Dear friends in Christ,
In my ten years of ministry, I have been through a first year in a congregation 4 times. The first year in a new congregation is always the hardest because you have to learn so much. Faces and names are just the beginning. You have to learn how Christmas and Easter are done, you have to learn how councils or leadership teams function, how congregations meet and discuss their business. Usually you learn how funerals and baptisms and weddings happen in a particular setting. And you are often surprised by the unexpected quirks or idiosyncrasies of a congregation. The first year requires a lot of patience by both a pastor and a congregation as they get to know each other.
But by the second year, you have been through everything once. You have a baseline to compare; you have notes about the little things a congregation does that are particular to it.
However, probably the hardest part of a first year is that often congregations don’t know that how they do certain things might not be how every church does things. Most committed and active members of congregations are lifelong members, or at least have been around for a while. And it becomes easy to assume that every other church does things the way we do. So as a pastor when you are in your first year in a new place, you have to learn to ask the right questions lest you be surprised by things you never imagined would happen. Here are a few examples:
In my first congregation, some people swore up and down that they had always had communion on Good Friday – the one day a year when almost no church does, except for maybe the most traditional of Roman Catholics who have communion every day. Despite my objections, I was told that not having communion would offend many, so I relented. I only found out in my second year that I was only the 4th or 5th pastor to object, and Good Friday communion had been an on-again, off-again thing.
On my first Sunday in my second congregation I was in the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, and had just lifted the bread for the words of institution when I had to stop because I could not find the cup! I started looking all over the altar and then looked behind me to see if it was left on some credence table by accident. It was only after a bit of awkwardness that I clued in – there was no cup, only a tray of individual cups! The Norwegian Pietistic congregation of my childhood had had the same practice until the pastor of teenage years insisted that they add a cup precisely for raising during the words of institution.
Again on my first Sunday in my third congregation, when the communion servers and I finished serving the congregation the bread and wine, an usher waved us to the altar rail where we would be served. After I received the wine, I was about to get up when an usher appeared right in front of me giving me a personal post-communion blessing. I had never seen or experienced that before, and was more than a little surprised!
Of course, there have been a few unconscious idiosyncrasies at Sherwood Park (you will have to ask me if you want to know what they are). But the thing about not knowing that the things we do as a congregation are different than everyone else, is that we also don’t always know what things we do and experience that are the same.
Coming into this year, we have been carrying concerns that our giving and attendance have been declining. And through this summer, we have heard that our budget is tight. This is true, but we have been squeaking by because of so many folks stepping up their giving. What we might not realize is that this is the same story for churches everywhere of all stripes. Everyone is worried about giving and attendance as North American Christianity comes down from the peak mountain top experience of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. We are not necessarily declining, but reverting to the mean, returning to a more normal state of Christianity as seen through a 1000 or 2000 year lens.
What does this mean for Sherwood Park? On the one hand we knew that in our effort to maintain ministry staffing levels, that we would be skirting the line of financial resources. We knew that our next budget year will need adjustments to ministry through either – reductions and cuts, or by new income sources like a new congregation to rent our space or options for shared ministry. All of these options are being explored by the Leadership Team, with others congregations and with the Bishop. I am very hopeful about finding a tenant and about shared ministry options.
Now on the other hand, Sherwood Park’s giving is quite robust compared to other congregations I have served. After seven months, we have had the same giving that two of my previous congregations would have all year! And that’s without our biggest months of giving at the end of the year! As well, over the past 6 years, Sherwood Park has seen a strong increase in giving! We are, by no means, a small and shrinking church. We are one of the biggest Lutheran churches in town! I hope and pray that as we head into fall that you all would continue to bless the congregation with your gifts of service, ministry and through your offering.
You see, we are both the same as many congregations around us but also different and doing things our own way. It’s not always easy to see that when you have been on the inside for so long. Fresh eyes are sometimes needed to see ourselves clearly.
My hope is continue this first year with fresh eyes to see and learn and grow in relationship together, and to grow in faith as Jesus calls us to grow, and trust that God is leading us where we need to go.
Blessings on the last few days of summer and as we head into new beginnings this fall!
Yours in Christ,