Getting Your Pastoral Ministry on a Good Start


Long-range success in a pastorate depends greatly on what happens the first six months. just as a young husband can reduce his chances for a happy marriage by his folly on his honeymoon, so a new pastor can do more damage in the early days than he can undo in years-and in some cases more than he can ever undo. One pastor (usually very successful) said about an especially difficult church where he had mired himself hopelessly and could be extricated only by a move, “If I had taken three years to do what I tried to do in six months, I would be there yet.”


I had occasion to visit a former seminary student who had been in his first pastorate less than a year. In fatherly freedom I poured out advice about first pastorates. I said, “There should be no sharp corners turned; no throwing one’s pastoral weight around. The first year at least should be a year of establishing human relations. Get acquainted with the people and let them get acquainted with you on an amiable, non-threatening, non-adversarial basis. Avoid changes which could produce restlessness and uneasiness.” He replied, “Oh! I wish you could have told me that when I first came! I have already violated those principles and I’m already in trouble.” Indeed he was, and he could not stay beyond two years. It was true that he faced mountains of carnality and some obstreperous people. But that fact was all the more reason for deliberate caution. J. B. Chapman used to say, “Don’t
stir up a nest of snakes unless you are sure you can kill them.”

The age factor

Certain principles apply especially to a young man in his first pastorate. For one thing most of the people are older, and in many
cases wiser, than he. Some of them were paying the bills and fighting the devil before he was born. They are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and follow his leadership-up to a point. They admire his vigor and enthusiasm. But they will not follow a young leader just getting started in the way they will follow an older, more experienced man. A man in his forties can get away with actions and words which a beginner cannot.

Confidence cannot be demanded, it must be earned. And that takes time. Firmly rooted respect cannot be deeply established over night, not even by a few brilliant sermons or by boundless displays of energy. But does not Paul say to Timothy, “Let no man despise thy youth”? He does indeed, but let us hope Timothy was wise enough to know that a rejection of leadership on the grounds of youth could not be prevented by a stentorian command in the pulpit or an announcement in the bulletin, but by Timothy and all subsequent “Timothys” setting an “example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).

It is true that in most denominations church law gives to a pastor basic prerogatives as a leader. He is ex officio head of the local
governing body, the church schools, missionary and youth societies, the music department, and whatever committees may be established. Even the youthful man in his first pastorate is expected to assume this leadership, but let it be done quietly, flexibly, cautiously, and with sincere deference to persons already established in leadership positions. The structure which a pastor finds should usually be confirmed not torn apart the first six weeks. Let not the new pastor use all his power, any more than a teenage driver should push his foot clear to the floor. Legal prerogatives are like money in the bank: spend it all at once and you will be out on the street.

The difficulty of restraint

Such caution, so important during the first six months, is difficult for a man right out of school to exercise. For years he has been building up steam and finally he has a chance to prove his stuff. His imagination has been fed by books and professors and ballyhooed super-church pastors and visiting lecturers until he is sincerely confident he knows exactly how to do the job. He has studied psychology and management and church administration; and of course he has studied church growth until the lingo flows easily from his lips and its principles almost pop out of his ears. He is like the young seminarian who, when he was being shown a beautiful new church plant, enthusiastically got behind the pulpit, flexed his arms, and exclaimed, “What couldn’t I do with a set-up like this!”

Why then do so many of these fireballs fizzle? Why do so many fall flat on their faces the first year? Because they understand everything but human nature. The first principle of human nature in the average congregation is that People don’t like change. As Lyle E. Schaller says, “All of us are more comfortable with continuity than discontinuity.”‘ Young people sometimes crave the excitement of change, but not the people who pay the bills and who constitute the power structure. When the eager young preacher introduces countless novelties in the worship services and springs on the church undigested schemes for exploding numerically and (worse yet) begins talking about a building program almost before his books are unpacked, he is only tying his own noose. The lovely, patient older folk (who have seen all this before) will watch in amused fascination, wondering what the young pastor will pull next. At first they will wait tolerantly, but then with growing restiveness and resistance. And when he begins to feel the resistance he will begin to push and drive all the harder. He will call for prayer (always a good idea), preach on cooperation, preach against carnality (which he thinks is the problem). But the more he thrashes the more they resist, to his deepening frustration and their growing irritation.


But the initial period of a new pastorate is just as crucial for an older man as for a beginner. Burning rubber is a poor way to start.
He, even more than the young man, will see what needs to be done, and will, because of experience, feel that he can take the wheel firmly and forthrightly. The sudden turns he takes and the changes he makes may all be for the better, and he may seem to be carrying the church with him. Furthermore, he may ultimately succeed in establishing his style of leadership in spite of early bumpy roads. But he also may be subtly undermining himself, and planting time bombs of resentment which down the line will blow him right into his next pastorate.

The need for stability

This is true for several reasons. People love their church, their fellow members, their way of doing things, their building. They have a vested interest in things as they are. They have deep feelings of affection and attachment to the status quo. For them this constitutes stability. Too many changes, too rapidly made, which affect their positions and the positions of their friends or traditional ways of doing things can be traumatic. Furthermore, they naturally resent a new whirlwind quick-change artist who in effect is casting reflection upon their previous operating style-in plain language, making both them and his predecessor look stupid. Of course those who didn’t like his predecessor will sic him on. But others will not.

The mature saints will try to manifest a good spirit and cooperate with the program. But underneath a slight questioning begins to form in their minds. Does this pastor really know what he is doing? Is he a truly wise leader or merely on an ego trip? Or perhaps a sincere bungler? Then they will discover that others feel the same way. Gradually an undercurrent of restlessness will develop which could, down the line, become an unexpected ground swell of opposition.

The need for time

Therefore, it is as wise for the more experienced pastor as for the young man to spend the first year getting acquainted. Things are not always as they seem in those first six weeks which bloom with promise. People are not always what they appear to be. Some are better, others are a lot worse. It is easy in the early days to play into the hands of the wrong people.

While the peril may be the excessive drive and eagerness of the pastor to produce overnight miracles, the peril may equally be in certain members of the congregation who see the new pastor as their opportunity to push their pet project (or peeve), or maybe reestablish themselves in former positions of power. So they may try to stampede the pastor into precipitate action which later he will profoundly regret.

One woman got the ear of her new pastor with piously told accounts of the terrible tongue of another woman in the church. This went on for some time, until she managed to make him feel that any pastor was a coward who would not deal with this situation. So, wanting to appear brave and faithful, he took a male board member with him and called on the hapless woman. He proceeded to rebuke her soundly, much to her hurt and astonishment and much to the embarrassment of the board member who accompanied him and who knew the facts better. The pastor learned later that he had been used by a carnal woman who wanted to enforce her will. Furthermore, in that foolish burst of heroics he planted the seeds of his negative vote three years later. It is better not to be stampeded into trying to prove one’s bravery!


What, therefore, are some positive approaches to this need for getting off to a good start?

Take charge with sensitivity

Everyone stares at the new preacher when the moment comes for him to take charge of his first service. An invisible but enveloping cloud of goodwill hangs in the air. The expectant and excited congregation wish him well. They are predisposed to like him. They want him to be the man they have imagined him to be. They want him to succeed among them as their shepherd.

His nervousness may tip off a few fumblings, but they will not be held against him, especially if he can laugh at himself. It could be that capable lay leaders or staff members have planned this first service so that all he is expected to do is preach. Or, more likely, he will have planned the service himself and will be in charge from the opening hymn. In this case everyone involved-song leader, organist, pianist, ushers-will have planned the service with him and will look to him for their cues. They will be a bit edgy themselves, wondering if he will conduct the service in their accustomed format. Perhaps someone advises him in advance of “the way we usually do it,” meaning, “We would like to continue this way, if you don’t mind.” If he is wise, he will thank them and follow their cues even while they are following his. If the only thing different is the face of the new leader, the congregation will more quickly feel at home with that new face. He may feel that many changes in format are needed, but not yet. The fewer the shocks and sharp turns in this first service, and indeed in many services to follow, the better.

I must reiterate that a common mistake of new pastors is to suppose that immediate and radical changes constitute the essence of taking charge. Somehow there is the feeling that if in any sense the format of the previous pastor is followed, the people will think the new man has no leadership style of his own. Perhaps they will think he is at sea. This is a mistaken perception. Taking charge doesn’t require earthquakes and trumpets. The most skillful way to take charge is to slip into the driver’s seat as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. People know he is there. They know he is the pastor. He does not have to advertise the fact. Sudden changes which may upset the music people and others and create a sense of confusion and uncertainty do not impress people favorably. Instead of imparting an impression of efficiency and competence, a windstorm of change suggests amateurishness. It is the nervous man, insecure and unsure, who feels that he must begin his leadership by flexing his muscles.

Study the church

This requires first of all becoming acquainted with the church as an organization-its officers, its finances, its methods, its strengths and weaknesses. A wise new pastor will take plenty of time to study the power structure-without anyone knowing what he is doing. Who dominates in the board meetings? Whose opinion carries the most weight? Not only in the church but in the community? What kind of people are they? What is the best way to work with them? Are they trustworthy?

But the pastor’s knowledge should soon encompass everyone. He should early make a thorough study of the church roll. Who are these folk whose names have been removed? Where are they now? Why are they no longer in the church? (He may find some names of persons long since in heaven!) The Sunday school rolls also should be examined. The gap between last Sunday’s attendance and the number of the roll-where are these people? Is any systematic contact being made?

A new pastor can do nothing smarter than to take his first month locating every family in his membership, and looking them in the eye in their homes if possible, or in some other setting if necessary. Learn their names, and as much personalia about them as possible. Without excessive or indiscreet prying he can gather information directly from them; they will be warmed and pleased by his interest. And certainly the names of children should roll easily off his tongue wherever he sees them. Just this much demonstration of human caring may tie a child to the church and save him for Jesus.

(Admittedly facility with names is very difficult for some of us, almost at times our undoing. But we should work at it. Young
ministers, especially, should systematically cultivate a proficiency in this important link in human relations.)

During this honeymoon stage-really, for at least a year-the pastor should study the church in relation to sociological types and classes. Schaller’s books provide much assistance in this. While each church is unique, each church can be categorized, at least tentatively. The effort to study one’s church in this way may enlarge one’s understanding so that the pastor will know where his people are coming from and why they see things as they do.

Above all, Learn the facts. The peril of sudden changes is our ignorance of all the facts. We do not know the background of some
situations. If folk try to tell us, let them. Be a good listener but then be mum. Don’t walk into a gossip trap. Some things a new pastor should know; others he is just as well off not knowing. Great wisdom is needed here and special discernment into the hearts and minds of the people who are talking. Some church members are so solid that full credence should be given to what they say; they are imparting invaluable insight. Others should be taken with a grain of salt, indeed a whole salt shaker.

Unfortunately, some pastors, especially in the first charge, tend to be naive in assessing character. As a consequence they are easily taken in. Therefore, great caution is in order. If a pastor can earn the confidence of one or two established saints who clearly have both good religion and good sense, it may be wise quietly and noncommittally to draw them out. Learn their view of the local situation and what they believe should be done. Draw from them the perspective of experience. Gradually the one or two can become several, until the pastor knows he is surrounded by a team which he can trust and who will work with him.
One hopes these persons will be leaders already, board members or in other key positions. When after a year a new pastor knows he is flanked by a coterie of good and godly persons who will support him, he can begin to march more boldly. It is sad when he marches out too soon and looks around only to find himself alone.

Begin serving

Begin your ministry to people at once. And avoid posturing. Don’t make grandiose predictions. Let the people rather see that serving is one’s commitment. As soon as possible visit the sick and the aged. Become a familiar figure at the hospital. Bishop William A. Quayle’s advice is still timely: “Get the impression prevalent in your congregation as speedily as may be after you become its pastor that you covet knowledge of all cases of sickness. Do not do this with a resigned air as of a martyr, but with an air as of a man who loves his people and whose privilege is in counseling them.”

One should be especially alert to the moves which might seem self-serving. If in the first few months a pastor shows more concern about a new parsonage and about salary than about people he is cutting his own throat. One man within a month after arrival persuaded the board to sell the very nice parsonage so that he could build his own house. Then he subcontracted the job himself at cut-rate costs by allowing merchants and suppliers to think that the church was building another parsonage. Naturally a few members got wind of his operation. As a consequence his ministry from then on was crippled by congregational restlessness and periodic blocs of negative votes which the poor man could never understand. But he had saddled himself from the beginning with a heavy load of quiet distrust. He made two mistakes: First, beginning with a major move in his own interests instead of
demonstrating a spirit of service; and second, doing it in what appeared to sensitive laymen to be an underhanded manner.

Be affirming

The church may be torn by divisions, physically neglected and run-down, finances may be in the red and the people depressed and discouraged. But no matter how dark the situation, a new pastor can find something to praise and commend. The more lowering the clouds the more the pastor needs to find somewhere a silver lining and point to it, yet not in such a way as to call undue attention to their plight. Rather rebuild the people’s hopes, their confidence, their self-respect. Commend, affirm, and then commend and affirm some more-their faithfulness, their giving, their singing, their very presence.

Easy does it

To bring this up again may seem unduly repetitious, but its importance justifies it. It is true that some of the problems may be-doubtless are-basically spiritual. Carnality may be deeply entrenched. Radical changes may be needed in key leadership positions. But for the present, ignore these facts as much as possible. Pray about them, quietly study them, and bide your time. God will bring about changes if the pastor prays enough and gives God room. Not every fence can be mended or old snag uprooted the first year. Nor can every change be made that cries out to be made. Some things require time and lots of it. In the meanwhile let us be patient with God, the people, and ourselves.

This does not mean turning our heads the other way. In extreme situations, such as moral messes, even a new pastor may have to wade in and take immediate action. But such demands are rare. What will irritate most will be the poor organist who thinks she owns the instrument, or a treasurer who thinks he owns the money, or Sunday school teachers who come late and unprepared-or maybe not at all. All of these obstacles to progress must in time be handled. But if a new pastor will wait until he has established his leadership, and has thoroughly melded himself into the affections of the people, and has come to a real grasp of the backgrounds and peripheral odds and ends of data not seen at first, he will then be able gradually and quietly to engineer changes and carry the church with him. And he can do it without getting the reputation of a manipulator. Patience is the name of the pastoral game.

Then he may be able to attend to special sore spots without alienating whole groups. Hardy C. Powers once counseled me, “Remember that every person has his circle of friends and his sphere of influence. When you touch him [or her] you touch them. No matter how much of a headache some one person is, and how much some kind of action may be needed respecting him, you must keep in mind all those other people. Holding on to them may be important enough to justify putting up with the troublemaker. At least never discipline a person until you have weighed carefully the possible fallout.”

Acquire pulpit respect

The pastor has come to be the preacher. He will lead, organize, plan, do many things; but unless he feeds the people they will not look up to him as they should and as they would like to. Folk will overlook many shortcomings and weaknesses if they learn that when Sunday morning and evening come they will not be wasting their time by going to church. If the new pastor tackles everything at once in the early months and in the process neglects his study and his books he will neutralize all his hustle and bustle.

Next to becoming known for godliness and integrity, establishing a reputation as a preacher the first year should be high on a pastor’s agenda. People know this is the center of what he is there for, and if they find competence in the pulpit his influence will be strengthened in every other area. The beginner especially should capitalize on the very smallness of the church and the simplicity of the program to concentrate on learning to preach. I once heard Hugh Benner tell of his years in Santa Monica, California. The church was small enough for demands to be minimal. He devoted large amounts of time building sermons and learning to deliver them. A treasury was stored which became the foundation of his success in all subsequent assignments, culminating in the general superintendency of his church.

Hold steady when disillusioned

While the majority of churches are dominated by sincere Christians, many of them true saints, a church here and there will be a hotbed of carnal orneriness. An idealistic, enthusiastic, innocent young minister can walk into a hornet’s nest of obstinacy, pettiness, quarrelsomeness, and just plain meanness. just as men tend to idealize women and always suffer emotional trauma when they discover that women can be evil, so do budding theologies tend to idealize their first pastorate. Happy are they if they walk into the open arms of a loving, supportive church family. But if they find themselves being chewed alive by cats and tigers they may be so destroyed that with a crushed spirit they leave the ministry, never to return. Some form of preparation for the possible worst should be part of their mental and spiritual conditioning. A profound sense of call and a strong grip on God will be their only hope.

The famous Methodist evangelist John Church tells of his first pastorate. The bishop appointed him against the wishes of the church leaders, who determined to teach the bishop a lesson by starving the young couple out. No salary was paid and no food brought in. It was a critical moment. But John and his wife kept quiet, prayed (with more fasting than they preferred), held steady, called on the people and preached, until finally in some miraculous way the tide turned and in the end they were welcomed and loved. To have cut and run would have been costly for everyone.


Let the pastor magnify shepherding. This is a matter of basic philosophy. Too many young pastors have been poisoned in their
thinking before they even take their first charge. They dream of the mega-church, and do not want to settle into such a lowly role as shepherding a flock–that is mere “maintenance.” They think only of leading a church that is exploding in size. How much this is promoted by a pure love of souls and how much of it by visions of grandeur only God knows. But if young pastors would stop drooling over the big churches, and stop reading everything they can get their hands on of spectacular success stories, and stop running to this and that seminar to find out how “it is done,” and instead turn their undivided attention to the church they have, they might discover “acres of diamonds” in their own backyard.

These pastors or prospective pastors are getting the cart before the horse: They want to play Brahms before they have learned “Chopsticks.” They want the large church before they have demonstrated their ability to handle the small church. Let them begin rather by paying attention to the people they have. Let them start loving them, with compassion and concern, and begin to ask God how they can better serve them, and it could be that by and by they will become the caliber of person God might trust with a megachurch, if such should be in God’s blueprint.

Our perception of our role will affect, for good or ill, the way we take hold of a church. President J. Duane Beals of Western Evangelical Seminary adroitly summarizes the various models of the pastoral role which have been in vogue since World War 11. First there was the fundamental shift from majoring on preaching to majoring on counseling. Unfortunately, this shift is still with us. Then there came the coach model of leadership, next the management-by-objectives model, next the servant-leader model. About this Beals comments, “Invariably the would-be servant-leader ends up as the slave to many masters.” All of these models, he feels, are weighed in the balance and found wanting. He pleads for a return to the biblical model-that of shepherd. Shepherding includes managing and planning, but with the welfare of the sheep constantly in view. Shepherding is a kind of controlling which serves. Beyond business functions is a personal tie. The shepherd understands his sheep and loves them. He plans continually for a program which keeps them well fed, contented, and protected from enemies. The shepherd lives with his sheep, and he has no ambition to leave them for the palace on the hill.

Other things being equal, the man or woman who enters a new charge with this frame of mind is far more apt to be happy and to create a happy relationship with his or her people.