Becoming church

Posted Oct 17, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Scott Dickison

This is the third in a four-part series on transitions in ministry.

Scott DickisonOn the first Sunday of Advent last year, fresh off a two-year pastoral residency at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. That afternoon, I rushed to the hospital to be with a beloved church member and his family as he passed away. I officiated two funerals that first week. In the third week of Advent, as I was leaving the house of my search committee chair, whose mother had just passed away, I received a call from my parents to tell me my dad’s colon cancer had returned with a vengeance and spread throughout much of his body. On the fourth Sunday of Advent we buried my search committee chair’s mother. The next day we all held candles together in silence at our church’s Christmas Eve service and remembered that light shines in the darkness.

As I look back on that first month of being a pastor and recreate the timeline of events, I can scarcely believe that it happened. Of course, that month was particularly intense, but it has proved to be part and parcel of this first year as a whole. The church has lost a handful more saints since then. In February, my wife and I received the good news that our long wait to expand our family would soon be over, and we hope to have celebrated the birth of our son by the time this post is published. In August, the church threw us a baby shower so extravagant it was almost sinful. Almost. Two days later, my father passed away. Later that week 20 members of my congregation made the five-hour drive to Charlotte to attend the memorial service.

So often in seminary students receive warnings about difficult churches. Words like “boundaries” and “self-care” are drilled into us to the point of indoctrination. And there are without question many unhealthy churches out there, and none without dysfunction—we may be the “body of Christ,” but we’re made of human beings, after all. It’s also true that the reality of ministerial placements is such that many new pastors are paired with the most troubled churches, making a difficult transition almost impossible.

But if “toxicity” is our default expectation as new ministers, then we will have failed our congregations before we even get to them. There’s a difference between “establishing boundaries” and “putting up fences.” I worry that too often young ministers are trained to do the latter in the name of the former.

I’ve always known church to be a place where people are asked to bring their whole selves and expect to share in each other’s joy and sadness. This past year I’ve learned that sometimes as a pastor the best way to cultivate this spirit of openness and compassion within a congregation is to let them practice on you. Of course it’s important to care for ourselves and model good home/work boundaries, but it’s equally important to model the capacity to welcome care as much as we give it—and even show that they’re one and the same.

Having all those traumatic events so early in my pastorate is certainly not how any of us would have drawn it up. But it also proved to be a powerful entry point for me to get to know the congregation and for them to get to know me. I became their pastor that first Sunday in Advent, but it wasn’t until we shared in each other’s lives that we became “church.”

Scott Dickison is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, GA. Prior to coming to Macon he completed a two-year pastoral residency at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Originally from North Carolina, he and his wife, Audrey, are expecting their first child in October.

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