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The Next Faithful Step

Failing People’s Expectations at a Rate They Can Stand

A Pastor's Reflection

To start ministering in any particular parish is to fall into a history other than your own. What I mean is that we come into a congregation made up of a completely unique coming together of a people made up of their own completely unique coming together of opinions, experiences, and visions. If it sounds convoluted, it is. It seems obvious that the history we are entering into is not our own. But I have found that I, and others, tend to generalize ourselves—we move forward figuring people will respond and react generally the way we would in a given situation. And this is rarely the case. It is, then, best to name the obvious: the congregation is not an extension of my desires, dislikes, and opinions, but rather its own entity made up of complex individuals who come together to make something else much more complex than the sum of its parts. Yikes.

This makes failure inevitable. The congregation is much too complicated for things to go so smoothly as to avoid failing at something (and fairly quickly). People come with their own expectations born of their own histories and come together to create a congregation with its own expectations born of its collective history. And so we find two different sorts of expectations. The first type is individual expectations. In a congregation of a hundred members, there are roughly a hundred job descriptions floating around for the pastor. The second is the collective expectations that this particular group of people have learned throughout their history together. With this variety of expectations, failure is coming. But while the inevitability of failure cannot be controlled, the pastor does have some say in how that failure is meted out.

I was not into my first call more than two weeks when I learned of an issue with one of our ordained officers. There really was little to no room for interpretation here. Our constitution explicitly states that ordained officers are not to do thus and so and this particular officer was deeply involved in both thus and so. I panicked. Actually, I was angry. I had just started and already I was going to be in trouble somehow. I quickly approached a mentor about the situation and I will never forget what he said to me. “What do you want the congregation to remember as the first big thing you do?” He was right; this had the potential to be a sort of defining moment. I could easily be remembered as the pastor who came in and the first thing he did was depose a deacon. That wasn’t at all what I wanted for setting the tone of my ministry there. But doing nothing was also not an option for me. And so the question quickly became one of controlled failure. How could I fail what was expected of me in manageable and productive doses? From my knowledge of the congregation’s history, I had a pretty good idea of what everyone would be expecting me to do. Nothing. These sorts of things simply would not have been dealt with in the past. I was going to fail their expectations.

The advice I was given by this mentor was ultimately helpful. The truth is that two years into my ministry there I would probably have handled the situation differently. But that is because two years into my ministry the congregation began to have different expectations of their pastor. At this point, two weeks in, I found myself needing to control my failure of expectations in order to be productive. Barreling through without regard for what the congregation could predictably stand would have caused much more harm than it was worth. And so I acted as the pastor who had been there for two weeks, not two years. As a result, for the small number of people who knew the situation, I was principled but familiarly pastoral. That was something they could stand.

This all worked out well at the congregational level of expectations. Unfortunately, it was a different story at the individual level. Despite my best efforts (or at least what I thought were my best efforts at the time—I could have done better), this officer gradually dropped out of sight even more so than she had already begun to over the previous few years. Despite my repeated assurances of my love, care, and desire to continue to be her pastor regardless of her decisions, my failure of her expectations was just too much. In hindsight, I don’t think I would fail her any differently if I could do it over again, but I would do a better job at following up on that failure—this, however, is another lesson. What did I learn from this second-week crisis in my first call? First, while it is inevitable, failure can be productively controlled. Second, even so, there will be those who simply can’t abide failure from their pastor. What then?