It was my first day. I fumbled with the keys. My office was surrounded boxes of unpacked books and journals. There was a computer to which I didn’t know the password. It was a blank slate; a fresh start. I also knew that it was Monday- and Sunday was coming. (It’s always coming.)
There was a feeling of dread that came over me. It was my first day as a Lead Pastor. Any staff that the church had was all part-time, and most of them recently had left before I was hired for more hours at another church. I was alone in the building- minus the day care. There were lots of kids- which didn’t bother me- but I knew that they would not be giving me any direction.
It is possible you come from a tradition where denominational leaders will come in and help with the transition. I am not in that tradition. What do you do? If you were like me, you had dreams of growth, making the church healthy, preaching great sermons, and leading people to Jesus. It all sounds great- but how do I start?
A year out now, I go every day with a plan. I am not into GTD- I just know kind of what my week already looks like- appointments, sermon prep, meetings, events. I know the routine.
But that first day- there is no routine; there are no plans; there are no appointments or events. Staring at my desk, not knowing what to do next or even if that thing is important and worth my time caused me to feel dread. I take a breath and then remember I’m not stuck. Here are three things that I do every time I have started at a new church, whether as an intern, some kind of associate pastor, or as a Senior Pastor. It is absolutely not an exhaustive list- it is a list designed to get you going!
1. Start with Something Easy
I hate cliches but there is some truth in them: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” God may have laid a vision on your heart for the ways He wants you to move, change, and grow in your new church. But where do you start? I suggest start with something easy.
I’m talking really easy. I finally found that missing password to my computer, so the first thing I did when I started was unpack my books and install all the necessary computer applications I use daily (Logos, Chrome, Evernote). You may scoff- but I knew that I would need a few of those commentary volumes in sermon prep. I knew I couldn’t type the sermon or research the way I want to without those apps.
Yes, I could use others ones like Word or something, but that isn’t the point. The point is that when everything so overwhelming and I didn’t know where to go, I started with something small to make me feel like I accomplished something. Odds are, day one, you may have a lot of visitors too, trying to meet the new pastor. Installing apps and shelving books were easy to put down. Sermon prep, for me, is not something easy to put down.
It also made me feel comfortable- like this was now my office, a huge step in feeling more secure at your new church. It helped get the ball rolling- which let me begin to tackle other things and feel more confident. If I can install Evernote, I can take on the world!
2. Invest in the Staff/Leaders
Honestly, this isn’t a day one, week one, or maybe even month one kind of step. It is a step you should definitely have figured out by the end of the first year though. It doesn’t matter how big your city or church is- people are going to want your time and attention when you are new.
My advice is start with your staff: other pastors, secretary, custodian, a daycare director (at least in my context). If your church is small and you are the only staff member, I bet that you have people that lead some of these areas. Someone helps with the bulletin; someone helps vacuum or clean; or you have an elder or leadership board. If you are a youth or children’s pastor, you probably have a volunteer team or core- aside from your senior pastor and other pastors on staff, I’d start here with those volunteers. Invest in staff and leaders!
Invest is a loaded word these days that can mean a lot of things. I’d start by checking in with them as often as you see them. Tell me about your kids, your hobbies- just generally talk to them and go out of your way to do it. Go out to lunch. After you’ve unpacked, invite them over for dinner either as individuals, families, or in groups. You could also do something fun together! We like to play board games with a few of our staff members.
As time goes on, you are going to want these leaders to help you build and grow that vision God planted in you. You want them to be on your team- not a person forced to work with you because of proximity. Let them in on the vision, challenge them to grow with you, and lead them. Eventually, you will have the ability and sway to say- let’s do a Bible study; let’s do a book study; let’s go to a conference.
3. Meet with Community Leaders
I got some great advice when I started that I will pass along to you: meet with your community leaders. Meet the police chief; the sheriff; the school principal; fire chief; key businesses; other churches near you. Can you identify those important structures and leaders in the areas you serve? Especially in small towns or rural settings- I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
It helped me is that I began to see the small town I live in with eyes of people who have lived there for years. Many of our church members live outside of town, but where we were growing was those from in town. To be honest, in many circles there is a bit of negative stigma for those that live in our town. When I met the leaders, you could see the hope and love of a small town that trying to clean up and grow.
The other thing that it did for me was see areas of need. There was already a food pantry- so we don’t need to start our own.
There was already a church giving out cheap/free clothes, so there is no need for us to do that. There was a great need for more activities for kids. Our building, our staff, our daycare- we didn’t realize it but we are in a great position to meet that need whereas some of our other churches in town who are older, aren’t equipped for that right now. We are just now beginning to see the blessings of the gifts God has given us.
4. Listen to everyone
The last thing I’d recommend is that anytime someone tells a story: drop what you are doing and listen. You are going to learn a lot about the church, its history, the history of its people, successes and failures of the last person who had your position. Some of these stories are boring and pointless, but you can learn so much about your people in that first year.
In my current context, they had been without a pastor for almost a year as they searched and cadidated for a new one. I never asked: what are the major problems of the church, but through conversations with staff, with my board, and with members I found one root of a lot of problems: communication. At some point, either under the last pastor or between pastors, communication fell off, conflict grew, and there were some hurt feelings.
Our communication issue wasn’t something that I figured out day one- I followed the steps above- starting small, starting with my staff. Communication is much better today in all areas: we have staff meetings (never had before); our daycare works with the church, instead of against it; we are now emailing and texting information to our members during the week; we increased social media presence.
Changing our communication strategy took time. It was 11 months and 3 weeks into my first year before we implemented it. So far, we have had good feedback and people are enjoying knowing what’s going on or coming up, especially if someone misses a Sunday.
Where we are as a church today is that all those big vision ideas I had, we are gearing up to start tackling because my staff is working together- we’re a team- and we are listening, and we tackled small things that led to a communication shift. Our town now sees our church more positively; we want to be a part of the community- not just a building in it. All these small steps led to the big thing I wanted to do at the beginning, but didn’t know how to start.