All pastors-in-training look forward to the first church they are called to serve. I was privileged to serve a “first church” twice.
My wife began work toward a two-year theology degree during the last year of my M.Div. That meant I had a year to keep myself busy while she finished her degree. Before I graduated and while I was still wondering what I would do with this surprise year, I got a call from the pastor at the church where I had worked some years before. He was taking a sabbatical for three months that summer and wanted to know if I would be willing to cover for him while he was gone. I said yes.
What those three months did for me was give me a mulligan: the chance to try being a pastor for three months, make lots of mistakes, and then go back to the tee for a freebee and start over when I accepted an appointment to my second first church nine months later.
Every pastor should get just such a chance for a new pastor do-over.
It’s not that I hadn’t tried to prepare for the transition to the local church, but no matter how much I tried, the jolt still came. For example, I focused a little too heavily on traditions taught in school and a little too lightly on the traditions of this church. My sermons interpreted the life of my seminary-trained peers more than the life of an average layperson. I put some big sturdy boundaries around my “work life” and my “home life” that weren’t very porous. I made some relational and leadership mistakes with my staff members. All of these were rough edges that wore off over time, but had I stayed in that church, its members would have had to carry that baggage with me over the length of my tenure. What I got was a deep immersion experience that quickly taught me and then let me move on with a clean slate.
This seems like an excellent program for someone to fund (any takers?). It hits both ends of the spectrum: developing future leaders and sustaining and renewing current leaders. Surely there are a lot of pastors out there who could use a good sabbatical, and there are a lot of seminary students who could use a good mulligan. What if every seminary student had the same chance to cover a pastor’s sabbatical and receive a do-over? I’m sure there would be a lot of grace, as there was with my situation. A friend of mine likes to say, “We can all endure anything if we know when it will end.”
I still made mistakes when I went to my first (non do-over) church, but I like to think I didn’t make as many. The really rough edges had been worn away, courtesy of my mulligan.
Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.