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March 29, 2011

Tom Arthur: A new pastor mulligan

All pastors-in-training look forward to the first church they are called to serve. I was privileged to serve a “first church” twice.

My wife began work toward a two-year theology degree during the last year of my M.Div. That meant I had a year to keep myself busy while she finished her degree.  Before I graduated and while I was still wondering what I would do with this surprise year, I got a call from the pastor at the church where I had worked some years before. He was taking a sabbatical for three months that summer and wanted to know if I would be willing to cover for him while he was gone. I said yes.

What those three months did for me was give me a mulligan: the chance to try being a pastor for three months, make lots of mistakes, and then go back to the tee for a freebee and start over when I accepted an appointment to my second first church nine months later.

Every pastor should get just such a chance for a new pastor do-over.

It’s not that I hadn’t tried to prepare for the transition to the local church, but no matter how much I tried, the jolt still came. For example, I focused a little too heavily on traditions taught in school and a little too lightly on the traditions of this church. My sermons interpreted the life of my seminary-trained peers more than the life of an average layperson. I put some big sturdy boundaries around my “work life” and my “home life” that weren’t very porous. I made some relational and leadership mistakes with my staff members. All of these were rough edges that wore off over time, but had I stayed in that church, its members would have had to carry that baggage with me over the length of my tenure. What I got was a deep immersion experience that quickly taught me and then let me move on with a clean slate.

This seems like an excellent program for someone to fund (any takers?). It hits both ends of the spectrum: developing future leaders and sustaining and renewing current leaders. Surely there are a lot of pastors out there who could use a good sabbatical, and there are a lot of seminary students who could use a good mulligan. What if every seminary student had the same chance to cover a pastor’s sabbatical and receive a do-over? I’m sure there would be a lot of grace, as there was with my situation. A friend of mine likes to say, “We can all endure anything if we know when it will end.” 

I still made mistakes when I went to my first (non do-over) church, but I like to think I didn’t make as many. The really rough edges had been worn away, courtesy of my mulligan.

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.


While I agree with this in

While I agree with this in principle and think it has in it a kernel of a good idea, I'm not sure if that would work too well in practice. I'm currently in my third year of my first solo appointment in a small church. When I move, I can take the lessons learned and my smoother-by-the-day rough edges and move on. My church, on the other hand, lives with my mistakes of omission or commission. In other words, I get a mulligan, but it doesn't work out quite so neatly for the church where I've made these mistakes. And, not to belabor the "in principle/practicality" issue, but even if you were to send a rookie into a church where the pastor is on sabbatical, would that rookie minister have the authority to make personnel/leadership decisions (if said rookie paster was not an ordained elder)? Just wondering what that looks like, because my biggest blunders have come in just that area.

Isn't this just what field ed

Isn't this just what field ed or an internship is supposed to be? The real issue would then be how current models of field education are not actually educating clergy-in-training because they are not put into positions to make mistakes on a regular basis.


I think you're right. But I'd suggest that being somewhere for three years is a lot different than being somewhere for three months. The stakes are a lot higher, but how you start can set the trajectory of those stakes in a helpful or detrimental fashion (especially right out of seminary).

I'd agree, but I don't know if it is sustainable for an ongoing field education program. But it could be a nice intersection when possible.

i like mulligans

Tom, I love this post! I was blessed with a senior pastor at my first appointment out of seminary that explained my position as the associate pastor as a sort of post-graduate residency. Sure he had tons of confidence in me, but he also told me he expected me to make mistakes and that would be ok. He created a safe place for me to fail. As I am now preparing for a new appointment that sort of mentoring takes the edge off of the jolt of a new church experience.
I guess we need clergy and laity that are willing to forgive the "fee" for a mulligan and absorb the "costs" as an investment in the Kingdom. Pastors are trained by the victories and failures we endure.

Best of Both Worlds!

Hey Lynn,
Sounds like you have the best of both worlds! The safety net of a lead pastor and the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. I'll be curious to hear how different the nature of those mistakes were as an associate as compared to the nature of the mistakes you'll make in your new appointment (assuming you won't be an associate any more).

This sounds a lot like

This sounds a lot like student teaching models where new teachers work with a mentor and gradually take full responsibility for teaching for a fixed period. Yes - mistakes are made and children may lose a bit here and there. But, the children gain an enthusiastic, fresh teacher. Retired teachers are often pulled in to mentor/supervise as well.


Whew! I was jealous reading Lynn's post. I took an associate position hoping that I would be able to learn from a master Jedi. Unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case. Sadly, from what I have gathered from other associate pastors in my area, few people know how have that kind of mentor relationship with their associate. We either get dumped on or boxed into a corner. I worked with a good pastor. However, he refused to plan worship with me. I got to do my week and he graciously never controlled or even commented on what I did. He planned the other three weeks of the month. We never planned out worship together for the liturgical season. I never received feedback from my preaching. We never functioned as a team. Overall, I believe it hurt my ministry and my confidence to be an associate when I had expected it to be the exact opposite. Longer field education placements would make more sense to me...not just a summer or an academic year but the whole time you are in seminary. That way you would travel with a congregation through an entire liturgical cycle and see what life is like in a church over the long haul.

Great Article

Great Article

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