By Paula Schlueter Ross
The transition from seminary (where students enjoy ready friendships and camaraderie) to congregation (a sometimes lonely place with a host of daily challenges) can be difficult for new pastors.
There are church finances to deal with, and budgets that may include inadequate income for the pastor and his family. There might be conflict among congregational leaders, or too-full days and nights, with too-little time off. The pastor’s wife may feel like she’s living in a fishbowl, with others watching — and judging — her and the couple’s children.
“Those first three years are critical,” admits the Rev. Dr. Glen Thomas, executive director of the Synod’s Office of Pastoral Education. “It is during this transition time that many wonderful joys are experienced, but challenges are also encountered and patterns of thinking and behavior are established.”
Enter PALS, or Post-seminary Applied Learning and Support, a collaborative effort of the national Synod, LCMS districts and individual congregations that brings together groups of recent seminary graduates for worship, study, sharing and mutual support.
Leading these groups are PALS facilitators — experienced pastors who have been recommended by their district presidents to serve the program.
A PALS facilitator typically brings together new pastors in his area, plans meeting times, sites and agendas, and leads the group through presentations and discussions on topics such as getting to know your congregation, counseling, preaching, leadership, time management, conflict resolution, addictions, finances/stewardship, evangelism and Communion/closed Communion.
Rev. Nathan Reichle, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Greenville, Wis., and his wife, Sarah, have experienced PALS from both sides — as participants from 2007 until 2010, and as facilitators for the past year.
Reichle, a 2006 graduate of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, said PALS made his first three years as a pastor easier by providing opportunities throughout the year “to meet with fellow pastors who are going through that same transition together.” He could talk freely with them about what was going on in his parish, get feedback and “apply what we had gone over in our PALS meeting” back in his congregation.
Sarah Reichle said she appreciated meeting the wives of other new pastors, and the focus on building a strong marriage.
The PALS program, Nathan Reichle added, is “very holistic … recognizing that if we’re going to be good at being pastors in our congregations, we need to be good at being husbands in our homes … so there was a lot of personal care along with professional care.”
The Reichles were among 21 pastors and 17 wives who took part in a PALS facilitator training conference, Aug. 9-10 at the Synod’s International Center in St. Louis. At the conference, held annually, participants heard presentations on the PALS program and curriculum, and brainstormed issues new pastors face and how PALS facilitators can best help them adjust to life in the parish.
“PALS is not a mentoring program” but incorporates “collegial learning groups in which members help one another to learn and to grow,” noted LCMS First Vice-President Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr., who led a conference session on the program’s history.
Mueller, who worked with the PALS initiative for nine of its 13 years, said surveys of district presidents have shown that PALS pastors tend to stay in their first-call parishes longer.
He told facilitators that PALS provides “a wonderful opportunity” to affect the Synod “in a positive and Christ-centered way” for many years to come.
Addressing participants on the first day of the conference, LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison acknowledged that experienced pastors can make “a huge difference” in the lives of new pastors by providing encouragement and support.
In these “challenging times,” Harrison said today’s pastors often are “dealing with people who may or may not want to listen” to you. It’s “important,” he said, to “demonstrate that you’re still working on your craft and your mind is still open.”
Thomas told Reporter he was “moved listening to the sacrifices of time, energy and money that many of these facilitators have made in order to assist new pastors and their wives. It has all been done very quietly and behind the scenes, but these facilitators have made a remarkable difference in the lives of new pastors and their wives.”
Thomas added that, “In some cases, new pastors and their wives have told facilitating pastors and their wives that if it were not for them and for PALS, the new pastors would no longer be in the pastoral ministry.”
Previous PALS facilitators conferences were sponsored by the former Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support, which was among the Synod entities that were eliminated in the restructuring mandated by the 2010 LCMS convention. So this year’s conference was the first planned by the Office of Pastoral Education, noted Thomas.
Next year, he said, the conference may offer two tracks — “one for new facilitators and one for experienced facilitators, with ample opportunities for interaction and sharing of ideas between the two groups.”
This year’s conference was open to all PALS facilitators and was “purposely designed,” Thomas said, to “take advantage of all of the wisdom and experience in the room.” As a result, he added, “there was a great sharing of wisdom and best practices that even the most experienced PALS facilitators appreciated.”
During a conference panel discussion, three PALS pastors and two wives shared the “joys” of their new calls (for example, receiving a “gift-card shower” and help moving into the parsonage), the challenges (having to make new friends, being compared with the former pastor), the surprises (the congregation’s resistance to change, the prevalence of gossip, how “all-consuming” a pastor’s duties can be) and how PALS was helpful (it’s “nice to connect” with others facing the same challenges, it’s “a safe place” to share frustrations, it provides opportunities to “learn and grow”).
PALS Coordinator Carrie O’Donnell said the two LCMS seminaries — in St. Louis and Fort Wayne, Ind. — “are the best in the world and give our pastors the best theological foundation possible. But they can’t prepare our pastors and their families for everything they are going to face in the parish.
“PALS gives them the opportunity to learn from one another and talk through issues with which they may be struggling,” said O’Donnell, who was a PALS participant with her husband, Lance, after he took his first call and is now “happy to help others receive those same benefits.”
In her work with the program, she and other PALS organizers “have heard numerous accounts from pastors and wives who feel that the support they received from PALS may have literally saved their ministry or marriage,” she told Reporter.
“Transitions are not only hard on the pastors and their families, but also on the congregations,” O’Donnell added. “We have found that those who have participated in PALS tend to stay longer in their first call. This is good for the long-term health of our Synod and her members.”
For more information about PALS, visit www.lcms.org/pals.
Posted Aug. 25, 2011