Steve’s phone call was filled with excitement. It was his first church. I had known him from his home church where he was a fine lay leader. Now he was on his own. He wanted to connect with somebody who had “been over the road.”
“Don,” he said, “you’ve taught me to ask questions.”
“Good,” I said. “Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.” (Prov. 9:9)
I’ve got a couple for you, Steve continued. “What counsel would you have for a new pastor that is just beginning?”
My “off the top of my head” response came from a lot of thinking I’d given the subject. With some more “from the bottom of my heart” clarification, here are my responses. They also are appropriate for the pastor seeking a new beginning in a place he’s been awhile.
1. Get acquainted with the people
The Good Shepherd said He knows His sheep and calls them by name (John 10). As pastor-shepherds, this is a good place for us to begin. Ministry takes place in the context of relationship.
Learn the peoples’ names: Standing by the door each Sunday is a good way to practice the discipline. People love to be called by their name. Don’t overlook the children. They are people too.
Get into their lives: Go by their homes, businesses, or work places when appropriate. Have them into your home, perhaps in small groups. Do whatever it takes to get to know them and let them know you. Hospitality is a requirement for eldership (1 Tim. 3). You’ll always learn something new by being in a person’s home.
2. Establish trust
Your predecessor was probably dearly loved by many. Give them time to learn to trust you. Should you be following someone who has stubbed their toe, they may be suspicious of you. Give them some time.
We establish trust by being authentic. Let people see who you really are. This includes our weaknesses. This is where God’s power works best (2 Cor. 12:9-16).
Trust is also established by faithfulness. Do what you promise to do. Keep your appointments. Stay on time. Don’t overly commit yourself to things that you cannot accomplish.
3. Learn the culture
Where you are now is not just like where you came from. Every community and church is unique. Put on your missionary glasses. Gain a good understanding of your new community and the patterns of this church.
Find out how the systems work in the church. Unless you are planting a church, every church has its way of doing things. Also find out who the church chiefs are. These are the people who make the rules. You must make their friendship and gain their trust so they will be on your team and hopefully learn to follow you.
4. Go about change slowly
Your very presence on the scene is a dramatic change for the people. You are different from their past leadership. The very way you speak and conduct yourself in your daily routines are a change. Congregations often choose pastors who are significantly different from their predecessor, so the congregation is already dealing with a lot of change. Affirm the past.
5. Learn to lead
Don’t make the error of expecting others to do it. You must show the way. Most times you will want to be democratic and gain the consensus of your leaders. Only occasionally will you want to be autocratic. And sometimes being laissez fair is appropriate. Leadership is an art. We are always learning how to do it better. When you are wrong, tell them. We are servant-leaders. Humility needs to be our mark.
How does a pastor gain consensus? Draw up a handful of questions to ask as many people as you can for their input. Such questions as:
- How long have you been a part of this church?
- What was it like when you came?
- What are the changes that you have seen take place?
- What do you think would please God for our church to become?
- What do you think might be the next several steps?
6. Bring the vision together
Take the information you’ve gained from the people and put it in shape so that it reflects your own thrust. Run it by your leaders for their input. Start sharing it with the church.
7. Work on your preaching
Let your preaching be uplifting. Let it be Christ centered. Don’t raise issues with the past. Concentrate on the future. Let them hear your visions and values. Let them know this is not a stepping stone to somewhere else. Be a person of hope.
Don’t talk down to people. Upon leaving a service, make them feel they were built up, not beat up.
How Should I Spend My Time?
1. Being over doing
Model what you want the people to be like in terms of godliness. Let your performance flow out of your character.
2. Be a preacher/teacher
Block out your best time for study and preparation. Learn the craft of preaching. Work to improve it all the time. Stay with a strong, simple idea. Give it handles so folks can carry it home. Illustrate it well. Be who you are.
3. Be the vision caster
Vision is a clear mental picture of what God wants based upon who He is and who you are as a church and your circumstances. Having brought your church to a consensus about the future, reduce it into a clearly written statement.
Learn to summarize it into a slogan. More failures in the church come from ambiguity of purpose than any other reason. Keep the people thinking purpose. Like most churches, your church will probably have too many programs and meetings. Helping the people to be focused into having purposeful programming will enable you to free your church from an activity trap.
Fred Smith says the most important function of a leader is to articulate and maintain the vision.
4. Developing leaders
The imperative of the Great Commission is to make disciples. No matter how well you preach or call or care, if we are not making disciples we are falling short of the mark. Be intentional with discipling, during committee and board meetings as well as when informally meeting.
Do not be trapped by giving yourself equally to everybody. In the smaller church, you may need to be accessible to everybody, but spend time with the people who can, in turn, affect other people. Wonderful things happen when a pastor spends time with his leaders.
Love the people. As Jesus said, “The new commandment is to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).
Our servanthood to people is a way we communicate love. But it’s not the only way. Notes of appreciation and encouragement cards ought to be a part of our daily discipline. But learn to take the risk of sometimes simply standing before the people and saying, “Folks I don’t know if I’ve told you lately, but I want to tell you now, I love you. In this lonely hate-filled world that is so wrought with pain, people need to know they are valued and loved.”
A good start is essential to a good race. I have high hopes for my friend Steve and his good wife. They are learners.
Their teachable attitudes will not protect them from every pain. Ministry is a call to sacrifice, servanthood, and suffering (2 Corinthians). But the bumps will become blessings in their further development and bond them all the more to their people they so already love.