There are few challenges greater than commencing a new ministry with a new congregation. Such a step is the culmination of much prayer, thought, conversation and heartburn (probably as much for the church as yourself on all counts). It is helpful to keep some important issues in mind as you take up this new assignment given to you by the Lord of the Harvest through His people.
Nine Things to Remember
- Your call to ministry is not the same as being successful in obtaining a job.
It is not a matter of being the most impressive interviewee, or of having sold yourself better than other applicants. It is the consequence of the work of the Holy Spirit. There is an element of mystery, of awe in the way the Lord calls ordinary people (with their strengths and limitations) to special areas of ministry.
The pastoral ministry is a precious gift, a very great privilege to be received carefully, with deep gratitude and always in an attitude of thankful prayer.
- You bring yourself as an offering in His service.
The Lord has called you because He has equipped you in a unique way to lead your congregation at this time in its journey of worship, praise and service in His world. You bring to the church your experience of the Lordship of Christ, your gifts for service and your openness to the grace of the Father and the empowering of the Spirit.
What is offered in ministry to your people is the presence of Christ through you and all that you do and say. Your become the model of Christ at work in an individual. It is an enormous responsibility. It is also an invitation to be an authentic person of faith.
- You inherit the history of the church.
Just in case you have not realised it (unless you are a church planter), you automatically inherit the history of the congregation. This means that you will discover all the many fine traits of the congregation but you also inherit the dark side of the church as well.
The positive aspects of the church will be many: devotion to the Lord, faithful service over many years, deep faith, genuine care. But there is a guaranteed darkness: unresolved tensions between members, unspoken pain that may go back years, feuds which still hurt, loneliness and quiet failure.
Behind the faces which you see every Sunday there will be hearts aching for a word from the Lord through you. It will take a little while to find all the strengths and rough edges. Be careful that you don’t jump to early conclusions about anybody, especially those who may seem to be “difficult.”
Finding Your Way Forward….
(Some simple do’s and don’ts)
- Listen before leaping.
You can be sure that your new church will be very different from whatever ministry you may have exercised previously. Each congregation has its own personality, its own way of doing things, its own understanding of ministry, its own expectations of leadership.
Listen carefully and at length to what is important to this group of the Lord’s people. There is a new culture there which you need to discover and appreciate. To act in ignorance of this culture is to invite unnecessary pain for you and the church.
- Find out who’s who.
Through listening and observation you will discover the who’s who of the church. Who are the pray-ers, the carers, the encouragers, the humble helpers, the decision makers, the gate keepers, the hurdles, the talkers? They are all there. Don’t think that the decision makers are always on the diaconate.
Every church has a certain small number of pillars who have helped and hindered the church, often for long periods of time, through the coming and going of any number of ministers.
Time is well spent sorting out who’s who, building relationships patiently and laying the foundations for new ways of being the church. There are no short cuts. To rush ahead is to misunderstand the complex chemistry of the congregation. You will pay dearly for this. Drink deeply at the well of patience.
- Introduce change slowly.
Every pastor can usually see possibilities for change and development in the church, often before being inducted! But to imagine that change will be warmly welcomed and gladly implemented is a sign of misplaced innocence.
It is also risky to think that the opportunities for changes which are seen first are the right places to start anyway. Most people want to belong to an effectively ministering church and recognise the need for change but that does not mean that fresh initiatives will be received quickly and acted upon easily.
As a general rule of thumb it will take the first year to begin to understand the network of relationships and win the confidence of the congregation as a whole. While you are getting to know them, they are getting to know you.
There has to be a basis for mutual trust between pastor and people as a foundation for future growth and development. Without this trust it will be difficult to embrace creative change of any kind. Most pastors would consider that three years is the minimum time required for the laying of groundwork for substantial change.
Also keep in mind that, in all processes of change, it is the Holy Spirit Who offers the guidance, prepares the way and enables the Lord’s people to face the big issues and work them through.
There are many distractions….
- Beware the pressure to perform.
It is very common for a pastor to go to extreme lengths to demonstrate to the church that the issuing of the call was the right course of action.
The only problem is that this leads to a great deal of effort which may or may not be well directed. The pressure to perform in overt ways which can be observed and appreciated is understandable.
But there are real dangers. Effective Christian leadership is built on character and deep conviction, not personality and performance. There is no point attending to the outward appearances if the heart is undernourished and the needs of the spirit are being neglected.
It is what you are, not what you do which counts in the long run. There is always room for dedicated hard work and wise organisation but there is a greater need for the nurturing of the interior life of worship and prayer.
- Go easy on programs.
Ministry is much more than having a wide range of programs at your disposal. What has worked with effect elsewhere may not necessarily fit into your own situation. While there may be a place for specific strategies it is more important to wrestle first with what the needs of your people are (and the community in which you are situated) and how you and the congregation should respond.
There is a real challenge to your willingness to ponder where you are being led by the Lord. Do not approach your ministry amongst your people with fixed, prescriptive notions of what is best. The way ahead depends on prayer, consultation, the defining and refining of a vision of what your mission in your circumstances should be.
- Worship and prayer are the foundations of your life and service.
When all else has been said, your relationship with the Lord is the key to every dimension of your ministry. The pastor has to confront on a daily basis the realities of the inner strengths and the gifts given to us for service which exist alongside all our weaknesses and struggles.
The pastor moment-by-moment derives encouragement and inspiration from the assurance that “His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” Pastoral leadership is not the modelling of the perfect Christian life. It is rather the exercise of prayer and faith in a life which is offered as a living sacrifice, as an act of worship. It is the realisation that pastoral leadership is a gift and that it is to be received with humility and thankfulness.
Rev. John Simpson
This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.