What should a pastor do his first year at a new church?

As a result of some recent conversations, I have been burdened by the amount of pastors whose “honeymoons” are short-lived their first few months as the new pastor of a church.  This can be the result of that pastor entering a very unhealthy, dysfunctional situation where there was no way to avoid the difficulties right away.  However, I often observe it also comes from a new pastor’s arch-enemy his first year at a certain church…impatience.  Because of this, I want to exhort every pastor in his first year at his new church with some of the best counsel I have every received going into a new church situation.   Your tasks as a pastor in your first year can be summed up into 3 instructions:

Preach the Word.  This is our calling.  This is how a biblical church is built.  This is how the people of your church will grow in Christ most fruitfully.  This is how you want your ministry defined from the start.  Preach expositionally through books of the Bible and establish this foundation as what will be the steady diet of the church.  If we really believe that God is faithful to build His church upon the proclamation of His Word, then make that your primary and centralized focus, not new programs, leadership adjustments, or changes in music style.

Love the people.  I continue to be amazed at the amount of pastors who think just because a church has hired them, agreed to pay their salary, and has given them an important title, doesn’t mean you have immediately earned the right for them to look to you as “their shepherd.”  You earn that trust over time.  You establish that clout with the intense pastoral efforts you make in your first years with them.   Thus, if you are not found in your office studying to preach and teach God’s Word, then make sure you are found in the homes of your people, the local hospitals and nursing homes, the local coffee shops and restaurants, and funeral homes around town loving and caring for your people and earning the title of pastor and shepherd they have pre-maturely, but graciously given you.

Don’t Change Anything.  In case I wasn’t clear let me say again…DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING!!  Obviously, there are immediate needs and decisions that require change as staff come and go, leadership positions become vacant, and members move while others come into the church.  The point is many pastors come into a church and the first thing they do is work to “set the church up” the way they want it and do so without any regard to how that affects the people.  Remember, the most significant change has already taken place upon your arrival and that is what is preached from that pulpit.  If we really believe the Word builds the church, then focus on preaching and teaching the Word and loving your people.  There are plenty of “sacred cows” waiting for you to slaughter once you have laid a biblical foundation and shown these people you are there to love and shepherd them, not build your own kingdom…then bolt.

I am aware that life happens during this first year.  Some matters of sin and dysfunction must be addressed early on and each pastor must choose those battles wisely.  Yet, we become convinced on so many issues (music, service order, polity, membership roles, staff, etc.) that they must be dealt with now, or we are being unfaithful.  I would argue faithfulness comes when we dedicate our time to tirelessly preach God’s Word, love His people, and tolerate those things we wish were different until God puts us in a better, healthier, and more influential position to bring needed change.

Posted in Oversight of Souls, Preaching, Training for Ministry
13 comments on “What should a pastor do his first year at a new church?
  1. wes says:

    Very encouraging, and very thankful for your ministry.

  2. It is difficult to overstate how important patience is in the first year of a pastorate. While it is certain that a church’s new pastor will observe things that need to be “fixed,” trying to “fix” them before building relationships and earning trust unnecessarily creates more things that need “fixing.”

    Patience does not appear in Galatians 5:22 by accident. It is not optional for the shepherd of a church.

  3. taylordp1979 says:

    Great word! I’m currently in the process of writing what I’d do in this situation for a church. I believe I’ve included all three withing the first paragraph!!!

    Glad to see I’m not the only person thinking in this direction.

  4. J Harris says:

    Thank you! I’m currently part of a pastoral search committee and this was very helpful guidance. I sent the post to all the members of the committee as soon as I read it.

  5. Hayden says:

    I agree with you completely and have done much of what you just described in the church I Pastor.

    BUT… what would you say to a person that says “I am a dying man preaching to dying men” and the time is short? Or someone who says that it is the job of the Pastor to protect the sheep by taking on the ‘sacred cows’ and that will bring the goats to the top.

    (Trust me, I have heard this many times)

  6. Tom says:

    Hayden,

    From my experience, many 1st-year pastors make changes that are pretty meaningless in the long run, although they are meaningful (“sacred cows”) for certain people in the congregation. For example, I’ve seen changes to service times, stationary, church logos, music style, order of service, programs, etc. Even removing existing pastoral staff because pastors want to bring in their own people in the first year is problematic. These superficial types of changes get some people within the church fired up, and really hinder what the pastor should be doing, imho.

    If you get people upset with you during your first year as pastor, it better be over significant doctrinal issues. Meaning, you faithfully preach the Word and the “goats” don’t like it and raise a fuss. I’d rather forfeit my “honeymoon” period over important doctrinal issues than over changing the church’s logo or order of service.

  7. Adam Tisdale says:

    I’m about 16 months into my first senior pastorate and can really relate to the word “impatience”. When I moved here I wanted to move and for things to move quickly. This was partially because I had spent much of the five months between receiving the call and moving here thinking, praying, dreaming about the church. So, I was ready when I got here. What I found were people who were tired, discouraged, and uncertain. As good as it is to have energy and excitement, I realized a couple of months in I really needed ease off the gas. At times we were in neutral and even in reverse, but I risked either hurting myself or the sheep had I continued full bore.

    Two additional comments to add to the post:
    First, in preaching the Word, I decided I wanted to get to the Person & Work of Christ as quickly as I could. So, my first preaching series was going through the Book of Colossians. Paul doesn’t waste any time (especially in chapter one) in making Christ clear.
    Secondly, another thing I found effective my first year of ministry was to model the kind of ministry I want our church to be about. Instead of trying to create a new ministry, dictate terms, or just telling people what we want to do. For example, I desire our church to become more relational in ministry orientation. So, we opened our home a lot this first year to church members and neighbors to do relational ministry. Now I can be more explicit about where I am leading the church and our people can see/feel the fruit of this.

  8. Charlie says:

    Thank you for your instruction. It was timely for me, being in my first year. Thank you again.

  9. For non-pastoral staff, the same three things could be said this way: 1) Be faithful to the Word, 2) Love the people, 3) Do not change anything in your first year.

    I am in my first, full-time ministry position and due to having a pastor that has been preached and led faithfully for 17 years, my time at Sycamore Hills Baptist has been a joy in service unto Him. I believe I have been given a wonderful privilege and call it an honor to serving in this capacity for this church and for the glory of God.

  10. Brian,

    I’m finding your blog wondefully helpful. Thank you.

    As a young pastor, the anticipation of starting out in my first legitimate pastoral role is loaded with expectations. On the one hand, I feel like I should have my personal vision for the church prepackaged before I even arrive — like a business plan for a new venture. On the other hand, I don’t want to be so neutered in a new position that I have no conviction or direction to speak of. Do you have any sense of how to balance these two extremes in anticipation of a first pastoral role?

    • Brian Croft says:

      Yes. Your direction is clear. Preach and teach God’s word and sacrifically love those people. The “plan” will come as you do that. Whatever plan you want them to buy into will not happen until you prove to them you are worthy to be followed. As far as balance is concerned…always error in the first few years to delay change.

  11. Pastor Brian,

    Thank you for this article< i just started a church from scratch if yo will. And hearing these words really encouraged me to keep the main things, the main things. Great wisdom and insight, I wish leadership would share more they would really enhance the body of Christ.

    Thanks again,

    DC

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