Seminary professors tell students to wait at least a year after being hired by a church before attempting to make big changes. It takes that long to get to know the people, to understand the systems at play and the general ethos of the congregation before determining the best direction to steer the church. Long-time pastors will tell you that most churches are like wild animals in the woods. Make a sudden change and you’ll scare them away. Or worse, they’ll attack.
This advice is filled with wisdom that, had I heeded it, would have likely made the next few years of my life go more smoothly. My mistake was that I didn’t think the ordinary rules applied to me. I believed that I wasn’t a new pastor at UBC. I was an old pastor that had finally been given the title. Regardless of how true this may or may not have been, it was arrogant and unhelpful of me to act under the assumption.
One change I began to make was well received. A facet of the emerging church movement was the reclamation of more ancient liturgical elements into corporate worship. At times in its history, UBC gave an occasional nod to this during alternative worship services that occurred two or three times a year. But most normal Sunday morning worship times consisted of announcements, music and a sermon. No Scripture reading (outside of the sermon,) no prayers or devotional thoughts or opportunities for the congregation to participate in an active way, aside from singing.
Adam, a seminary graduate, and Ben, before he left, had begun to experiment with adding new (and old) elements to our worship services. I picked up the momentum from where they left off and began writing prayers, reflections and call-and-response moments that gave the congregation an opportunity to be more actively engaged in the service. I loved doing this. The two hours a week I spent thinking through and writing these pieces became the time of the week when I most felt capable of being a pastor. As time went on, I began to more fully understand the gravity of what I was doing. I found that writing words that others will recite as a part of their worshipping experience is one of the most solemn duties a pastor can perform. Because the words we recite about God on Sundays accumulate in our souls over time and affect how we live our lives on Mondays. It was a role that I took as serious as any other.
Another change I sought to make in those first few months was met with a more resistance. It was an area that is less glamorous and visible than crafting worship services, but almost as important in the life of a congregation—Administration. I began to question how staff meetings were run, particularly with regards to who was and, more poignantly, wasn’t allowed to attend.
When Toph and I began working at UBC, the full time staff consisted of David, Josh, Toph and myself. (Kelly, our church social worker, would leave to continue her education a few weeks into the summer.) In addition to full time staff, there were three part time employees– Beth, our Children’s Ministry Coordinator; Jacob, who ran sound and was in charge of all the technical aspects of Sunday mornings; and Katie, the Office Administrator—each of whom worked 10-20 hours a week.
Before Toph and I came on, weekly staff meetings consisted of all full time staff, (not including, for some reason, Kelly,) along with Jamie, Ben’s wife, who was also the Office Administrator, and Toni, David’s wife.
Though there is precedent in some Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions for the spouse of a pastor to be included as an ex-officio member of the pastoral team, we weren’t that kind of church, and some of us at UBC had been uncomfortable with this practice for years. I became especially unsettled by it when I began attending staff meetings myself, realizing that even in a room full of people with equal voices, there would always be some voices that were “doubly equal,” if you will.
However, I suppose I did absorb some of the wisdom of my seminary professors, as I knew that raising the issue of spouses in staff meetings would be something that needed to wait until at least Year 2. (And, more likely at UBC, 7, 8 or 9.) But if who WAS in staff meetings was an item that was off the table, I took it on myself to address who WASN’T there. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion from the moment she was hired that Katie, the Office Administrator would be present, along with the rest of the pastoral staff, and Toni. (Other spouses could attend if they were able, but seldom did.) I suggested that we expand these times that we discussed all the ministries of the church, to include at least Beth, and, ideally, Jacob as well.
I believed that if a part time Office Administrator, and the spouse of a pastor was present, then shouldn’t the person working toward the spiritual formation of our children be there as well?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I had other reasons for wanting Beth present, beyond the fact that I truly believed she belonged there. (Though I certainly believed that.) She and I had been good friends for a while. Her husband Tom and I were roommates for many years, and I performed their wedding ceremony. She and I shared a special sense of camaraderie that grew over time, and we both approached the world in very similar ways. I instinctively knew that she and I would be allies in the midst of difficult conversations.
All that is to say, my push for her to be there wasn’t completely virtuous.
Regardless, the idea was rejected, with David’s voice being the strongest against it, mine being the strongest in favor of it, and everyone else’s voice being largely silent—which would be the template for how the next few months would go.
After this, I attempted to touch the third rail of all church documents, the one issue that puts people to sleep when you talk about it, but awakens fire and fury when you attempt to change it—Bylaws.