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The new pastor’s first year: Part 1

What should a teaching elder and the session try to accomplish in the first year of ministry? If people think that the pastor will fulfill their expectations, continue great traditions, make creative changes, preach inspiring sermons, fill the pews, participate in community events and rejuvenate the church school and youth groups … what should he or she do in the first twelve months?

Make no major changes. 

One rule of thumb that is often advised is to avoid all radical changes. It takes time to get to know the history and members of any congregation and pastors often make the mistake of adopting a top-down administrative model of running the church without really understanding the personality of their new charge. Perhaps this style works in a corporation or small business when change is necessary for survival. But in a church that is totally dependent on volunteers, such an approach is often resented and resisted. In a few words: add new programs but make few alterations to old ones.

When I started in a new church many years ago the members had just celebrated a bicentennial and a big banner had been placed over the entrance way. During my first week the banner came crashing down of its own weight and had to be removed. One of the church members rushed into the church office the next day and demanded to know why I ripped down their banner! It took a few minutes to convince her that I did not operate that way.

There are exceptions, of course. Normally, it is not a good idea for pastors and sessions to attempt major capital campaigns in the first few years. In one church I served, however, the building had been neglected and repairs and renovations were desperately needed. Ignoring the normal procedure, we decided to promote a capital campaign for over $200,000 at the beginning of my second year. The needs were obvious, the congregation was expecting it and the session was ready to implement it. It was fortunate that we did since a few years later a major recession that hit the whole country would certainly have prevented it.

Get to know the members. 

As Joan Gray points out in her insightful book “Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, A Handbook,” it definitely takes time to establish positive communication and trust between teaching elders and members. As she suggests, authority flows from the character and actions of the pastor and the church leaders. The people want to know that the new pastor has a serious commitment to the congregation and is not in it for the short term. They look for good intentions in their leaders. “A congregation will not trust someone whom they believe is trying to undermine the good of the church,” writes Gray.

One way to establish trust and healthy relationships is to have small dinners or coffee hours in homes in each neighborhood (or in the church fellowship hall or a nearby restaurant) to create space for plenty of time to talk and get acquainted. If it is clear that the pastor likes (loves) the members and is glad to be with them, they will respond in kind. Discussion could be limited to two non-threatening questions: “What are you most proud of in your church?” and “What would you do to make it better?” Answers can be reported back to the session and congregation and become building blocks to develop major goals for the next few years.

In subsequent articles we will examine other intentional steps that leaders may take in their first year together as they work to build a ministry that has a productive potential for many years.

earl-johnson-jrEARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, New York, and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.