A few months ago one of my former students called me to talk about the church that had just called him to be their Pastor. This young man had just graduated from Bible college and had served as the part-time youth Pastor of a church near the campus of the school he attended for the past two years. The church that called him was a rural community church of about 50 people. As I talked to my young friend he began to share with me his “vision” for the church and all the things that he was planning to do during his first year as their new Pastor. As he spoke two opposite thoughts kept bouncing around in my mind. On one hand, I was excited for this young Pastor and encouraged by his excitement. I could not believe how naive he was. Like all of us, this young man was starting his first Pastorate without a clue of what he was about to get into. That day, I shared with him a few pieces of advice and for the last several months have expanded and refined them. Here are a few tips that I have for your first year in a new ministry position.
1.) Remember that God was working here before you arrived so look for what He has been doing
I actually got this piece of advice from Dr. Henry Blackaby and over the years I have found that this is one of the most important things to keep in mind when starting a new place. God has been at work in the church that you’ve been called to Pastor long before you arrived. If you will take the time to discover what He has been doing in the past and is still doing in the present you will save yourself a lot of time and trouble.
2.) Get to know the people before you make any changes
In my first church I made this mistake and over the years I’ve seen it repeated several times— a Pastor will come into a new situation with guns a blazing and want to make as many changes during the first year as possible. One young Pastor told me that his philosophy was “strike while the iron is still hot.” While I understand his point, I would say that this almost never works, and it didn’t work in his care either. The truth of the matter is that we often forget that ministry is about people not programs, strategies, and projects. Getting to know the people first is the key in developing a proper vision for the church and it is what will allow you to gain the credibility needed to carry out the vision later on. Remember this— people don’t follow you because they called you to be their Pastor, they follow you because they’ ve gotten to know you and have seen that you are a man of God.
3.) Remember that the people you think are on your side initially may turn out to be your biggest problems later on.
When you first come into a church there will be people who immediately want to become your buddies. Some of these folks are legitimate, sincere, and devoted followers of Christ. But some will turn out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. BE CAREFUL! There are people in the church who have an ulterior motive and they will try to influence you for their cause by becoming your friend, only to later sabotage your ministry. That sounds cynical but I promise you that it is true. Be careful and use discernment.
4.) Focus on Fundamentals
Good coaches know that championships are won by mastering the fundamentals of the game. Good pastors know the same and wise Pastors learn to focus on the fundamentals early in their tenure. Take the first year of your ministry in a church to focus on the basic fundamentals of the faith and ministry. These are the backbones of strong churches and long tenured Pastors make sure they are taught early and often.
5.) Don’t Mistake Activity for Achievement
This is actually a statement I’ve stolen from John Wooden but it absolutely true. So many times, a new Pastor will come into the church and nearly run the people ragged for the first year with one program and one event after another. This is the kind of Pastor that during the first year will set a pace for his own ministry that is unsustainable for any length of time. This almost always is the result of thinking that being busy is the same as achieving something. Successful people don’t just work hard, they work hard at the right things. Faithful Pastors also learn this key principle.
6.) Focus on God Not Your Critics
Dear Pastor, you are going to face critics in your ministry. Sometime during that first year in a new church you are going to get cross with someone or do something that someone doesn’t like. Inevitably someone is going to start criticizing your preaching, your hair cut, your kids, you wife, your dog’s hairstyle, the car you drive, the shingles on your house, the way you talk, the way you walk. Are you getting the point? The key in these situations is not to get focused on the critic but to focus on God. If you focus on your critics you will start to try to please them and you will end up shipwrecking your ministry. Instead, your focus must be on God. Focus on being faithful not popular.