Unlike most other jobs, the work of a pastor has no clear instruction booklet that tells you what you’re supposed to be doing on a daily basis. I remember how nervous I was when I found out that I would be going straight from seminary into my own church district (instead of the “typical” track where you are assigned to work under a senior pastor in a larger church for few years to gain experience). The learning curve has been steep the past three years and I am still learning every day, but if you are beginning a new assignment in a district or a single church, learn from my mistakes. If I could go back in time and do it over again, these are the 7 areas that I would focus on in the first year.
Side note: keep in mind that much of what you end up doing will depend on the size of the congregation(s) and your own personal gifts/abilities. There are congregational dynamics that happen in any church which you need to be aware of and will impact the way you do ministry. A MUST READ article on that can be found here. You may like some areas of pastoral work better than others (for example, you may be more inclined to do visitation over administrative work, or prefer preaching instead of training). Whatever your particular church size or unique skillset, you should still try to pay attention to these areas in your fist year.
Specifically for your first three to six months in your new church, I would not chair any important meetings, make any large changes or otherwise do anything that would jolt the church. Don’t feel like you have to start being busy right away… believe me, that time will come. I remember feeling bad because the first few weeks on the job, I didn’t have much to do and I felt like I wasn’t doing my job correctly. From my research both theoretical and anecdotal, this is actually quite normal. Your first task should really be to observe your surroundings.
Pastoral work is primarily relational more than administrative, and in a new environment you are going to be working with people who you have never met before. So, start by getting comfortable. Sit in on board meetings as a fly on the wall to gain a feel of the different relational dynamics in the group. Sit in allof the different Sabbath schools within your church (all the way from the children’s divisions to the adults). Basically, observe as much as you can within your church.
The benefit to you in doing this is twofold: one, it will help you to see the church from the local member’s standpoint, and two, it gives you visibility among your members (this is important early on and gives members a chance to meet & greet you).
Plan a visitation blitz early on and try to visit as many members in their homes as possible (no, not in your home, not in your office… in their home). It will get harder for you to do this later on with your responsibilities, so do this at the beginning. The rationale behind this the same as point #1. Moreover, doing this, you will be able to gain a feel for the individuals that make up your church. Start with your key leaders in your church board and work down from there. Spend no more than 30-45 minutes in the home and try to cover these areas during your visit. Remember this acronym: FORT.
- Family: How many kids? Do they have family in the area? What do you like about the neighborhood? Any good restaurants in the area? Just general questions about themselves.
- Occupation: Where do they work? What led them to do that work? Etc.
- Religion: How long have they been a member of the church or an Adventist? Was religion a big thing in their home of origin? What have they enjoyed most about being a member of this church? What are some areas that they would change in the congregation? (Don’t let this question drag on since disgruntled members may vent–limit it to one or two points.)
- Testimony: How did they personally come to the Lord? What do they love best about knowing Him? Where do they think God has gifted them to get involved?
End with a prayer, thank them for their time, tell them you look forward to working with them, and move on. You may want to consider taking notes of each visit and keeping them on file so that you remember people’s names and their families (not to mention any noteworthy details you may hear in conversation).
Whatever your preaching style, bring your A-game, especially in the beginning! Give them your best sermons here and please try to use NO NOTES! Why not preach a series outlining your views on your personal calling to ministry, the Gospel, and life? Give the church an idea of who you are. I’ve also heard the suggestion that you could even give a week-long revival or hold an evangelism week in your first year and invite church members to bring their friends.
Remember, at this point you are still new and novel; people will be much more favorable and willing to hear what you say now than at any other time in your ministry at the church.
In order to look ahead at what you’re going to do, you need to look back at where your new church is coming from. If you really want to get a good pulse of that you’re walking into, ask to see the last 3-5 years’ worth of board/business meeting minutes and study them. This will give you an idea of your new church’s strengths and areas for growth, and might spur some ideas in terms of what to do.
Why not also have a visioning weekend with your leaders sometime in the first year to become acquainted with one another and hammer out a shared vision for the future of the church? In seminary, I was taught the following principle: “People will rarely, if ever, take ownership for something which they themselves are not a part of creating.” Lead from consensus rather than telling them, “This is what you will be doing.” When you help create a shared vision at the beginning, there is a better chance that they will be willing to follow along rather than be pastor-driven movement.
5) Planning and Delegating
If you have a multi-church district, decide when you will be where. Keep in mind, YOU are the one who decides your schedule, not your church (more on that in point #7). If you have a church office, I would set office hours here and let your church know. If you have a district where you all speak the same language, why not gather the elders from all of your churches together once a quarter for training, prayer and encouragement? (I have a bilingual district and, while you can also do it here too, your brain may be as fried as mine having to translate back and forth). Consider putting together a preaching calendar together with your leaders and involving them in it. The idea here is to get ideas down on paper as far as your own personal schedule and direction with the church(es) and invite your leaders to be a part of the conversation.
6) Community Networking
As mentioned earlier, your first few weeks are going to be pretty slow. Why not take some time to get to know your area? Get lost and drive around town to see the new area that you’re going to be working in. I would also stop by your local officials’ offices (city mayor, hospitals, police department, etc.) and introduce yourself as the new Adventist pastor in the area. Offer them your support and ask them how you can be of support to them in their work as public officials. I’ve never been rejected doing this; the people are typically very nice and it is a good opportunity for networking.
Also, become familiar with any local ministerial associations and get a list of local community service agencies in case there are any visitors or members who need help with basic necessities like food, water, medical care, bills, etc. (and they will come, so it’s better to be ready beforehand.)
7) Boundary Setting
Boundaries are, in my opinion, one of the MOST important things you can do when you begin. This lays the groundwork for what the church can expect from you as well as establishes what you expect from the church. Someone once said, “People will take from you whatever you let them take.” And it’s true!
One of the biggest drawbacks of not having a set guideline of work requirements as a pastor is that people often want to make your schedule and give you your duties. Unfortunately, one of the highest values that gets placed in determining success is “busyness.” Especially if you’ve never been in a senior pastor position before, some pastors may feel like they have to be doing something at all times. This can lead to some very unhealthy patterns of behavior:
- Some pastors will accept calls from their members at any hour of the day on any day.
- Some pastors will gladly drop whatever plans they have to tend to whatever “urgent” matter a member presents them with.
- Some pastors will cave in to the first complaint they receive from a strong personality.
- Some pastors will work 7 days a week and wear it as a “badge of honor.”
I remember someone once told me to work basically seven days a week and to take breaks “here and there, in between whenever I could.” Umm… no. As Seventh-day Adventists, one of the primary principles that we emphasize is a Sabbath in peoples’ lives. We recognize that we are not human doings; we’re human beings, created to “be” on a work/rest cycle as we find outlined in scripture. Sure, this routine is not salvific but it does propose that if followed, this rhythm improves the quality of one’s personal life, family life, and work effectiveness, among other things. It is contrary to our beliefs to expect any pastor to work nonstop every weekday and weekend with no time off and with no time for a personal or a family Sabbath of his own.
Your responsibilities are (in this order):
1) Your relationship God and your health
2) Your family
3) Your duties as a pastor and to your church
Be clear with your church about what day is your day off. Establish boundaries within your church board in terms of how you expect communication and disagreements within the church to be handled. Be clear with your leaders with what they can expect from you and what you expect from them. Obviously, emergencies will happen and you may need to flexible to deal with a change in your schedule. However, you are not superman; the church will survive without our help.
Keep these basic pointers in mind, look out for the end of your “honeymoon period” with the church at around the 6 month mark, always be willing to admit your mistakes, stay humble, and learn all you can as you go along, and you will surely do a great job. Blessings in your new assignment!