Getting Off to a Good Start with a New Minister

The search committee has done its job. The new minister arrives next month. You're excited, but also a little nervous. You want this new relationship to go well. But how to make that happen?

The most important part of a ministerial start-up is a facilitated retreat, says Lynn Thomas, district executive of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Clara Barton District. It should happen six to ten weeks after the minister arrives, enough time for the congregation to get to know the minister a bit, and vice versa.

Invite key leaders. One model for a retreat has three parts: Friday night focuses on congregational history, Saturday morning is spent on setting priorities for the minister's time and focus in the first year, and the afternoon is taken up with a nuts and bolts look at who does what.

The history portion "gets the congregation and the minister together on the same page," says Thomas. "Ministers need to know about the place they take in the line of ministry. Congregations need to understand that their experience with former ministers will influence how they interact with a new minister."

Don't make the following mistakes with a new minister, says Thomas:

  • Don't expect the minister to work primarily out of the church office (rather than at home) without providing adequate space and resources.
  • Don't expect the minister to do everything the first year.
  • Don't expect that now you've got a settled minister on board, you can relax and leave it all to the minister.

Thomas facilitated a retreat when Tom Rosiello accepted a call to his first ministry, at First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Stow and Acton, MA (250 members). He started in August 2002. "The retreat was very helpful," said Rosiello a year later. "We set priorities and had the Yours, Mine, and Ours discussion. That's where we made sure everyone understood what my responsibilities are and what other people would do. And where we intersect and do things together." A similar retreat was held for religious educator Meg Anzalone.

Stow and Acton President Nancy Banks said, "The other thing that helped us get off to a good start was Tom's openness and honesty. He promised us he would model the behavior he expected to see from us."

The board, minister, and Anzalone also created covenants with each other. "Their importance," said Rosiello, "is spelling out that we don't always have to agree, but we do have to treat each other with respect."

The congregation held an ordination and installation ceremony for Rosiello three months after he arrived and that also helped the minister and congregation to bond.

Another thing that helped, Banks said, is that Rosiello "had a really good ear for the traditions of the church. Every church has those things that are important to it. For instance we have a very traditional Christmas Eve service. It's very important to us. Tom gave us a very traditional service. Over time he may suggest we look at things another way, but he has been very good about being aware of those things that are important to us."

A strong committee on ministry is also important, especially for first-time ministers. It can serve as a guide to how the church works and provide advice on early needs such as finding a place to live and locating a physician. Its members should be well-connected to the congregation and be in touch with most of the subgroups within the congregation. "It's not my support group, or my complaint group," says Rosiello. "Its role is to be in touch with the total ministry of the church and what is needed."

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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