Last year I was honored to sit on a panel of more seasoned pastors and spiritual leaders in a Q and A session with college students preparing for church ministry. One of the questions the students asked involved strategies for the first year in a new church role. Essentially, they wanted to know how to navigate that first critical year.
As you might imagine the answers were as diverse as the six people sitting on the stage. They reflected the experience and situational specifics that make ministry so interesting. Still, the questions were what you might expect from eager learners trying to prepare for congregational service. Being the oldest guy in the group gave me the advantage of years. As a result of those questions I've developed a leadership presentation on the potholes of spiritual leadership with a side-bar on that critical first year of ministry in a church. My advice in the first year of ministry in a new leadership role involves avoiding five specific leadership potholes:
1. The moment of opportunity.
Ministers have always referenced a honeymoon period in their new place of
service. If that comparison still applies then the first year may be the wedding
night of ministry, a time when grace and opportunity abound. Most seasoned
leaders advise deliberate care during this time. Some counsel to avoid making
significant change in the first year. However, to establish a pattern of static
leadership in the initial year of ministry may miss the significant moments of
opportunity occasioned by the fresh influence of a new leader. Be strategic
instead, making necessary changes that announce your leadership.
2. The trap of assumptions.
It is a time of unknowns. You are new and so are they. In even the most
thorough search situations and screening processes there are still many
unanswered questions. The new leader and the congregation will have to
establish new norms of expectation, communication, decision making, and
administrative process. Everyone must avoid the tendency to believe that
everything will function as it has before. Don't assume too much as the
adjustments are made.
3. The allure of promises.
New leaders typically want to make a good first impression. Most of us have
some degree of approval addiction and will often make promises that cannot
be kept. I can't tell you how many new pastors have told their churches they
would visit every church member or be present for every surgery or some
other promise to gain the confidence of their congregation. Be careful with
the promises. Unfulfilled ones will lower confidence more than a promise
could ever raise it.
4. The focus of mission.
Everyone wants to be heard. This is especially true when there is a new leader
on the scene. Often the new leader is so distracted by the many voices that
mission focus is obscured by the distractions. They have called the new leader
to pursue the mission of the church. Therefore, mission focus must be
maintained even as the congregational dynamics are adjusted to the leaders
style, organizational approach, and ministry design.
5. The personal touch.
More than anything, most congregations want a pastor. So, the new leader
must be first and foremost pastoral, compassionate and caring, openly
expressive of the joy of serving, thankful for the privilege of being their
spiritual leader. The new pastor or church staff member can close a lot of
question gaps by being approachable and likeable. So, I always advise new
leaders to be confessional and open.
It's true, every church situation is different. Many spiritual leaders are called to stable, basically healthy congregations who understand the dynamics of adjusting to a new pastor or church staff member. Just as many are stressful transitions requiring sensitivity, wisdom, and deliberate care. Very often the pattern of our leadership is established in those first critical months. Therefore, we must avoid the potholes that can inhibit our influence and limit the fulfillment of mission.
Paul's words to the Philippians always resonate with me. He wrote---
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for
you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from
the first day until now.
Philippians 1: 3-5, ESV
His affection and partnership with them is a goal. I'm praying that new leaders can avoid the potholes so that this partnership can define their service as well.