04/17/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

Letter to the Minister and the Congregation

(This article is meant primarily for minsters and members of their congregations, but others may also learn from it.)

I was standing at the rear of the sanctuary greeting people as they left the worship service. This was not just another service on another Sunday. This was the very first worship service I conducted at the very first church I served as the minister.

I was shaking hands with people as they were leaving, enjoying the compliments I was receiving. An elderly woman, after shaking my hand, continued to hold it in both of her hands. Smiling, she looked me squarely in the eyes and said, "Reverend, I'm really going to like you."

Being young and inexperienced and not knowing what to say, but thinking that I needed to say something that expressed an air of humility, I replied, "How do you know? This is only my first Sunday." And she then said something that has had a profound and positive impact on my entire career, first as a clergyman and later as a college president. She said, "Oh, Reverend Bradshaw, I have liked every minister we have had, and I know I will like you." Although she was small in physical stature, what she said that morning was immense in significance.

So many times, when ministers first come to a congregation, there is a tendency to feel slightly insecure as they go through the process of getting accustomed to the time-honored practices of that particular congregation, including what is and is not traditionally done, who in the congregation does what, and what is and is not expected of the minister by some people. And it is quite natural to have some people in your new flock praise your predecessor and others criticize him or her.

It doesn't help one's insecurity to have someone say: "Reverend Johnson preached such magnificent sermons"; or "I have never known any minister who was so profound"; or "Reverend Jones always offered the most helpful prayers"; or "He or she was so good about visiting the sick and elderly"; or "The youth groups just loved Pastor Karen;" or "We were so sorry to see brother James leave." When you hear these kinds of things being said about your predecessor, it is quite easy to assume that no one will ever measure up to him or her and that you are doomed to failure in their eyes even before you get started. It is only natural to shy away from these people.

On the other hand, the new minister must guard against permitting insecurity to lead to being receptive to hearing unflattering comments about his or her predecessor, such as: "Oh, Reverend, we are so happy you are here. Pastor Roberts was such a problem. We thought he would never leave"; or "With you here, maybe some of our members who left will come back. Reverend Smith drove them away"; or similar remarks. The problem is that many minsters assume that people who find fault with their predecessor and are complimentary of them will be their (the new ministers') avid supporters. But the exact opposite is likely to happen.

What I am about to say is based on fifty years of experience as a parish minister and the president of a church-related college.

People who praise your predecessor are full of love, admiration, and respect for someone who did a really good job ministering to them personally and to the congregation as a whole. These same parishioners have the capacity to love, admire, and respect you if you don't worry about the accomplishments of your predecessor, but, instead, learn from what he or she did so well. You need to listen as others tell you about why your predecessor meant so much to them and realize that your successor is likely to hear the same kinds of wonderful things about you when they come onto the scene.

And equally important is to realize that the same people who found fault with your predecessor will, in all likelihood, be the same people to find fault with you and the way you do your job. They'll be the ones who tell your successor how fortunate the congregation is to have gotten rid of you.

My years of experience have taught me that you want to depend on the members of your flock who, like the little old lady, are sure they will like you because they have liked every minister the church has ever had.

Many of the things I have been saying about the clergy hold true for college presidents and faculty members. They'll have the same temptations to warm up to some people and shy away from others, depending on what they have to say about their predecessors.

And I might say to members of the congregation, you need to support your new minister and his or her family (if married). Being a minster is not an easy calling to fulfill. Your minister needs your prayers and support, not only on that first Sunday--or for the first several weeks or months--but for as long as he/she is the leader of your flock. Your minister may not always do what you want, or he or she may actually need assistance in learning to do a better job. In such cases, as a parishioner you need to discuss your differences in private with him or her instead of adding to gossip-mill comments. In other words, give your minister the benefit of your knowledge and experience and, likewise, learn from his/her training and experience. It'll be a win-win-win: for the minister, for the parishioner, and for the congregation as a whole.

In these turbulent times we are now living in, people everywhere need to develop more kindness and understanding of one another. And the churches around the world need to be leaders in developing and practicing respect for one another. I have every reason to believe that is what Jesus expects of us.