As a mentor to younger pastors, I’ve had the privilege of watching many of them accept their first pastorate. Some have spent a significant amount of time on the front end acquiring as much information and advice as possible to be successful in their first year. Others have jumped directly into the “deep end of the pool” and spent the first year of ministry struggling to adjust to the new context.
A young pastoral candidate recently asked me, “With all of the expectations that the church has of me as a new pastor, what should my first-year look like?” To this young pastor-in-training, I offer nearly two decades of reflection on how to begin effectively your calling as a pastor. This article, however, is not limited to first-time pastors. After experiencing a difficult pastorate, a seasoned pastor asked me to help him think through a healthy transition in order to avoid some of the same pitfalls and problems that he had previously faced. In response to both the new and seasoned pastors who want to serve the Lord Jesus Christ faithfully and effectively lead the church, I offer the following as building blocks of a successful transition into ministry (or into a new ministry).
Phase One – Building Meaningful & Lasting Relationships Within the Church
The first year of ministry should be focused primarily on relationship building. It is vitally important that a new pastor have the opportunity to spend time with individuals, families, and groups. As a young pastor, I too made the mistake of reaching outward before building significant trust among the congregation. This decision was naive and demonstrated a great deal of immaturity. Although churches will place relatively unrealistic expectations on a new pastor, a wise pastor will make building meaningful and significant relationships within the church a priority.
It is foolish to think that a pastor can lead a church to reach the community when the church has not had the opportunity to get to know him. It takes time for a new pastor to earn the trust and confidence of people. Moreover, it takes time to demonstrate that you genuinely love the people that God has placed under your care. Therefore, spend the majority of your time getting to know the flock!
How does a pastor put this advice into practice?
(1) The pastor and his wife should schedule lunch and/or dinner with different families every week during the first year. Although this practice will continue (in varying degrees) throughout a pastor’s tenure, it is vitally important that he get to know as many people as possible during the early months of his new ministry. Make a commitment to visit or have a meal with every family in the church within the first year!
(2) A new pastor should make discipling the men in the church a priority. By filling your lunch schedule with opportunities to connect with these men, you will have endless opportunities to listen and learn! These meetings should not be limited to those who can leave their job sites for lunch. A pastor should be open and prepared to meet with these men in their break rooms. Likewise, the pastor’s wife should be prepared to pour her life into the women of the church.
(3) A new pastor should host monthly Saturday morning breakfasts and invite specific groups such as senior adults, young families, Sunday school teachers, etc. These informal gatherings will provide a new pastor with opportunities to hear ideas, listen to suggestions, and foster a spirit of cooperation in ministry.
(4) During the first year, a new pastor should forgo teaching a Sunday school class or leading a community group. The rationale for this decision is simple: a new pastor should be able to attend different classes, groups, etc. in order to spend time with everyone in the church.
Any (if not all) of these approaches will (in varying degrees) extend beyond the first year. In fact, relationship building will be an ongoing part of any healthy pastoral ministry.
Phase Two – Making Community Connections
The second phase of a successful pastoral transition will overlap, in part, with the first phase. Making community connections in the early months of your transition will be part of the natural ebb and flow of life. That is, as the new pastor is shopping, dining out, and attending local events, he will be making natural connections with members of the community. Thus, outreach really begins on day one. However, this type of outreach is more organic and is really a large part of the call to lead by example. The congregation should see that the new pastor is strategically and intentionally connecting with unbelievers in the community.
In addition to the above, a new pastor should rely heavily upon the members to introduce him to their families, neighbors, coworkers, etc. For example, when the new pastor visits members at their places of business, he should plan to make connections with their coworkers. Plus, the new pastor should plan on visiting the local schools to connect with the teachers and staff. These opportunities are truly endless and must be a part of a pastor’s everyday ministry.
Phase Three – Intentional Leadership Development
Churches that are looking for a pastor who can do it all are setting themselves up for disappointment. Pastors have been called to equip and train Christians to do the work of ministry (cf. Ephesians 4). Although I believe that discipleship classes are valuable, I am convinced that the most effective way to disciple is through organic relationships. In short, the time a new pastor spends with members will not only build relationships but will also provide opportunities to equip and encourage them. The majority of discipleship is done informally over a cup of coffee, during a meal, visiting local businesses, coaching a soccer team, etc. In other words, every aspect of a pastor’s life provides an opportunity to disciple believers.
Every interaction is an opportunity to disciple and equip others.
It is equally important for a new pastor to train and develop church leaders. The church is likely filled with competent believers who are ready to make disciples and engage the community with the gospel. For those leaders, the new pastor’s role is to lead by example, encourage them to continue to grow, and challenge them to go deeper in their walk with the Lord. Yet, there are endless opportunities in a church to develop additional leaders. A call to pastoral ministry is a call to invest one’s life and ministry in developing leaders to serve the Lord in the local church and on the mission field. Several of my former mentees (i.e., people I’ve mentored) are now pastors, church staff, professors, church planters, and missionaries.
Finally, a pastor must use his teaching ministry (mid-week lessons, Sunday sermons, blog, social media, etc.) to provide training in how to study the bible (i.e., hermeneutics), how to defend the faith (i.e., Christian apologetics), how to share the gospel (i.e., theology and evangelism), and how to live out the gospel (i.e., Christian living), etc. However, this approach should not be limited to church gatherings. A video ministry provides a church with an opportunity to equip believers beyond the regular gatherings.
Phase Four – Strategic Community Engagement
Every church wants to grow! However, many churches have not adopted a biblical approach to growth. Instead of developing leadership and equipping members, churches (sometimes) focus their attention on drawing crowds. A new pastor must resist the temptation to adopt this approach to church growth. The biblical vision for the church mandates that believers be trained to engage the community with the gospel. Without buildings and budgets, the early church was able to turn the world upside down with the gospel. How did they do it? They were trained to take the gospel into the marketplaces and communities.
We have not been called to gather a crowd but to build a church!
Here are some additional elements that should be part of a comprehensive strategy for a new pastor:
1st Lead the church to demonstrate a complete and absolute reliance upon God’s power to save and send revival. A pastor must model this attitude and commitment in every aspect of his life.
2nd Train Christians to engage their co-workers, fellow students, neighbors, friends, and family with the gospel. Don’t outsource missions and evangelism, it is a joint venture that the entire church should embrace.
3rd Develop strategic partnerships with local schools, athletic clubs, etc. to engage students and families.
4th Apply a holistic approach to evangelism by discovering the needs of the people in the community, meet those needs, and use those engagements as opportunities to share the gospel.
5th Make significant connections at local colleges and universities to engage the students.
6th Partner with local foster care and adoption ministries to connect families with resources and to encourage adoption.
7th Host quarterly luncheons for local business owners, civic leaders, etc. and provide biblically-based leadership materials, speakers, etc.
A new pastor will discover additional ways to lead the church to strategically engage the community. However, this list clearly illustrates a missional approach that is contextualized, holistic, and gospel-centered. Furthermore, the ministries that the church is currently participating in should receive the pastor’s support and participation. It is extremely likely that the church is already well-positioned through its current ministries to further impact the community. In those cases, look for opportunities to go from “Good to Great.”
A PASTORAL TRANSITION TEAM
I’ve never heard of a church offering a new pastor an orientation and training program to ensure a successful transition and tenure. Without an intentional strategy on the part of the church, a new pastor will be left to navigate the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities alone. This is a recipe for disaster!
Hundreds, if not thousands, of pastors have failed because they weren’t prepared to make an effective transition into a pastorate. As a result, many pastors have completely left the ministry.
A pastor cannot successfully transition to a new church, new city, and new context without help. Therefore, the church should create a transitional team made up of a cross-section of membership (7 to 10 members). The new pastor would be best served if the team/committee that recruited and hired him constituted the nucleus of this transition team.
The responsibilities of the team would include, but not be limited to, providing the new pastor with logistical help relocating, facilitating meetings with groups in the church, providing feedback and suggestions during the transition, and giving contextual insights for effectively connecting with members of the church and community. I’d recommend such a team meet once a month with the new pastor for the first year of his transition. This team would not replace any existing team or the deacons. Instead, the pastoral transition team would be a complement to existing teams by providing the new pastor with needed information, suggestions, and ideas to unify the church behind a common vision of reaching the community.
Note: As a point of clarification, the above advice is only an overview of foundational aspects of a successful entry into ministry. It should be obvious that any strategic plan would be far more comprehensive than this article. Therefore, I suggest that pastors who are preparing to enter the ministry or those entering a new ministry spend a substantial amount of time reading, researching, planning, and praying. Frankly, no man should enter the ministry without an intentional and strategic plan.
Additional Articles on Pastoral Ministry by Dr. T.J. Francis:
“Advanced Strategic Planning: A New Model for Church and Ministry Leaders,” by Aubrey Malphrus.
“From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church,” by Harry L. Reeder III.
“The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations,” by Kouzes & Posner.
“Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life,” by Donald Whitney.