What a New Pastor Doesn’t Know
If I’d heard the advice only once, I might have forgotten it. By the fourth hearing, though, I got it.
I was about to become pastor of a historic church that had fallen on hard times. I figured I should plot a course of change for working through as quickly as possible. But when I consulted with four pastors from quite different traditions, each independently told me the same thing:
“Don’t change anything for five years.”
If you’re getting ready to enter a pastorate, you might have your list of changes ready. Good changes, no doubt. Changes that would contribute to the health and mission of this beloved church of Christ.
YOU MIGHT NOT REALIZE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
Can I encourage you to tuck that list away for a while? You might not realize what you do not know.
1. You don’t know who’s there.
Maybe you visited the church a half-dozen times, and have some impressions of where the members are spiritually. But you don’t know them. So take time to know the members. This was my first-year goal.
Try to arrive early and stay late for worship. Enjoy meals with different people. Have people in your home. Do what you can to learn this body of Christ.
2. You don’t know what’s there.
The website and bylaws do not tell the whole story. How do meetings function? Who makes decisions? Which ministries are important to which people? Where are the evidences of God’s grace? You’ve got to take time to learn the church.
Spend time with leaders, both elected and assumed. Attend meetings eager to listen and learn, then discuss the meetings with congregants you trust. Ask them to identify weaknesses in your present system; you might be surprised by their responses.
3. You don’t know where they’ve been.
It’s easy to write off what happened before us because, well, we weren’t there. That is foolish. We must take time to respect the past. This will be harder if the church has strayed from the faith. But at one time it probably was orthodox. So dig into your church’s history. Quote former pastors. Listen eagerly to longtime members recounting their history with the church. When you are away, invite previous pulpit suppliers to preach, at least once. Strive for as much continuity as possible, even if you’re facing a major rebuild.
4. You don’t know where you are.
I genuinely believed my original plan of action came straight from the Bible, but in fact it was a faithful application of Scripture for one church in one place at one time. But that place and time is not my church’s place and time, but another’s. So take time to understand context, not only the culture inside the church (as discussed above) but also the community where the church exists.
To this end it is useful to read locally. Find out what periodicals people read. Go to your bookstore and pick up works by local authors. This is a great way to learn your community’s values, fears, and idols.
5. You don’t know what you’re changing.
Just because you aim to keep everything the same doesn’t mean you are. Your pastoral presence has more effect than you realize, and not just with your sermons. In the hospital, at the graveside, in counseling, with the hurting—everywhere your work has profound consequences, changing more than you realize. So take time to answer questions and listen.
Your ministry philosophy may be new to this flock. Give people space to ask you what you do and why. You may think nothing is happening, but God might just be changing the culture of the church right before your eyes.
6. You don’t know where you’re going.
Your general direction may be clear (e.g., meaningful membership), but the specific application is not (e.g., the wording of a church covenant). Rather than mimic what another church does, take time to study the Scriptures together.
Preach on biblical texts that inform particular decisions. Ask them to identify such passages, too. Then talk about the Scriptures together. If you impose your will by pastoral fiat, the change is only as strong as your personality—in other words, not very. But if the congregation amends itself based on an increased understanding of the Word, the change will outlast you.
7. You don’t know what your idols are.
We pastors are quick to attach our identity to the apparent success or failure of ministry. Our idolatry is manifest when we don’t take a day off, can’t find time to exercise, or treat our congregants as more important than our children. Pastoral ministry is deeply sanctifying, so take time to repent.
Name the idols of your heart: pleasure, affirmation, power, glory. Read devotionally and listen to preaching that makes you a better Christian, not just a better communicator. Find pastors who expose your idols and direct you to Christ. You lead best when you humble yourself before the Lord, acknowledge the sins of your heart, and find hope in the gospel of Christ.
8. You don’t know what God will do.
Some days may seem bleak. You look around and don’t see enough people, resources, or energy to accomplish what you think has to happen. But take heart: the church isn’t yours, and the Head hasn’t abdicated. Mounting challenges and shrinking resources are divine indicators that you need to take time to pray. Who knows what God will do for this flock?
Our church still faces a litany of issues, any one of which could sink our congregation’s efforts at renewal. We have a ways to go, and I haven’t been entirely successful in holding off changes for five years. But that golden advice has slowed me down long enough to show me what I don’t know, and to enjoy what the Spirit is doing in this body of Christ for the glory of God.
And that’s been worth the wait.