This past few months, I’ve been talking to a lot of my friends on first calls, like myself. Most of us are now a year, two years into our calls, and we’re finding that the communities and congregations we’re at are well – hard. Really hard.
The reality of first-call is a lot like professional sports drafts: you have little control over who picks you and where you go. Of course, you interview with congregations and you always have the right to say no to a particular congregation – but the reality is that you really don’t. Like Eli Manning & John Elway – you can say you won’t play for a particular team and you’ll get another, but you’ll be villanized in that process. Frankly, most first calls, while optimistically we say they’re matches, the reality is that there’s a lot of shit under the surface that will make the call really difficult.
I realize that’s not always the case for every person – there are cases where it works out (Troy Aikman & Peyton Manning anyone?) and the first call pastor and congregation have a nice sustained tenure together. But I think a lot of us, when the honeymoon period is over with our congregations, when we’re feel like we’re in over our heads with the leadership challenges facing us and the congregation, when we acknowledge that fact that first-calls only last 2-3 years minimum and 5 years on average, the question comes up: “Should we think about leaving?”
And that’s a hard question, because most know that just doesn’t affect us; the congregations we are considering leaving are the congregations we also love and care about. There is the reality of uprooting family for a move, and of course, the dreaded conversation with the bishop none of us want. (Because we know he or she will convince us to stay, even if it’s not the right thing)
I won’t lie – this is me. This past year of ministry was a hard one. When I think of the challenges facing my congregations, the challenges facing me in leading them, I do feel like I’m way over my head. There are other factors as well – dream opportunities have come up, the lack of support among colleagues, and frankly, being far away from family. This past year though, I wrote two questions on a notecard:
How are you feeling?
Do you know why you’re here?
I use this as my discernment. There’s four ways this can play out:
- Positive feeling/I know why I’m here. No explanation needed. This is the sweet spot.
- Positive feeling/I don’t know why I’m here. It’s likely I need to redefine my role with the congregation, and a vision/mission needs to be established. This area means everyone likes you, but you’re not doing anything to really empower the congregation to be the church, to be stewards of the ministry God has entrusted to them.
- Negative feeling/I know why I’m here. Yeah, it’s rough, but I know I’m needed here. I know that God has a role and place for me here. Is it painful? Yes. But I also know there’s a realistic future God has presented, and I have a role in that. Putting things back in perspective, remembering why I’m there relieves some of the dissatisfaction and stress being felt. It’s also time to perhaps have a frank conversation with the congregation about ownership and mutual support. It’s a time to make sure I’m making time for my personal life too.
- Negative feeling/I don’t know why I’m here. If this is the case, then my feelings are a sign that either I’m not the person the congregation needs. My skill set and what I feel called to just simply aren’t a match for what the congregation needs. I’ve either got compassion fatigue or they’ve tuned me out. I know if I ever get here….then I know it’s probably time for me to leave.
I’ve found this to be a really helpful way to assess things. And while I’ve felt a range of emotions this past year, as the honeymoon wears off and reality sets in, I do know this: I haven’t reached #4 yet. Which means I should probably stick around a bit longer.
First call is hard, and it can be isolating. But not everything needs to be hard and chaotic. Sometimes it just takes two questions, to make sense of it.