This week we want to share a wonderful guest blog by my friend, recent graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and new minister, Anita Peebles. When I asked, Does it feel better to be in the second year of ministry? She nearly jumped up and down. She started talking about how it was better. And I said, Will you make a list? Thankfully she did it! Anita offers many great insights about getting through the first year of ministry. Enjoy! ~Eileen
How to Survive Your First Year of Ministry
By Rev. Anita Peebles (she/her), Associate Pastor for Next Generation Ministries at Seattle First Baptist Church
In a recent visit to Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, the church where I was ordained in April 2018, I was asked if it felt better to be in my second year of my call than the first. And I almost shouted “YES!” because it does feel sooooooo good to have one year, one whole liturgical calendar, under my belt. With that said, here are some quick tips for surviving your first year of a call, in no particular order.
- Know your people. If you have a church directory with photos, get one and use it. Spend time going through the membership and praying for them. I even have a paper copy that I make notes on, recording things like “Oh yeah, that guy is from Michigan, too” and “that person also loves cats” and “their mother died last year on Christmas, I should check in this year at that time.” Keep up with what’s going on in folks’ lives and let them know you are there to go with them wherever life wanders.
- Learn your context. If there are other clergy in your area, meet with them and learn the context of the place in which you serve. Try to get a historical, demographic and cultural history of the area. What are the things your church cares about? What have been the hardest/happiest/most growth-inducing times in the history of your congregation? I literally made a chart of what I knew, didn’t know and wanted to know (K-W-L, anyone?). And, also, I made a power map of my congregation (who holds what kind of influence in different arenas). SUPER enlightening.
- Set boundaries. For me, that looks like not checking or answering my email on weekdays after 6:00pm (unless I have evening meetings) and after church on Sundays (cuz for real, I don’t want feedback on the sermon or meeting requests right when I get home from preaching). Like keeping pretty clear lines of pastor and congregant, and communicating directly when those lines are getting fuzzy if it makes you (or them) uncomfortable. It looks like being discerning about who to give my personal cell phone number to vs. asking parishioners to contact me via our church voicemail. Boundaries look like deciding before you start your call what your social media policy is (for example: I don’t send friend requests to parishioners, but I do accept if they initiate a friend request and I don’t accept friend requests or follow requests from people under 18.) Boundaries are also important for stewarding family and friend relationships. For ministers, it’s tempting to be your family’s chaplain…you don’t have to be. Communicate as clearly as possible with your family and friends about the kind of pastoral roles you can and can’t fulfill (i.e. yes, I’ll perform your wedding ceremony but you still have to pay me because an MDiv ain’t free).
- Take breaks. Set your phone alarm so you get up from your desk and move around. Schedule vacation reminders on your email so you are not tempted to work when you’re supposed to be restoring. When you take time for your own sabbath, you are giving others permission to do the same. If you have colleagues, ask for accountability. Sabbath is holy time, people!
- Have a ministry buddy. Someone not involved in your church. It is an immense benefit to have someone who knows you well, like a friend from seminary or someone else in a caring profession, to talk to about your frustrations, your awesome moments, your cares and griefs and hopes pertaining to your call and your ministry. You may be blessed with people in your church who love you and understand many complexities of ministry. But you need somewhere outside your place of call to share your heart. Keeping in touch with your mentors is also a great way to keep in touch with a community that understands a bit of what you are going through.
- Addendum: have friends outside of church. Though your social circles may overlap between your work (church) and friends (maybe also church???), it is healthy to have space to be yourself without the power dynamics of pastor and congregant. Yes, power dynamics exist. Yes, they matter.
- Another addendum: there are some awesome social media communities available for folks who are in isolated areas. Groups like Young Clergywomen International (LITERALLY my favorite ever), Progressive Youth Ministry and programs like 3MMM are great reminders that we’re not alone.
- Ok, another one: If you’re in a new place and you’ve discovered it is super duper hard to make friends as an adult (hey, I’m just saying what we’re all thinking), at least find a place where you can be around people who are not in your congregation. Maybe that’s at the gym, a coffee shop, a language class, whatever. You are a pastor, yes, but you’re also a human being. Let the human out to play.
- Keep notes. I felt like a genius when I decided to do an evaluation of each liturgical season and event. The week between Christmas and New Year of my first year of my call, I made lists (I’m a list-maker, could you tell?) of Things To Celebrate About This Season, What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Planning for Advent and Ideas for Next Year. Then, I assigned myself some digital reminders (thanks, Google) and saved the lists in a clearly-titled document, which I found this year when I was looking for ideas for Advent and Christmas. Make sure you record the things that you celebrate, cuz you will want to remember them.
- Write thank you notes. My mom, and Emily Post, should be so proud. Since the beginning of this first call, I have made sure to make a note to myself to thank people for every time they have invited me over for dinner, sent me a sweet card, gave me nice hand lotion for my office, or shared a particularly needed compliment. Practicing gratitude is a wonderfully important practice, whether your notes are handwritten, meaningfully said during coffee hour, or an email. This encourages others to practice gratitude in a way that is authentic for them, and before you know it, this becomes a part of your church culture.
- Spend time taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Make sure you get enough sleep, get the right amount of healthy food, drink enough water and exercise in ways that make sense for you. If not treated well, your body will take the rest it needs from you. Emotional labor often takes roost in the body, and pastoral ministry is full of it. Better to work with your body than against it.
- Get a spiritual director. Many spiritual directors, findable through Spiritual Directors International, have sliding scales to fit various budget needs. Spiritual directors can help you steward your faith life, witness your gifts and what you bring to your ministry, and think theologically alongside you. My spiritual director is one of the most regular appointments I make (a monthly basis is good for me) and we have powerful conversations about everything from gardening as a spiritual practice to making home in new spaces to my practice of preaching. Or, maybe you have a “spiritual friend,” who can do this kind of deep listening and accompaniment work. Make sure to check with a friend for consent if you want to do this work together, since witnessing requires a call to reflection and trust.
- Be proactive about your mental health. This deserves a whole list on its own. Y’all, I live in Seattle, and sometimes the sun doesn’t seem to come up here…and it’s hard. Whatever your mental health situation, this part of your life deserves regular care and check-ins. Whether you see a therapist, take medications, sit next to a sun lamp on a daily basis, journal or a whole host of other activities, make sure to take this part of your life seriously. It is serious. I know that 100% of you would encourage people in your care to seek mental health assistance when needed, and that goes for you, too. There’s ZERO (let me repeat: ZERO) shame in seeking mental health care. When you care for yourself, you care for others around you, and you build important tools that help you stay in ministry for the long haul.
- Keep an encouragement box. For me, this is cards and photos from my ordination, sweet notes congregants and colleagues write to me, poems that touch my heart, and prayers that remind me who I am and that I am called. I get this box out every time I need a pick-me-up, feel too cynical or bitter to be helpful or am struck with imposter syndrome…so, like, a lot.
- Love your people. There is such beauty in people choosing to come together and be church, to accompany each other along life’s journey. And there is such grace in being called to serve a community that is exploring what it means to pattern our lives after the Way of Jesus. Love your people, through the joys and pains and sorrows and challenges and pettiness and micromanagement. Love your people by showing up for them, challenging them, encouraging them and giving them opportunities to learn, grow and serve. And, let them love you. There will be moments when they surprise you with depths of grace and faith that you hadn’t seen coming–receive them with open hands and an open heart.
Ok, so these aren’t quick tips, but I hope they help in some way…at least to say, “You’re not alone!” Being called to ministry is a humbling opportunity. Give thanks for it. And be honest about it…alllllllll of it. God is right there with you.
Anita blogs her sermons and other things at feelingthelight.wordpress.com