Standing in my living room surrounded by church members, I put my hand on a small group leader’s shoulder and anointed her with oil. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes. It was a moment I’ve thought about as I’ve reflected on my first year of ministry, one of the many meaningful experiences I’ve had. I am glad I have memories like these to think back on. Ministry is not easy. I have found ministry to be a mixed bag of frustration punctuated by moments of grace and growth. As I look back on the first year, I’ve learned many lessons, some easier than others. Below you’ll find six of the most important.
Sexism in the church is real. Practice creative problem solving.
There have been several times during my short time in ministry where I have come into contact with subtle (and not so subtle) forms of sexism. People have a tendency to comment on my weight, my hair, my clothes, and my way of doing things consistently. People treat me differently than they treat my husband, who is also a pastor. There are fewer women in the denominational structure who share my gender and invest in me. While this is frustrating, I realized that there are female leaders who have learned to navigate the system well. These women have turned their frustration into creative problem solving and the best ones have done it with a sense of humor. In my own way, I am learning how to recognize injustice and use my resources to circumvent roadblocks that keep me from being an effective minister. Some of the best leaders I know have developed much of their leadership arsenal while navigating spaces of great adversity. Knowing this has helped me to cultivate gratitude in the midst of frustration.
Instead of trying to be successful, get to know the people.
I spent the first few months of my ministry trying to figure out what the “rules” of ministry were because I wanted to be a successful pastor. As a former high school teacher, I knew there had to be rules somewhere! What I found in the church instead of rules were complicated networks of people. It took some time for me to feel out the culture of my church, the people I’d be working with, and the neighborhood. In the process, I learned that ministry is more relational than rule-oriented. Once I learned this, the image I had of a successful pastor got a little bigger and there was more space for me to bring my whole self to the job. I also felt freer to be creative and use my skills to reach goals in my own way.
Lead out of who you are.
I have learned that I can only lead out of who I am. I have a gender, an age, a racial identity. All of these things have shaped my life experiences and made me into the person that I am. In my first year of ministry, it has been important to share who I am without trying to copy another person’s leadership style, even the women leaders I look up to. I have used my own story in sermons and small groups. For example, this year I shared a story about becoming aware of my own racism because it was an important part of my Christian walk. This led to a spirited discussion of race and its importance in our lives at a women’s retreat as other people uncovered their own hidden biases. Movement through my own codependency has led me to recognize and deal with the codependency in my congregants and has helped to improve the health of our church programs. In many ways my wounds are gifts to those around me. Sharing my experiences has created a space for people to share about their lives and struggles. I think this has been one of the most valuable aspects of my first year of ministry.
It’s important to be theologically aligned with your co-workers.
No one is going to agree with you 100%. People have not been formed by the same relationships, bible studies, and seminary that has formed me. My own Christian walk is unique. Through our hermeneutic and life experiences, each of us live out our faith differently. And while it is good and healthy to expect theological differences among co-workers, it is equally important to share an understanding of the work of Jesus and the church in the world with your co-workers, especially if you will be working under another pastor’s vision. For example, if you feel that your faith compels you to social action, and the people you work with or your congregation don’t see the value in your approach, it is a recipe for frustration. Get to know the church you would like to work for and the people you would like to work with and make sure that it is a mutual fit so that your ministry is life-giving to both you and your congregation.
Cultivating a non-anxious presence comes through processing your own anxieties.
As pastors, we are called to be with people in the sacred moments of their lives; in birth, sickness, change, and death. It is immensely helpful to be a non-anxious presence in the stressful moments of other’s lives. I have learned that I can only do this by processing my own anxiety. This year, I had a chance to do this as I sat across from two congregants to discuss changing a long-running church program. I could feel my desire to please them bubbling up inside me. This was at odds with my desire to bring attention to the parts of the program I felt were unhealthy. It was an uncomfortable place to be, but by allowing space for my feelings, I had the chance to see what happened when I listened to my anxiety rather than reacted to it. I learned that it’s okay to be in tight spots, and that sometimes being in them allows me to deal with my own unresolved issues. This in turn helps me to be more present to the people in front of me.
In my first year in ministry I have learned nothing more thoroughly than this lesson. Recently I memorized the Message version of 2 Corinthians 5:8, “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.” In ministry, many days go by where it seems nothing is happening, no one is changing or growing, least of all myself. But through patience, I began to recognize the small changes in myself and others: the ways pastors extended trust to me or how a congregant was willing to share a story with me about the loss of their child. Change is slow in coming, and ministry is hard work, but God’s grace is ever unfolding and not a day goes by without it.