From Student to Solo-PastorBy Joe Wright on May 16, 2016
Editor's Note: This week, we have asked Joe Wright, a 2015 graduate from the M.Div. program, to write about his experience transitioning from student to a solo-pastor role at a small church. We are excited to celebrate what God is doing through Joe's ministry and to share what he is learning, for others who may follow a similar path.
"Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity" (1 Timothy 4:12).
What a journey it has been! In May 2015, I graduated from GRTS, completing my Master of Divinity degree in 4 years through the Kern Scholars Program. Then in August, at age 26, I was called to be the new pastor at Bellaire Wesleyan Church in northern Michigan. The two words that describe my emotional state upon receiving the phone call were excited and terrified. You see, throughout the job search process, the one prayer I kept praying was, "God, I'm not ready to be a lead pastor, so I'm not going to apply for any lead pastor positions."
Well, I should have known better then to run away from where he was leading me. While I wasn't surprised for him to place me in that position, I was still very unsure of myself. Even now, I'm not sure how much I know, but I want to offer some reflections on what these first eight months of solo-pastoring have been like, and what the transition has been like from the classroom to the church.
I'm an individual who always sets the bar high for myself—too high at times. If I'm running a race, I'll finish at the top of my age group. If I'm baking a cake, it'll be the best cake I've ever made. If I'm competing, I expect to win. So naturally, this mindset transitioned with me from GRTS to Bellaire Wesleyan. Why not? I was coming out of a great seminary experience and an incredible church, so I thought I would use in Bellaire some of the same strategies and approaches to ministry that I saw succeed in Grand Rapids.
However, the reality has been much different. Change is slow and hard, and even though I was taught that at GRTS, it's still tough to remember when you're in the thick of things. Before I could jump in and implement new things, I had to learn the culture of both the church and community, especially since I was new in a small town where everyone knows each other. I'm reminded of Paul's exhortation in 1 Corinthians 9, where he states that he strives to become all things to all people, exemplifying incarnational ministry. Things are pretty different up in Bellaire than in Grand Rapids, and what worked in one location doesn't necessarily work in another. The questions I must ask myself are, "How do I become all things to all people in Bellaire?" and "How can I learn about the culture and the people of my new home so that I can best preach Christ crucified?"
A second expectation I had coming out of GRTS was that I would be spending a good amount of time each day continuing my Greek and Hebrew studies. And while I do continue my original language study, the how of doing so is different than I had envisioned. I'm in a church setting where, while the language details need to be incorporated, they don't need to be at the forefront of the sermon. Sharing Greek and Hebrew terms, as well as other "big" theological terms, on a Sunday morning isn't edifying for my congregation, but the concepts and definitions of such terms do need to be taught. And so, I've learned to live and preach from that tension. In my sermon prep, I still hear the voice of Dr. Greer from our Old Testament Exegesis classes reminding me to sift through all the language details to share what's most important, and when I do share them, to incorporate those details contextually to my congregation.
When I reflect on all the changes that have taken place since last summer, I think one of the most challenging realities of the transition into a solo-pastor position has been leaving a context where I was continually around other people in the same frame of mind, and now being solo. At GRTS, I was surrounded by students who were passionate about learning about God and preparing for vocational ministry. At my previous church, my residencies integrated me into ministry staff and teams who'd meet frequently to pray and establish plans of actions for reaching the lost in Grand Rapids. In Bellaire, as a solo pastor, a lot of my time is spent alone, so I need to be more intentional about surrounding myself with individuals I can brainstorm, plan and pray with.
I believe that God is using this season of life to teach me how to develop those relationships that will be life giving and life sustaining in ministry, so that flourishing may result for decades.