In this second half of a two-part article, Glenn Wagner offers advice to congregations welcoming new pastors and outlines practical wisdom to clergy transitioning into a new ministry setting.

Michigan Conference Communications

Pastors in our Michigan United Methodist connectional system have been moving to new appointments since clergy were called circuit riders and traveled between appointments to offer pastoral ministry on horseback.

In 2022, the Michigan Conference paid out $543,600 to help cover the moving expenses for 111 of our clergy. Rev. Brad Bartelmay, President of the Michigan Conference Council on Finance and Administration, noted, “This was slightly above average. The last few years have seen an uptick in retirements and consequently higher turnovers in appointments.”

A healthy welcome season can help the congregation and new pastor better cope with the stress of change and generate new energy for ministry. In his letter to Romans, the apostle Paul encourages good welcomes and offers the rationale for this practice, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7, NRSV).

Welcoming the New Pastor

Spread the word and plan for a warm greeting.

As with saying goodbye to the former pastor, welcoming a new pastor is also newsworthy. Organize prayer teams to keep this pastoral transition to new leadership in prayer. Spread the word about the opening worship through press releases and photos of the new pastor with a brief biographical sketch to local news outlets.

Brief church greeters and plan to welcome first-time visitors on the new pastor’s first Sunday and subsequent Sundays. Wearing name tags is helpful not only for this first Sunday but also for ongoing assistance as a new pastor and the church get acquainted. Name tags also help visitors feel more welcome. Plan for a meaningful worship experience and welcome. Consider adding special music to worship and a reception after the church service on a pastor’s first Sunday.

Church leaders can help make sure the move-in goes smoothly.

Coordinating with the arriving family and offering help for the move-in or providing welcoming meals for the arrival day or beyond are often appreciated. If meals are planned, check first to see if this will be welcome and if there are any dietary restrictions. Before their arrival, ensure the parsonage and church office are cleaned and ready for new occupancy.

Transitioning into a New Ministry Setting

Prioritize growing relationships, especially during the first months of new ministry.

Relationships built on trust are a key component of healthy congregations, and these relationships often take time and effort to cultivate. The arrival of a new pastor in a congregation provides an opportunity to focus on promoting new interpersonal connections. These connections in the faith community are essential for maintaining and fostering mental and spiritual health. The move from one church and community to another for the pastor and their family can be accompanied by grief and potential depression over significant relationships left behind. Parishioners who have similarly grown to love and trust the former pastor will not automatically transfer affection and loyalty to new pastoral leadership.

In my pastoral transitions, I have benefited from arranging with the church leadership team for a series of congregational meet and greets, offered three or four times a week during the immediate months following a move. These sessions are advertised to last for 90 minutes in the homes of parishioners for small groups. These meet and greets can be offered during the day, evenings, or weekends. Holding them immediately after church services may also offer a convenient time and place. Guests at the meet and greets are invited to offer contact information and brief biographical details to assist the pastor and their family in remembering initial details. The agenda of the meet and greets can include each person taking turns offering a five-minute version of their faith journey and experience with the church. The pastor should also share their history and faith journey. The pastor can then follow up on each meeting by sending a personalized thank-you note to each host and attendee. These meet and greets are wonderful ways to grow relationships and encourage support for shared ministry.

A second recommended step for a new pastor to grow trusting relationships with the congregation and community is to schedule one-on-one, get-acquainted visits during the week for the first months of ministry. To maximize efficiency, finding an already well-established community member willing to act as the appointment coordinator for six months will be ideal. The pastor provides the appointment coordinator a three-month calendar of times available for visits and asks the coordinator to fill in the available times for get-acquainted visits by making appointments with church members and community leaders who may appreciate a visit. This could include homebound members, new residents, and key church leaders. The list of persons to be visited could also include community leaders such as the mayor, school principals or superintendents, CEOs of leading employers, and heads of local social service agencies.

Arrange to meet with the outgoing pastor.

If possible, spend time visiting with the departing pastor before arrival to learn important history and information about the church and community.

Beware of ulterior motives.

A wise mentor offered this sage advice to pastors on their arrival in a new church: “Beware of those who meet you at the train.” He shared that the first to greet the new pastor with open arms and lavish praise can sometimes be those disenchanted with the previous pastor and come with hidden motives regarding contentious issues. It is helpful to consult church leaders and include them in any significant decision-making prior to promises made to eager greeters who may have an ulterior agenda.

Make any decisions for major changes wisely.

The late author, pastor, and church consultant Lyle Schaller addressed pastors attending a leadership training workshop. He advised newly arriving pastors to get to know their congregations, grow trusting relationships, and make any decisions for significant change in the church only after consultation and broad support of church leaders. Schaller noted that the congregational trust in a new pastor’s leadership and influence is conditional. He observed that if a pastoral suggestion for change is a good one and produces successful results, the pastor will be entrusted by parishioners with permission for a second decision for change. Success with each decision leads to blessing for more decisions. Schaller noted that many ministries fail quickly when new leaders anxious to make dramatic changes introduce multiple revolutionary and disruptive alterations in a congregation’s life without congregational support. He noted wryly that if changes prove to be failures, “As in baseball, three strikes and you are out.” In cases of extreme emergency, such as a building on fire, it may be necessary for a pastor to make a quick, decisive decision to save the church, but in most cases, especially where broad support is important for implementation, slower, incremental decisions for change made while building consensus is a preferred course of action.

Strengthen the leadership team.

Churches function best when gifted people are entrusted and encouraged to cultivate and utilize their unique gifts and talents to benefit the whole. It can be helpful to invite church members who wish to do so to take a spiritual gifts inventory. If kept in the church database, this information can be beneficial when recruiting volunteers for church leadership posts. Volunteers are generally more enthusiastic and capable when serving in their strengths and interests. It can also help church leaders if they are provided with opportunities to grow their knowledge and skills for their areas of service through attendance at leadership training events, book studies relating to their service, or watching online training videos. Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team can be a worthwhile read and discussion for encouraging healthy teamwork by church leaders in a congregation.

Learn the new community.

Each ministry setting is unique. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all plan for ministry. Instead, it makes sense to figure out how to best be in ministry for Christ to meet the particular and oft-changing local circumstances the congregation faces with the spiritual gifts, personnel, and financial resources available. Consult resources like MissionInsite, which reveals data-driven insights about the community a church is in.

Focus on the mission of the church and affirm core values.

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It will help a new pastor and congregation prioritize and make critical decisions together if leadership continues to remember this mission of the church. Pastors and laity can also be assisted with decision-making if they are aware of their personal core values and work to keep their most important values primary in their decision-making.

I learned the importance of identifying a personal core value from a seminary professor who handed each class member an identical deck of 100 preprinted index cards. Each card contained one distinct value, such as generosity, happiness, love, or family. (This set of cards is similar to those used in the exercise I was given.) In truth, all 100 values listed were worthy of attention. We were asked to select the most important 50 cards (values). The exercise became more difficult when we were asked to cull our list further to a stack of 25. Then we had to sort and select our top ten values. We followed by choosing our top five, then the top three, and finally had to settle on just one personal core value.

The exercise aimed to help us prioritize and become more intentional in our decision-making. Knowing one’s highest priority value makes it easier to have the wisdom to say no to the less important and stay true to convictions. It should not surprise anyone that each class member selected a different value as most important, even though we all shared a common vocation in Christian ministry.

I still remember choosing “grace” as my top value. That choice has helped me further define my personal core value for ministry: “In God’s math, everybody counts.” When one’s most important value is kept in focus, it is easier to make important decisions and live with the consequences.

Editor’s note: For helpful thoughts on saying goodbye as a church to a pastor preparing to move, read “Pastoral transitions, Part 1: goodbye,” the first half of this two-part article.

East Winds District