In a New Church…Now What?

Today (June 12, to be exact), clergy across South Georgia are moving to their new appointments (churches).  I am blessed to be reappointed to Wesley United Methodist Church at Frederica for my fifth year!  I am looking forward to many more years together with the great people in this wonderful church, but alas, the purpose of this post is not to praise Wesley.  This post is to help those who may be moving to a new appointment.  While I haven’t moved as often as others, I have moved to two churches that were in difficult transition periods.  In each of those, we experienced success.  The most important thing I learned is get started well and manage expectations.  Hopefully, these two lessons will be helpful for you.

First, be careful what you change.  I do not subscribe to the school of thought that you don’t change anything the first year.  I do not believe that is a good strategy or shows good leadership.  The better course is to find the things that need to be changed that produce small wins for you and the congregation.  These changes should be needed changes that help you gain support among the stakeholders.  You may see some things YOU want to change, but they may strike at the identity of the congregation (whether healthy or not).  You need time and trust to deal with larger, more complex changes.  How do you know which is which?  Conduct a series of home meetings and invite every member of your church (active and inactive).  Set the groups up by neighborhoods or based on convenient time slots.  Break up the advocacy groups (a Sunday school class, or interest group).  Let them meet with those outside their regular group.  If you serve a small congregation, you can do this one on one.  Ask them the following:  “What are the strengths of this church?”  “What are the areas of growth?” (Notice I didn’t say weakness).  And, “If money were no object and we could not fail, what one thing would you like to see our church do?”  Collect all the answers, pray, listen, discern, read context…only then target areas where change is needed.  The complex stuff can wait until you show you are one of them and not just some outsider or hired hand.  One piece of advice I always heeded…don’t let worship be one of the first things you change.  The worship service is a key formative part of their identity…to change that before you understand the meaning of why they do what they do is…well, not very smart.

Second, let the leadership of the church assist you in determining your priorities as pastor.  News flash…you can’t do everything.  And you certainly can’t do everything well (even though some of us think we can).  You need to determine your priorities each year and you need input from the church leadership as you determine them.  I was given this list by my mentor Dr. Jim Jackson, Senior Minister of Chapelwood UMC in Houston, Texas.  I have used it regularly and found it very helpful.  There are 12 categories.  Produce a sheet with the 12 and hand out to your Staff Parish Committee, or other leadership groups, and ask them to rank them 1 to 12 according to the way they think their pastor should use their time – 1 is most important, 12 least important.  The list is (in no particular order).

  1. Worship Planning and Preaching – planning and leading worship, sermons, etc.
  2. Teaching and Discipling – teaching bible studies, confirmation, new member classes, study courses, Sunday school, etc.
  3. Counseling – provide guidance for individuals, couples, families, be involved in their lives, decisions, and crises
  4. Visiting and Care Giving – visiting from house to house, calling on members, hospital visitation, shut in visitation
  5. Evangelizing/Church Growth – reaching new people in community for Christ, bring them into church, introduce them to discipleship,
  6. Consensus Building/Fundraising – resolve conflict in church, build harmony, focus on stewardship and raising budget, paying off debt
  7. Administration & Communication – working with staff and key laity to develop plans and programs that reach members and the community, programming of church
  8. Staff Supervision & Mentoring – serving as “head of staff”, being point person in developing staff responsibilities, select, supervise, and develop staff
  9. Family Leader – cultivate a model family life, inspire church and community
  10. Personal Spiritual Development – engage in spiritual disciplines, prayer, bible study, spiritual leadership
  11. Community Leader – serve as church’s representative in the community, face of church, civic involvement
  12. Denominational Leader – participate in United Methodism beyond local church, district, conference, jurisdictional and general level

After your leadership ranks the categories, determine the top five.  After a time of prayer and discernment, try your best to make the top five your top priorities for time and energy during the first year.  The others areas should not be neglected, but you need to remember that what you like to do and what the people of the church feel you need to do should be balanced together.  All of these things are worthy and good.  This is all about managing expectations.

Remember, if you want to conduct deeper change in any congregation, you have to earn trust and that takes time…along with making good decisions.  These things simply help you get started well.  My prayer is that all the new pastors will be blessed in their new appointments and that God will work in wonderful ways through you and through the church!

12 thoughts on “In a New Church…Now What?

  1. John, I think this is such great advice. I did try to do (some of) this when I began at Alpha, but looking back I can see where I jumped the gun on some types of changes and probably hesitated too much on others. I will keep this for whenever I have to make a move down the road. Thanks so much for taking the time to share…

  2. Thanks John, I have implemented what I call Cottage Meetings during the first 3 months of my last 2 appointments which are small meetings in the parsonage to identify what the church is known for, what are growth areas, worship style and vision for church. Very similar to your step one. I am just completing my first year in a new appointment and have been reflecting on those meetings, surprised at how much Clark’s Grove has embraced in my first year of this appointment.

    • My experience as well Billy. I found my first few months of home meetings have guided the first FOUR years of ministry…not just the first year. I would think it would be good to do the meetings every 4-7 years depending on the size of the church and what is going on. I am glad things are going well for you at Clark’s Grove! Shalom!

  3. On the one hand I know the validity of taking things slowly and honoring the past. On the other hand, I watch Restaurant Impossible, a restaurant rescue program on the Food Network, and sometimes wonder if we are too lackadaisical. These restaurants are going to go bankrupt in a few months or weeks if something drastic is not done. Robert Irvine goes toe to toe with owners as he urges them to change or die. We, on the other hand, don’t want to ruffle feathers and too many of our churches die anyway. Maybe there is a balance. Can we change with a sense of urgency, and also honor the past? It’s a delicate balance.

    • Thanks for the comments. I used to watch a similar show with Chef Gordon Ramsey…can you imagine a bishop like Irvine or Ramsey?? You are absolutely correct on the balance needed for managing change. This is not easy or static…it is a dynamic, complex process that involves someone who can “discern” the context and the people well. Not everyone is good at that. Appreciate your thoughts!

  4. John, overall, good advice. But in looking at your priorities list, something started troubling me: almost all of these have to do with the congregation and none of them are obviously about reaching out to the community and/or world in service. I also wonder whether many churches would choose any of these other than 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 without prompting, since these are the ones that most obviously serve the desires of people to be ministered to. And among these, you don’t have next to any of them a statement along the lines of “and develop lay participation in these activities.” I wonder whether it would not make more sense to identify a set of goals for the congregation within a set of focus areas (e.g., caring for each other, serving our neighbors, living as good stewards, planning to accommodate growth, sharing our faith, etc.) and then plan priorities to fulfill those goals. Granted, in a divided congregation one of the first priorities would have to be building consensus around the goals, or even just the willingness to sit at the table and discuss them. But that kind of approach, I think, takes the emphasis off of the pastor and puts the entire congregation in the seat of ministry. Just observations, and a little attempt to push back to start a discussion. 🙂

    • I do agree that Jim’s list does not include missional focus and that is important to add. You are correct that the first 4-5 receive a good deal of response, but remember the list is not the only factor to determine priorities – simply a tool to assist in managing expectations. The other items you list are helpful and I could see them implemented, but they ultimately serve the main purpose of my point…setting and managing expectations. This, in my opinion, becomes one of the biggest pitfalls of preachers and congregations working together, confusion/disagreement on expectations (whether formal or informal). Thanks for the comments. Keep Ben on his toes. I have no doubt I will be up to visit with him soon and we will do lunch!

  5. Just a small edit, I think you meant to say “resolve conflict” in number 6. Great list! I can imagine many churches and SPR’s would want the pastor to be spending a 1/4 of his or her time on each item.

  6. As a pew person who has spent the last year not participating at church because I have had to get an understanding of “what went wrong”, I fully appreciate what you wrote and the comments.

    And it started with the church. The church was my “port in the storm”; the place I went to get my head straight. One zealous pastor drastically changed that when he arrived on the scene with his own ideas of what needed to change. It became the era of “Do this and they will come”. By the second year of his appointment it reached fever pitch. The badly handled addition of a contemporary service had significant negative impact on a long standing traditional one. My visualization of the experience was not that a tree had given off a new branch but that a whole new fully grown tree had been planted in our midst and it was just too bad if the excavation process created any problems. And he was just getting started…

    The pastor has been gone 5 years and the church is on the second pastor since– she is still trying to find her footing. The ill conceived plan to “start a new church” cratered three years into the next pastor. Weekly worship attendance is down by at least 100 people across three services. Based on a recent article in the newsletter, ten years after it came into existence, the contemporary service is still trying to justify its existence to the rest of the congregation; it had done well simply because he “willed it so”. The church has once again been restructured with another whole new set of committees.

    I am not against change. I have since done a lot of reading and fully understand “What he thought he was doing”. I understand the need for different styles of worship; I understand the need to streamline the structure. But badly handled change is devastating. To change a church you have to change the individuals within it. I came across this quote and it speaks the truth:

    “I learned a long time ago that it is not my role or responsibility to change someone else, but to create a safe environment where radical change can occur. Change should always be a willing choice, otherwise it won’t last, or it does violence to the person.” Dan Dick

    I am getting to the point that I will be going back, but I am hesitant because it feels like I will be returning to the scene of the “mugging.” Unfortunately there were subsequent things that went wrong in my life that have left me feeling very vulnerable and necessitated my retreat. I have been concerned that I will be OK if I go back; that is a very hard spot for me to be in.

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