January 2014 – George Mason

“Why is Ministry So Messy: A Starting Conversation”

January 7, 2014
George Mason
Pastor, Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

Introductions: George Mason has been the pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, TX, since 1989. He is the author of Preparing the Pastors We Need. He heads the residency program at Wilshire, training and mentoring new pastors.

Pam Durso: George, can you tells us a bit about your background? Your family and faith journey?

George Mason: I  was born in New York City (Staten Island). My mother was a Lutheran, and my father was Episcopalian. I was raised in a Free Evangelical Church, but attended Lutheran school, so I was learning creeds at school and gospel songs at church. I became Baptist in college (and I was also a quarterback in college at University of Miami). Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Baptist Campus Ministries were a large part of my college experience. I attended Southwestern Seminary, (MDiv, Phd). Pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama. I began the pastorate at Wilshire in 1989.

PD: What are some of the best experience that you have had along the way in your 30+ years of ministry?

GM: Any ministry is a partnership between minister and congregation. No matter what we have gone through in churches, there has been a commitment to each other. We have been able to forgive each other. Trust is a big thing. If you have it, work hard to keep it, because it’s really very difficult to get it back after you have lost it.

PD: What have been some of the most challenging?

GM: Personnel is always difficult. Sometimes you inherit a staff, and it’s not your dream staff. You just have to make the best of it. Sometimes, you even have to find someone another place to be. There is a challenge of managing yourself that is always present. “How can I use my gifts?” “How do I learn to set aside my own ego, and trust that God is really at work in the church through me?” Getting to some level of peace with yourself is a big part of it.

Those moments along the way when you know that the church has to change its customs to make sure it is a more just and faithful community like leaving the SBC and starting the CBF, deciding that women would have a full and equal partnership in the church, including people who were divorced, or just single who have been kept out of ministry at the church, changing membership policy which at Wilshire meant honoring the faith and fully welcoming people who had been baptized in other traditions. Sometimes people exclude themselves if they do not get their way, and that is a painful process.

PD: Learning to manage self – how you get to that place? What are some things you have done along the way to get to that place?

GM: I have to credit my family to some degree. It is difficult to be an effective pastor if you have a weak self- esteem. If you are looking for people to build you up, this is hardly the work to do. Self is a spiritual construction too. The more off-center we are, that is, the more that self is not the center of things, the better we are. Rather that always calibrating how we’re doing, if we just assume that we have a sense of blessing, “you are the beloved,” let that go, and give yourself away.

PD: The other two: being patient and investing yourself in long-term ministry.

GM: It is a marathon, and not a spring. If you take the long view, see the big picture, and are deliberate, that’s the key. If you have to have instant gratification all of the time, you are going to be in trouble.

Eileen Campbell-Reid: I’d like to hear more about how it was when you went to Wilshire, and you were considered too young. What things worked? In the beginning, what strategies did you use, and how did you mess up?

GM: I’m told that when the search committee presented my name and people questioned whether I was old enough to be the pastor of the church, an older deacon stood up and asked, “We are asking the wrong question. It’s not whether he’s up to it, it’s whether or not we as a church are up to this.” He led the church to see that we would all have to grow together. So when I began, members did not expect me to be a finished product. I have discovered that it is also healthy for young ministers to not pretend that they are a finished product. Listen to those who have been doing church for a long time, even if they’re not a minister. You’re doing a lot of things for the first time, they know that.

When I tried to assert pastoral authority too soon–that’s where I encountered problems. One of the things that I did early on was knowing that the biggest challenge was going to be with older adults. I hired an associate pastor who was significantly older than me. His name is Preston Bright. He became a trustworthy presence. Interestingly, the other thing I did with our significantly large older adult presence was to create a Wednesday noon lunch. The seniors had felt sidelined from not being able to attend Wednesday evening services. Almost immediately, about 100 people showed up at the lunch. I got a chance to visit with them and lead Bible study. That was a really huge relational win.

PD: Tell us about staff meetings and your leadership there.

GM: I handle them the very best way that I can with the staff, and that is that I don’t go. There’s a back story. In a smaller church, with a smaller staff, you have to be a Jack/Jill of all trades. I’m not a good task-oriented person. I’m more about leadership instead of management. If I attended staff meetings, I would be carried away with philosophizing and hamper the planning process. It was counter-productive for me to be there. Wilshire is a large enough church to have an associate pastor, and we have an associate who is very gifted in management. I attend staff meetings every few months to talk “big picture stuff.” I have a direct relationship with each of them, and not so much  a staff meeting relationship with them. As a senior pastor, if you actually have a staff, and you really want them to be colleagues, sometimes you have to give them room to do that. That means you don’t always direct everything. I’m here to help them be as successful as they can be. There are really 4 areas that I try to think about: preaching/teaching, pastoral care, management of church/staff, big picture leadership/ community/denominational leadership. In this case, I do what is more natural to me: preaching/teaching and denominational leadership.

PD: You have created an amazing pastoral residency program. Could you tell us how you came to believe in the program, and how you made it happen?

GM: Several streams came together to form this river. I decided to take a look at where I was in the middle of my life. How would I do ministry in a new and different way that would be enriching and enlightening. About 12 or so years into this ministry, in mid-life, I thought maybe it’s time to turn around and see some younger pastors behind me. Some of us in my generation were able to go through seminary that was hard wired for a scholar pastor. That’s not the way it is anymore. In previous days, a person pastored until about age 52, and then the seminary hired him because of his church experience, and he taught the younger generation. Teaching at a seminary at age 52 was not an option for me. So several years back I started a practicum for preachers. I talked with my predecessor about mentoring the younger generation. I thought, wouldn’t it be good if we could always have a younger pastor to train. My predecessor believed strongly in this idea, and when he died, his memorial fund helped fund the beginning of the program. Then I got in contact with the Lily Foundation. For the past 12-13 years Wilshire has doing the residency and it has been funded by Lily. But now Wilshire is about to be self-supporting of the program.

PD: Tell me some things you’ve learned in this process. What have you learned about ministers that are just starting out in these days?

GM: I think the model of how you do church is really different out there now, because there are so many more options. In the 50-60’s, even 70’s, there was pretty much a standard on how Baptist churches operated. It’s all over the place now. We try to do things well that we know how to do well. We can not be all things to all people. When churches don’t know who they are, they try to be everything, and they end up being nothing. For young pastors, pick a path, and go with it. Don’t try to kill the church you receive in order to form a new church. If you want to do a church the way you want to, go start one. If you join a church’s story, you honor it.

Dorisanne Cooper: I find that as new people come into the church, they have different expectations for what the church is for them. What do you say to people when they come to visit or look into joining, as far as what they could expect?

GM: We have a thing called Wilshire Welcome. Each month, we have different ways to invite people who are inquiring. It includes a tour of the facility, which tells the churches history in story. On that tour, we tell where we as a congregation have come from, who we are. Another way we introduce people to Wilshire is through coffee and conversation with the pastor during the Sunday School. I offer them a time to ask questions. After they join, about once a quarter, I invite them to our home for a new member fellowship. We have a light dinner, and we talk about things like an entrance interview. “Tell us what we’ve done right that led you to join.” I also ask them if there were hurdles for them, whether it’s parking or a Sunday school class. Overall, I want right from the start that we intend to be a teaching conversation and a learning community. I do talk to them about the fact that there are four things we ask of every new member: worship, learn, give, serve. Those are pretty obvious, but I make it more clear. Service is a key part of it too. How do they find their place? We have interest survey that they fill out when they join. I tell them that there’s no waiting period for getting involved in a Baptist church. It counts if they’re out there serving the community in some way, because they’re representing the church. We use the strength finders process. It’s most likely that God will call them best according to how they’re made. We’re pretty aggressive in involving people according to their gifts.

PD: Could you talk to us about the ways that you have shaped this residency? How has your church learned to be supportive?

GM: When you’re a young minister, moving from seminary into your first church, there are some things that are best learned in the classroom. There is nothing about this that will be a denigration between seminary and the residency. But we give our residents opportunities to learn in a teaching environment, where they can ask questions, such as How do you talk to a child about faith? How do you read a room? How do you solve a conflict between deacons? These are things that are intuition and that are learned on the job by doing. The residency is a safe place that offers two years to adopt a pastoral identity. It’s an environment where it’s safe to make mistakes. You’re allowed to teach a class or preach a sermon, and you don’t feel like your entire ministry is on the line when you do it. This is an opportunity to give confidence. Along the way, it changes the self-understanding the church. It changes the thought, the consumer mentality, that they are buying the services of the pastoral staff. What happens in a ministry program is that the church feels like they are involved in the future of the church. It raises a sense of responsibility with the congregation that they’re not just thinking of themselves.

PD: So, at Wilshire, you bring in recent seminary grads for 2 years, and they get a taste of it all?

GM: They are full member of the staff. They’re not a small group off to the side. This is a distinction in the church that we make between interns and residents. We have college interns that do semester long internship. In residency work, you are already a pastor. That means sometimes you will lead a staff meeting, a business meeting, of course, preaching and teaching, pastoral care, funerals. Sometimes we’re successful with members who are comfortable with residents conducting a funeral for their family. At the very least, the residents are there planning the service. The key is reflective practice. It’s not just doing it, it’s also reflecting on it and honing your skills.

Britt Carlson: I just wanted to share some of my experience with the program. I come from a background where women have no place in the ministry. Just to be able to say “I am a pastor,” because the residency program at Wilshire considers the residents pastors, has been so meaningful to me.

Meredith Stone: For those churches that can not do a residency, what are some practical things that churches can do to help bridge the gap between seminary and ministry?

GM: Look at your church, and make sure that it’s the kind of church that is ready to do this work. If you really do have a direct service provider understanding of church, it’s not going to fit the culture. You have to have a church that understands that it has a role in building the leadership. Second, look at the history of the church, and see if there is a history of stability and risk-taking. If there’s a relative stability in the history of the church, that’s a good sign, but is there also a history of risk-taking?

Look at where you’re located. If you’re located near a seminary or divinity school, talk to that school. You could look deliberately at having internships for the summer, even if you’re not close to a school. Some need to be supporting their own students too. There needs to be lots of strategies around financial and spiritual support of your own students. Maybe look at the associate pastorate. If it’s open now, or if it’s being created, maybe think about saying “this is going to be a 2-3 year position for a new pastor.”

PD: You really give some helpful tips about finding ways to make fundraising happen for these programs. Some of the tips that you give are very helpful. If they’re interested, I think that your book is a good place to start.

GM: It was intended to be an A-Z thing. It really is for pastors and key lay people in the church to give you a hand book.

PD: Where have you been surprised along the way with this program? What has it brought that you weren’t expecting?

GM: I mentioned my surprise and gratitude in the way that the congregation has owned it. I’ve come to realize that the congregation believes that this is their work. I have come to believe that this is not George’s thing, this is the church’s thing. We find ourselves at the end of the Lily Endowment, so we are finding ways to make legacy gifts. It’s enriched my ministry, because now I have to answer for what I do too. I can’t just preach or lead without debriefing residents. It makes me a little more circumspect. It’s hard to be lazy, because a residency program keeps you on your toes. You’re dealing with real people who have a real calling, so talking through this journey with  them is a big part of it. Another thing that I’ve learned is that once they’ve been a part of this program, they’re in my life for good. We continue to have a relationship. It’s important for me to help them find a place to serve.

PD: One thing is that you have helped residents find a place of service. That makes all the difference. Don’t you have annual reunions?

GM: We do. We actually pay for their airfare, and they find their own housing from the church of friends. We have an annual reunion to reconnect, but also as a peer learning group. We’ve always been regional in Baptist life, but we don’t have to be so regional. We’ve tried to get residents from a lot of different schools around the country.

I want to go back to the question of helping them find their place. The pastoral residency we’ve always had at least one, if not more women residents at a time. We could have waited until the “market was ready,” but you have to make the market open up. You have to work toward helping congregations imagine that, and consider them, which means sending a very comprehensive and thorough letter. Help is working through “the committee might be ready, but the church isn’t ready.” I say that the church elected the search committee because they trust them. We have to really work at advocating for these kinds of changes, and not just default to the traditional way of thinking.