The first congregation I served is preparing to celebrate an anniversary and they asked me to share some memories from my time there. That had me thinking about the entire experience of first-call, including the group of colleagues who walked with me through those six years.
“We have a call for you in a rural congregation about an hour south of Sioux City. There is this great group of pastors that gets together every Friday for pizza in Sioux City.” That is what I remember from my first conversation with the Western Iowa Synod Bishop’s Assistant. Western Iowa was not my first choice of geographic locations for my first call as a Lutheran parish pastor, but the people of that rural congregation and those Friday afternoons made it a great first call.
At my first annual Bishop’s Fall Convocation of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod, where I serve now, we rostered leaders heard two times the stories from a pastor who had been mistreated by his/her congregation. After hearing the story we gathered around tables and had small group discussions. In one of the conversations I asked a question about peer accountability–how do we pastors keep one another accountable for how we behave in our congregations and for our development as pastors. The reaction was not what I expected, “Accountability? How about support?” As the conversation continued, I listened intently and was reminded how fortunate I was in my first call.
The first person I talked to in that Iowa Friday pizza group was the pastor of Augustana Lutheran. I needed to find out about the weekly text study (where pastors discuss the texts they will all preach on the following Sunday) so I opened the Sioux City phone book and decided to start at the top, hoping the pastor attended the study. The pastor told me where the next Tuesday text study would be held and said he hoped I would attend. It turned out that earlier in the summer two other first call first career pastors had been placed in the same geographic area–an unusual occurrence–and they would be there too.
The seasoned pastors could not believe their luck. Not only did they have three new pastors, they had three brand new pastors. I took their enthusiasm for granted until much later when it dawned on me that things could have been much different. Instead of nurturing us, encouraging us, asking us about our pasts, listening as we told stories about our current ministries, they could have looked down on us, assumed they had everything to teach us and nothing to gain or, worst of all, they could have flat out ignored us.
The word gets misused and overused all the time and yet it is the only word that sums up their gift to the three of us–love. And though that gift was free, we didn’t do anything but show up to text study and Friday lunches at Buffalo Alice (BA), it didn’t take long until we wanted to contribute, to be worthy of having a place at the tables we gathered around.
Each of us remembers the first time we led a text study. These were not show up and be ready to discuss the Sunday texts as a group studies. When it was your turn to lead, and we had a leader every week, you spent hours first thinking about the texts themselves, then reading commentaries, and finally typing up the best of the best for the whole group to read and discuss. You did this for at least three of the assigned texts and sometimes the Psalm too. The three of us first call pastors cheered one another on when we finally led a text study. I am a better preacher after my time around those tables.
And yet it was the lunches at BA that were most important in my formation. As an introvert, one of the things I grew to appreciate was the way I could lean into and engage in the group conversation for a while and then turn to the colleague next to me for an in-depth one-on-one conversation. I brought my joys to the table. I brought my disbelief in the behavior of others and the disappointment in myself. I brought questions about pastoral care and preaching and worship and stewardship and budgeting and weddings and funerals. And someone always had the time to listen, to laugh with me, to tell me a story of his own failures, to cheer me on.
Here are my take-aways from lunches at Buffalo Alice:
Keep reading theology (both classics and contemporary), novels, nonfiction, poetry, articles and be sure to read for fun so that you continue to enjoy reading.
Being an introvert does not need to stop you from being a good pastor, you just have to learn how to care for yourself.
It is almost always appropriate to talk about the sacraments in your sermon.
You do not spend time with colleagues only because you might gain something. You also show up because you have something to contribute.