Should Pastors Change Anything in the First Year?
There is an old maxim that comes in two parts:
- if you do not change something in the first year you never will; and
- whatever you change in the first year is bound to be a mistake.
Maxims like this are not true in every situation, but experience teaches us how true they can be. So what truth do we find here, and what does it teach us for the first year of a pastorate?
CHANGE—YES WE CAN
The first issue to address is, “Should a pastor ever try to change anything?” The answer to this must be a qualified but resounding “Yes.”
Yes, of course, pastors should try to change things. Our job is to lead the sheep forward in sanctification. We call people to repent. Both repentance and sanctification are about change. We should not leave the sheep where we found them. That would be a dereliction of duty.
However, my answer is a qualified “Yes.” Different church traditions and cultures give the responsibility and authority to make changes to different bodies within the church. Some traditions give authority to the pastor to act unilaterally. Others significantly curtail pastoral authority, letting changes be made by the congregation or the elders. This is not to argue the merits or demerits of different forms of church government. It’s just to note that a pastor will need to lead change differently in different traditions and even in different churches within the same tradition.
Furthermore, the areas for which a pastor has responsibility will differ from church to church. Many of the things people want to change are ministry structures or buildings or church services. Not all churches present the pastor with the same list of “rights or wrongs” for involving himself in these areas.
Yet all these qualifications should not restrict the pastor from introducing important changes from day one. The really important ones are those which call people to repent and which challenge them to grow in Christ.
WHAT KINDS OF CHANGES—IT DEPENDS
If the first issue is whether or not a pastor can make changes, the second issue is “What kinds of changes can he expect to make?” The answer depends upon what the church is like when you arrive.
New & Growing
When entering a young, quickly growing church, the main changes it needs will be the addition of resources. There is no need to wait twelve months to garner more resources for the growing congregation.
Changing the direction of such a church, however, is more dangerous in your first year. The church may need it, but you as a new pastor are unlikely to understand why and how this church is making progress. Your changes will likely kill the growth dynamic unintentionally. Remember that church has already changed its pastors—that’s you—which is enough of a jolt to the system without introducing a whole new culture as well.
Old & Declining
When entering an old and declining church needing reinvention, it’s typically important to make changes in the first year. Otherwise, the forces of congregational death which led to its decline may overpower you too. In general, the more a church is in decline the more fiercely its mainstream membership will resist change—which of course is why it’s in decline. Not until bankruptcy will such people countenance the possibility of change.
Indicate your intentions to make changes when you interview for such a position, and then start with the new broom immediately—knowing that you will make mistakes as you go. This kind of mindset is too difficult for most pastors. They plan to make reforms when what is needed is a wholesale reinvention. So they wind up being domesticated and defeated by the dead weight of traditions.
Yet most churches are neither in growth nor decline; they are static. They need reformation, but it requires the wisdom of Solomon to know which changes are needed. If you do not make changes in that first year, you too will be in need of reform because you will have joined the status quo. However, it takes more than a year to work out what the obstacles to growth are (spiritual and/or numerical) and how to reform them. So, in the very least, change the thing that everybody wants changed in order to demonstrate your leadership and gain credibility for less popular changes later. But even a popular change may be a mistake!
CHANGE BEGINS AT HOME
The maxim at the beginning of this article addresses a common mistake in thinking: that the pastor can gain everybody's confidence by changing nothing, which affords him permission later to change anything. Of course, twelve months is an arbitrary figure. It’s a “suburban” number. In rural areas the period is longer; in city areas, shorter.
Leadership from the pulpit needs to be exemplified in action. Pastors need to lead the changes. Yet the first place to see change in any church is the pastor taking God’s Word seriously in his own life.