I’d been a part-time church staff member before. I’d also done informal ministry in numerous ways for nearly a decade. But I’d never been a full-time pastor until this past year. Being an associate pastor is an entirely different animal.
How’d it go? By God’s grace, as best I can tell, it went well. But I had a lot of help.
One major lesson I’ve learned so far is this: every new pastor needs a lot of help, especially during his first year in pastoral ministry.
Here are six priorities that helped me survive my first year—priorities I commend to all new pastors.
1. Build relational capital with church members.
A master of divinity may get you in the door, but it won’t keep you there. Biblical knowledge, theological acumen, and preaching competency are crucial, but they’re nothing without trust. The name of the game is trust. Focus on building trust with church members, which only happens through spending time with them.
Focus on building trust with church members, which only happens through spending time with them.
Get to know as many members as you can. Invite them over for dinner. Host a small group. Don’t feel exasperated when small talk turns into two hours of babbling about seemingly irrelevant topics. These times of inconvenience help build relational capital. And this capital is a must if you want the church to follow you.
2. Learn your church’s history.
It’s likely, if not certain, that aspects of the way your new church “does church” will catch you off guard or even bother you. Could it be their fault? Maybe. Do they need to repent? Possibly. But realize that the reason a church operates the way it does is not usually because there’s a host of evil people trying to end the ministry, but simply because it’s the way they’ve always done it; it’s the only way they know how to operate.
Understanding your church’s history will help you to be sympathetic with the parts you don’t like.
My church has more than 100 years of history, so I can’t begin to learn everything about it. But when I speak with lifelong church members (some of whom are in their 80s) and read documentation about the church’s history, it gives me a better feel for our identity as a church. You won’t understand your church’s present without understanding her past.
3. Tread slowly.
In less than a year, we had our first child, I graduated seminary, I started my new pastoral role, and we moved into a new home. I was exhausted. So was my wife. I was so worn down that I thought that something was physically wrong with me. There was no option for me to cultivate changes quickly, then, once I got to my church; I could barely function even after drinking a bucket of coffee.
Looking back, this was God’s kindness to me. I learned that this pace is probably a healthy one. I probably would’ve gone too fast if I’d had any energy. We young guys want to ignite change and bear fruit immediately. But ministry is a marathon. As Zack Eswine says, “You want to do large things famous and fast. But most things that truly matter need small acts of overlooked love over a long period of time.”
You want to do large things famous and fast. But most things that truly matter need small acts of overlooked love over a long period of time.
Make changes slowly. Only a fool goes into a new church and sets out to change everything quickly. I’ve heard some say they’d wait an entire year before changing anything. That might sound like overkill, but it’s often better to err on the side of caution when making changes. Tread carefully.
4. Read, read, read.
One discouraging part of being so weary when I started pastoring was that my love for reading declined. The desire is back; I’m reading voraciously again. But for the first few months I read a lot less than before. This disheartened me, though I continued to read despite not feeling up to it.
Two of the most helpful books I read during my first year as a pastor were 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me and Help for the New Pastor. If you’re a new pastor, you’ll want to get your fingerprints on these books and heed the counsel in them. They’re like little mentors in your hands.
5. Seek out mentors.
I once heard a pastor say that lone rangers are dead rangers. These words capture how your ministry will end if you don’t get help. Brother pastor, you need older godly men by your side as you labor in ministry.
I meet with a pastor every five weeks or so to discuss challenges, to solicit his wisdom, and to talk about whatever’s bothering me. He’s been one of the biggest blessings to me in my first year of ministry. There’s no way I would’ve had an emotionally healthy year without him. I know it’s hard, even humbling, but figure out a way to receive mentoring.
6. Grow as a preacher.
“What feedback have you been getting on your preaching so far?” a church member asked. “They’ve said my preaching is pretty good,” I said. “I’ve heard that, too,” he replied. In that moment, I learned something: the aspect of my public ministry that I’m being most evaluated on is my preaching. I felt both encouraged and exposed at the same time.
After that conversation, I bought a few more books on preaching. You’d do well to read at least one how-to book on preaching that first year. Take the feedback from members seriously, even if it’s painful. And never step into the pulpit unprepared. Seek to be constantly growing in your preaching.
Much more could be said, of course. It might help to lower your expectations for your first year of ministry. Be sure to give thanks to God that he’s not only saved you, but has also entrusted you with the role of shepherding his people.
It is an undeserved privilege we should never take for granted.