time. Chapters dealing with the spiritual life of the pastor, something that is of special concern to the author, and taking care of one’s own health are of special note for all. He talks too about the nature of our relationships, the challenges of being an associate, and the importance of continuing education.
By utilizing the conversations with first call pastors, Epperly helps his readers realize that they’re not alone, that pastors all across the country, young and not so young, have set out on a journey that demands much and that doesn’t always get a lot of respect. Ministry is like no other occupation. It is not simply a helping profession, though pastors engage in the work of helping professionals. It is not simply a teaching profession, though teaching is at the heart of this work.
Clergy are generalists, addressing all manner of issues, from administration to walking with the dying and the grieving. They are professionals, but more than professionals. They are accountable, you might say, to a higher authority. There is a certain distance that professions place between the practitioner and the one being served, but in ministry the distance is there but it’s much more fluid. And so wise guidance is needed if one is not only going to succeed but survive.
When it comes to survival it’s well known that large numbers of clergy abandon their calling soon after taking up their first call. They may not be ready for the politics that is present in many congregations or prepared for resistance to new ideas. They may experience not only resistance but abuse from congregants. And so they need wise advice, which Bruce provides.
I’m not a new pastor. I’ve been ordained for more than a quarter century, and have experienced both the ups and downs of ministry. I’ve been tempted to give up the calling on many an occasion, but there is something exciting and powerful about this vocation. Because clergy, especially solo pastors, are generalists there is something new and different to deal with each day. Yes, there is loneliness and there is frustration, but there is also great joy and satisfaction to be experienced. So, while this book is addressed to first call pastors, there is much wisdom here that we who have been on the journey for sometime can benefit from. This is clearly a book that needs wide distribution and reading. Whether in your first year or your fiftieth, this is a worthwhile read.