Pastors’ Forum: Do’s and Don’ts of Church Reform
Responses from Thabiti Anyabwile, Mark Dever, Bob Johnson, Garrett Kell, Michael Lawrence, Mike McKinley, and others.
CHURCH REFORM “DON’TS”
- Don’t try to change everything in the first year. Or five years.
- Don’t pursue major changes until you’ve cleaned up the church’s membership rolls (so that membership reflects actual attendance and participation).
- Don’t change something that costs a lot of pastoral capital before you’ve built up that capital.
- Don’t kill a sacred cow without knowing it was a sacred cow.
- Don’t spend $100 worth of effort on a $2 problem.
- Don’t think revolution. Instead, think evolution.
- Don’t be in a hurry.
- Don’t pick a fight you can’t win. You don’t want your church to go on record making the wrong decision.
- Don’t require total unanimity for major changes. This can allow a stubborn few to hijack something the entire rest of the church agrees about.
- Don’t try to make changes before people know that you love them.
- Don’t make changes if you’re planning to move on as soon as you get a better job offer.
- Don’t forget that preaching the glory of the gospel is the only thing that can make the heart willing to change.
Relating to Other Leaders
- Don’t go it alone.
- Don’t make any major decisions or changes without getting godly counsel.
- Don’t do everything yourself. Instead, immediately begin to work on raising up other leaders to come alongside.
- Don’t fire anyone if you can help it. Instead, love, train, teach, and invest in your staff. They will appreciate it, and attrition can take care of the rest.
- Don’t tell your wife everything that’s going on in the church, including what your (and her) detractors are saying.
- Don’t burn out your wife by spending all your time in ministry.
- Don’t make a public statement about something until you’re sure about it.
- Don’t ignore your church’s history, especially the ministries of the past few pastors before you.
- Don’t try to make sure everyone likes you. Not everyone will.
- Don’t underestimate how dramatic a possible change can feel to the congregation, even if it seems minor to you.
- Don’t obsess over attendance numbers. Take care of the quality of your ministry, and let God take care of the quantity.
- Don’t respond to stupid suggestions. Just smile and nod. Thank them for coming to you with their concerns. Tell them you’ll pray about it.
- Don’t assume your enemies are really your enemies. If you serve your opponents in kindness, you’ll often win them over.
- Don’t try to set the agenda for the senior ladies class. Just let them keep it.
- Don’t preach Romans or Ephesians as your first series.
- Don’t ignore your church’s formal structures and governing documents—generally.
- Don’t preach an agenda (or a series that allows you to preach an agenda). Instead, focus on a book of the Bible and seek people’s spiritual progress as the priority.
- Don’t freeze in place because you’re afraid of making mistakes.
- Don’t neglect your building, grounds, and signs. Instead, make sure your neighborhood can see that your church is open for business.
CHURCH REFORM “DOS”
- Pray for your members. Invite your other leaders to join you in praying for the members. Model prayer in every meeting you can. As you pray for them and they pray for each other, you’ll be surprised at the spiritual reform that happens that you’re not driving.
- Love the congregation, even though you may not feel like it at first. Tell your people you love them—frequently, publicly, and sincerely. Love the church that the Lord has given to you, not the one that you wanted him to give to you.
- Get out of your office, and into people’s homes, workplaces, and so on. The same is true for Sunday mornings. Don’t be so busy with your stuff that you don’t have a chance to observe and appreciate other people’s ministries.
- Specifically praise the congregation for its faithful ministries and service. Spend your first two years just noting everything for which to give God thanks. When you notice something worth thanking God for, tell somebody personally and the church publicly.
- Put relationships before issues.
- Write notes to members as you pray for them.
- Smell like the sheep.
- Make use of positive examples in the congregation.
- Learn the stories of significant deaths that affected the entire congregation, like those of a young person that everyone loved who was killed by a drunk driver, or a young dad who died from cancer, or families whose infant or toddler died.
- Learn the stories of business meetings or traumatic issues that affected the congregation.
- Discover which traditions or practices are particularly meaningful, and why.
- Find out who your people are reading and listening to. Affirm good authors they are already reading. They’ll be happy to have you introduce others later.
- Ask people, “How are you doing spiritually?”
- Familiarize yourself with the constitution/by-laws by having the existing leaders lead you through them, explaining why certain things were adopted.
- Teach first, and then act.
- Under-promise and over-deliver.
- Realize that lots will change simply because a new senior pastor is now in place, so you don’t really need to try to change much at first. If anything, you’re going to have to work hard to keep things from changing!
- Figure out who the other “pastors” are in the church, and seek their counsel, advice, and support. They might not all be officially recognized leaders, but could be senior adult Sunday School teachers, or retired missionaries or pastors, or other ministry leaders. Their sheep will follow their lead, so prioritize those relationships.
- Invest in the leaders (elders, deacons, staff) that you have while you wait for the leaders you want. It may be that you already have them.
- Build meaningful friendships with the leadership (elders, deacons, volunteer ministry heads). Get to know them outside the pressures of ministry.
- Continually build a nucleus of godly men.
- Keep your teaching with the elders brief and manageable. At the beginning, think short articles rather than books.
- Study topics with the leaders that are not controversies or in need of change right away. There will be less resistance or suspicion that you’re manipulating a change, and you’ll lay deep foundations for longer-lasting change.
- Let the other leaders teach you. In staff meetings and elders’ meetings, allow other staff or elders to lead the meeting, or the teaching component if you have one. Model submission and teachability.
- Keep a regular and sensible schedule. It’s a long haul, your family needs you, and you need your rest.
- Play with your kids every day.
- Read Scripture publicly, all the time: in staff meetings, in elders meetings, in hospital visits, in congregational meetings, Sunday mornings, Wednesday nights. By example, teach that all of life is lived under the Word of God.
- Get to know your supported workers before making any judgments about their ministry. There may be more going on than at first appears.
- Establish a weekly “service review” right away. Invite your elders (not just your staff) and model humility and encouragement.
- Praise the pastors who have gone before you wherever you genuinely can.
- If you’re the first expositor, preach shorter sermons than you’d like until the congregation develops an appetite for the Word.
- Sometimes respond to questions with, “I don’t know. Let me pray and search the Scriptures,” even if you have an answer at the ready. They may not be asking what you think they’re asking, and you may have the correct answer but not the correct approach or sensitivity.
- Gladly suffer for the sake of the elect.
- Start a bookstall.
- Celebrate and appreciate all that is good about your church’s past. Members will see that you really care, and it will set a good model for when you are gone. Your successor may not say that everything you did was wrong.
- Expect disappointment and loneliness.
- When attending senior adult functions, bring your wife and cute kids. (If your kids aren’t cute you can go either way on this one.)
- Prioritize personal evangelism. Obviously you should do this always, but people tend to welcome reform from a pastor who is leading people to faith in Christ. It’s hard to argue when people are getting saved.
- Be hopeful. God is in the business of bringing dead things to life.
- Pray that God would deliver you from the fear of man. You cannot pastor well if you fear man. If you struggle with this, make it a priority to work on this privately during your first year. It’s a killer in long term reforming ministry.