Hey. I haven’t had much to say lately. I’m not sure why that is, other than that when you write and talk and write and talk, all day long, then go home and talk some more, you will at some point run out of words. They always come back, eventually—usually as an assault to the senses, like an alien, animal thing trying to escape you all at once; a rush of words that literally burns itself into your brain (maybe while you’re asleep) and MUST BE FREED AT DAWN OR ELSE YOU’LL RUN MAD.
However—this post is not one of those, so, you’re welcome.
Instead, I’ll ease myself back into the world of word with this ‘list-y’ sort of thing I’ve been working on. I moved to a new town/new church less than a year ago. A colleague of mine, who was also getting ready to move, asked me: when you move to a new place, how do you get to know your new community? Not just the church that called you, but the surrounding area, and people outside the church?
At the time, I didn’t know how to answer. I was trying to learn a few hundred names, find a house to live in, and teach my kids about things like mittens, and days that you can’t go outside because it’s too cold. I was trying to get car insurance and a library card, and was learning that dry-cleaning in Kansas costs about 4 times what any reasonable person should be expected to pay for a clean shirt.
Because somebody, somewhere, set up this system: in which you move your life across the world, and at the very time when you are supposed to be knocking people’s socks off in a new job, you are simultaneously drowning in minutiae. This is not just true for clergy, but for anyone who follows a professional/spiritual call to ‘elsewhere.’ Whose idea was this?? How do you learn a new community in the midst of that chaos? Hell, I don’t know, I am over here trying to remember where we packed the toaster. I’m just looking for matching socks. (Full disclosure: I don’t look that hard).
But here’s what I found—and what probably you have found, if you’ve ever thrown yourself into this sort of whirlwind of rearrangement. Somewhere, in the midst of all that chaos and the overwhelming sea of details, you DO figure out the new place. Sort of. You learn where not to drive certain hours of the day; you learn that the liquor stores close early on Sundays (and are TOTALLY CLOSED ON EASTER); you figure out which pizza places are going to take 2 hours on a weeknight; you finally make it to the DMV (someday I will make it to the DMV). And then… you live there.
Still! While all this stuff is slowly, maybe painfully unfolding, there are intentional things that you can do in order root yourself a little more deeply, and with meaning. I can look back over my calendar now and see the little ways I’ve tried to establish some sense of pastoral presence in my new corner of the world. These are good tips for anyone trying to set up house in a new place, and especially for clergy.
1. Non-profits. Start with the ones that are already connected to your congregation. Plan a visit, meet the director and the community coordinator; take a tour; maybe do the volunteer training. This is the best possible way to learn about the biggest needs in your new place, and hear it from people who are already at work to meet that need.
2. Schools. Meet principals and counselors in the schools near the church. Find out where church kids go to school, and try to make their plays and athletic events. If you, yourself, have children, USE THEM TO INFILTRATE THE SYSTEM. Volunteer in the classroom on art day, go on field trips, meet other parents…and then quickly avert your eyes when they ask for new PTA members.
3. Alumni connections—See if your alma mater or Greek organization has a local chapter.
4. Elected officials—call them. Set up meetings and ask them open-ended questions about the lives of their constituents. (Note: If they can’t answer, DON’T VOTE FOR THEM… you know, once you’ve gone to the DMV and you can actually vote).
5. Community events—Local parks, libraries and downtown bureaus have stuff going on all the time. Go hang out. Wear a t-shirt that has your church name and logo on it. Meet the folks.
6. Other pastors—are not the competition. They are your partners in sharing the good news with your neighbors. And probably they’ve been there longer and can share the gifts and challenges of the community. Sure, they might look at you weird because you’re a girl. With pink hair. In Kansas. But I find that pastors from ‘other’ kinds of churches are less and less judge-y about the lady pastor thing. Mostly.
7. Host off-site events for your church folks to mingle and visit with you, and hope that passersby will see you and come chat too. Coffee shops are good. Bars are better. This is just the #worldwelivein
8. Visit your church folks at work. I encountered this novel idea in David Lose’s book, Preaching at the Crossroads (read my review here) and was blown away. What a brilliant way to not only spend time getting to know your congregation, but also see what sorts of things are happening out in the world around you. And you’d be surprised by how a casual ‘hey, this is my pastor’ opens up doors. Both in the moment, and for later.
9. If you are single and hoping to find love, the rule is just go and do things you like to do. Chances are, you will bump into other people doing those same things. Same rule applies for learning a new city. Join a band, start a pick-up game of whatever, take a dance class or a cooking class, run a marathon, start a book club… Go places. Do stuff. Other people will be there too.
But maybe the best and simplest way to navigate a new anything is to
10. Talk to strangers. Be willing to make small talk everywhere you go: parks, libraries, hospitals, coffee shops, the grocery store. Tell people you just moved here. Not only will they tell you all sorts of stuff about the area, they will likely ask you, ‘from where?’ and ‘why?”
“Well,” you say… “I’m a pastor.”
And yes, that opens up multiple cans of worms, and some of them are ugly, and most of them are awkward. But in addition to the cans-o-worms, it also opens doors. This is how you get from “new in town/still looking for my socks” to “I live here,” and even “we’ve met before.” Someday, the dust will settle. And you’ll look down and notice that cloud of mess beneath your feet has been hiding something.