We still talk about the period after a couple is married as the honeymoon. This is more than a short period of time to get away to a resort or vacation spot. This is the time when the couple begins to get to know how each other thinks, acts, and believes. For the most part, couples bend over backward to avoid any conflict during this time, and the good will lasts until a conflict develops that makes the wife see the husband as an unfeeling oaf, or the husband see the wife as a nagging shrew. The conflict is often around some major issue like which way the toilet paper should hang on the dispenser (over or under?) or who takes out the trash.
Churches have honeymoon periods when a new pastor arrives. This is good. Everyone is cordial. The congregation is happy to have survived through that uncertain time without a pastor. The new pastor feels affirmed that these folks have placed their trust in him or her. This honeymoon period is important. The church needs the time to get to know the new pastor’s leadership style, pulpit presence and interests. The pastor needs time to find housing, get family settled, become comfortable with worship, learn people’s names and learn where the paper clips are in the office.
Eventually the honeymoon period has to come to an end, of course. Although pastors are often told by mentors, “Don’t make any changes until you have been there a year” (or something similar), this may not be practical. In a marriage, the honeymoon period often ends with the first big fight, job loss by one of the partners, sickness, or pregnancy. The couple has moved from the honeymoon to real life. The same happens in churches. A staff member leaves, a budget crisis hits, an unexpected ministry opportunity emerges, or something else significant happens in the life of church or community that must be addressed.
What should a new pastor do during the honeymoon period? First, get to know the people and give them opportunities to get to know you. Encourage them to introduce you to friends and colleagues. Take advantage of invitations to attend community events or activities. You may never go back, but you may discover something important there—a contact, an opening for ministry, or a new perspective on what people in the community think about the church. Although a pastor may not be able to sustain this pace for long, investing time in such contacts initially is important to gain a better understanding of your new church and community.
Second, listen a lot. All information will not be equally valuable, but just by listening you communicate an attitude of accessibility and a desire to be informed. As you get to know people in the congregation, you will be able to determine how much weight to place on the information received. You will also discover who really knows what is going on in the congregation.
Third, begin with clear expectations about the use of your time. If you plan to take off one day a week for sabbatical, start doing that at the very beginning of your tenure. If you usually block out time early in the week to begin sermon preparation, protect that time on your calendar from the start. If you plan to have weekly staff meetings, begin as soon as possible. If you plan to set aside Wednesday mornings or afternoons to visit the hospital, nursing homes, or shut-ins, find someone in the community or congregation who knows where to go and get started.
Fourth, don’t be forced into making changes in the life of the church until you feel that you have sufficient information and resources to do them effectively. Certainly some changes may be necessary as emergency responses in a crisis, but do things that don’t restrict future decision making. For example, if the minister to students leaves early in your tenure, look for an interim and give the church time to think about the best way to staff this position in the future. This allows time for discussion, evaluation, and a little dreaming.
Honeymoons are great, but they are not real life. Enjoy them while they last.