What are the keys to a start to a new ministry? What should a new pastor focus on in his first year at an established church? There are varying perspectives and ideas on what the first year of ministry in a new place should like. I’d like to share the key aspects of my first year as a Sr. Pastor in an established church, New Union Baptist Church in Dayton, TN.
Almost every aspect of my first year was a transition. After 15 years in student ministry, God shifted my heart in a new direction of leadership. In August of 2012 the Lord opened a door and I was called to be the Pastor of New Union Baptist Church in Dayton, TN. New Union was started in 1890. New Union has a history of long-tenured pastors. I am the third pastor in almost 50 years. My predecessor was the pastor here for 34 years and has remained on staff in a part-time role as our Pastor Emeritus.
1. Pray, Pray, and Pray Some More!
I realized quickly how much I needed God’s help in transitioning to something different. The newness of my role and responsibilities gave me an extra helping of humility, and still does and God continues to work in our church. Pastoring is a daunting task that keeps me on my knees daily. My first advice is to pray consistently. Many mornings my day starts with my forehead on my desk asking God for help and vision in leading His church.
2. Be in the Word as you Preach the Word
Preaching and Teaching 3 or more times a week is draining. For many pastors, this is normal. I have been able to shift a few expectations of the church to maximize my time, energy, and preparation. At first there was a Sunday Morning service, Sunday Night service, and a Wednesday service. We moved to two services on Sunday morning, and then there were four times a week to teach. Don’t approach the Word as only something to teach the congregation. Instead, study and know the Word for both you and the congregation. There is danger in seeing yourself as separate from your work in the Word for the church. Spend time reading, meditating, journaling, and praying through scripture as you prepare. I find that I benefit from using the sermon text as a portion of my personal growth and reading each week.
Preach the word. Make the primary aim of your week to be ready to proclaim the word of God to the people of God for the glory of God!
3. Listen & Learn
Listen to what is important in the life of the church. Ask open-ended questions to find out about how God has been leading in the life of the church. Find out why the church does what they do. Discover what makes the church work. Find out what has been discouraging for them in the past. Learn from those who have been leading in the church. If they were leading before you got there, they are still leading now that you have come. They can teach you a lot about contextualized leadership in the church you now pastor.
4. Communicate Respect & Appreciation
Find parts of the church’s history & present that you can celebrate. Openly praise both leaders and successes in the church that you don’t have anything do with. Appreciate the church for who they are, not what they can become. There will be many times in the future when you will lead and encourage the church to do something different. Take time to respect those who have come before you. Communicate gratitude in as many ways as possible for their investment and leadership prior to your arrival.
5. Be Yourself
I followed an excellent pastor who shepherded his flock faithfully for 34 years. Not a day goes by without a comparison between he and I. I don’t know that the comparisons will ever stop, and knowing him I don’t blame people for their admiration and appreciation of how he led our church. He made an incredible difference in their lives and had earned their love and respect, but God has wired and gifted me differently. The church requires a different approach to ministry now then it did then. Know that it can be hard at times to be yourself, and remember that God has brought you there!. To be all in, you have to be yourself; it is impossible to be all in as a pastor and not be yourself.
There is wisdom to waiting to make changes. But, be honest with the church and its leaders. If something needs to change so that the congregation can grow in their faith and glorify God in their lives; then begin taking steps in that direction. Make sure that the change is necessary. To be sure of something will often take longer than you want, but will quicker than others in the congregation desire. As you listen and learn, you will see many aspects of church life that could be done differently. The changes that you lead a church to make should be essential or necessary changes for the accomplishment of God’s mission for His people. Don’t make the church “just like you want it.” Lead the church to follow Christ utilizing their unique gifts and abilities.
Jesus enjoyed His disciples, enjoy His church! Enjoy the relationships God gives you! Don’t live separate from the people, build friendships… enjoy the successes of God’s work in their lives. There is a temptation to live as a pastor focusing on all the things to “get right.” Where there is fruit, enjoy it! Continually thank God for the evidence of His work in your life and the congregation.
8. Make Disciples
Invest your life in others for the sake of Christ. Follow the pattern and ministry of Jesus. Find welcome soil in the hearts of others and lead them to grow in their faith. As Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:1-2 “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, 2 and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Preaching and teaching are necessary for us as pastors. But a pastor who preaches and doesn’t invest himself in a few each year is missing out on the model that Jesus and His disciples used to change the world. Set the pace, and then run the long race of faithful and fruitful ministry!