How does a pastor respond to problems in the church that occurred before they were the pastor?

A common reason why many prefer church planting over taking an existing church is to avoid the problems, dysfunctions, and baggage that comes with every existing church.  Without exception, every local church has “issues” that do not go away during the interim period.  In fact, they often grow worse.  Many of the problems can be traced back to the previous pastors (at least the church members typically do). 

This is a common question from pastors I get as they approach around the 12-18 month mark of their time at their new church, which is usually just enough time to assess accurately what landmine you have walked into.  Here are a few things to keep in mind as you sift through the baggage and settle in for the long haul:

Approach them as your problems.  When doing marriage counseling, at some point you end up saying, “It is no longer her debt, but your debt.  It is no longer his family issue, but your family issue.”  My father paid for every dime of my college education only for me to marry into school debt.  Don’t worry…she is worth it!  We all experience this to some degree as we enter into marriage and we cannot do so begrudgingly.  The same mentality must be approached when taking an existing church to pastor.  You didn’t cause the dysfunction, but it is now your stewardship under God to deal with and do so with joy and hope in the power of the gospel to change it.

Remind the church you weren’t there when it started.  Although a faithful pastor takes on these problems now as his own, don’t forget you didn’t cause the mess.  We are kind of like a janitor with a Bible.  We didn’t cause the mess, but everyone expects us to clean it up.  Yet, a helpful trump card to remember as you try to shepherd your people in a more healthy direction is this one…you didn’t cause the problem.  You inherited it.  There is a clarity of thinking that will come with always remembering that reality, especially when you upset someone by your efforts to correct the problem. 

Solve them with your longevity as the pastor in mind.  Just because you didn’t cause the problem, doesn’t mean you can’t make it worse by trying to change or correct something to quickly.  Formulate a plan to improve the struggles in the church and if it doesn’t involve faithful exposition of God’s Word while you shepherd and love these people over many years of serving them…you are moving too quickly.

If you are at the 1-2 year mark and are asking, “What did I get myself into?”  Hang in there.  God can and will work through your faithful preaching, discipling, and shepherding those who are His people with time.  Stay faithful.  Stay a long time.  Remember these 3 suggestions as you pray and plan for the future.

By the way, church plants always develop their own baggage and “issues.”  There is no escaping it either way when the church is filled with sinners saved only by the grace of God in Christ.

Posted in Oversight of Souls
3 comments on “How does a pastor respond to problems in the church that occurred before they were the pastor?
  1. Ryan Bebee says:

    Thanks for this word, Brian, and for modeling it faithfully.

  2. Once again, you’ve provided a post that hits where I have been, and thankfully, by God’s good grace, am no longer.

    When I came to this church over 13 years ago, I was convinced in my own mind that I would never come here. I had seen the history sheet of this church: pastor starts church over 30 years ago, based upon a Sunday School ministry model (the idea is if you can get the kids, you’ll have in-roads to the parents – trust me on this one, the history of this model, especially at this church, shows terrible results); the church experiences tremendous growth, necessitating a new building; a building is quickly cobbled together, with most all features centering around the teaching ministry, rather than the ministry of the Word in worship; church hits plateaus, then crashes due to the attempts of founding pastor to begin some “new” ministry without much support of leadership or congregation; “new” ministry begins anyway, church seems to flourish again for a season, only to crash a few years later; repeat – wash- and rinse! After 30+ years, the founding pastor was forced to resign, and subsequently threatened to sue the congregation over property matters, etc. The reputation of this church in the community was nearly irreparable. Subsequent pastors experienced ministry stays of less than 18 months over the course of three ministers. The man just prior to my arrival managed to bring about some measure of peace.

    When I could no longer resist God’s call to this particular church, I came to grips with the truth that I would need to deal with the existing consequences of previous experiences. While many of the people from that former experience were no longer at this church, effects of many of the previous situations had cast a pall over this church, its location, and its people.

    I’m not sure that I considered these problems as my own, as you suggested, but I knew the resulting consequences were still matters that I would need to deal with. I didn’t find that I needed to remind the people here that I wasn’t here when the problems started. That seems self-evident. I simply hoped and prayed, as well as trust of the Lord to lead us all to greener pastures. I have now been here for 13 years, the Lord appears to be blessing; the problems of the past seem to be in the past and dealt with. By God’s good grace, I hope to continue my pastorate here, loving the Lord’s people, dealing with all of our sins, and seen his kingdom come in us and through us.

    • briancroft says:

      Wow. Great testimony of the Lord’s grace in your church. If I changed a few details I could use this for a brief history of my church…scary. Thank you for modeling perseverance in pastoral ministry for many who will take the same kind of church.

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