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Getting Off to a Great Start
By Ron Aguilera
Ever wonder why some college/seminary students, or young pastors successfully navigate the transition into full-time ministry and others don’t? Ever ask yourself, why do some churches or conferences seem to have a knack for producing great, young pastors, and others don't? I am fully convinced the answer to these questions is directly related to the first two to three years of full-time pastoral ministry. These first formative years are critical in creating the conditions for success for new pastors.
Creating these conditions for success for new pastors begins with understanding the significance of the initial years of ministry. Adaptation and learning, attempting to balance personal and professional life, all happen at an intense pace during these early years. Every ministry experience is new. The development of key habits and healthy leadership practices are developed and put in place. Traditionally, these first years are often viewed as a time of trial and error, where new pastors learn what NOT to do by making mistakes. Unfortunately, more often than not, this approach is negative and leaves scars for future years in ministry. The key, I believe, is creating the conditions for success through a structured learning model that embraces pastoral life as both joy-filled and demanding, and that provides opportunity to learn the privilege and responsibility of walking with others in their faith journey.
How do we create these conditions for success? One way is by intentionally integrating our academic learning with the daily experience of ministry. A pastor cannot really know what it is like to pastor a congregation until he or she has the experience of shepherding a congregation. We sometimes forget academic study is essential for success in ministry because it provides an essential foundational resource for the experience-based learning that occurs in ministry. These first few years provide an opportunity to incorporate academic learning with the daily experience of ministry, but it requires intentional guidance. These first few years offer the opportunity to master many “firsts”: The first wedding rehearsal and wedding, the first funeral or baptism, the first time preaching Sabbath after Sabbath, the first time balancing full-time ministry with personal and family activities. The integration of academic learning, what we have learned in the classroom, with the experience of ministry, and the mastery of basic skills for ministry are key aspects of positive pastoral formation for new pastors.
One more thing – finding a mentor is a key factor in creating conditions for success. The most effective mentor is an experienced pastor who knows the particular context and dynamics of the congregation the new pastor is serving. An effective mentor reviews the ministry activities of the last week or month with the new pastor. The effective mentor helps the new pastor explore key questions about pastoral identity and responsibilities. The effective mentor also anticipates the “firsts” with the new pastor and helps them prepare for them. In short, the effective mentor anticipates the learning curve and offers assistance, guidance, and support as the new pastor navigates his way through the early years of ministry.
Ron Aguilera is vice president of administration for the Illinois Conference