Okay, so last time I quoted The Clash and this time I’m quoting David Bowie. In my last post “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” I raised a big question many of us in ministry have asked ourselves before, when is it time to move on? So naturally this brings up the question, what do I do when I get to my new place? This is something that most people in ministry have experienced at least once, if not multiple times before. If you haven’t experienced this yet, consider yourself very lucky, as this transition is never easy.
In this post I’m going to assume that you have found a new place to serve and now change is coming. If you haven’t found a new place to serve yet you should check out fellow Worship Ministry Catalyst contributor Josh Ferris’ series on Getting Hired as a Worship Pastor.
So imagine with me, you have left your last church or job. Hopefully you have left on the best of terms, and everyone is sad to see you go. You pack up your office, load up all of your possessions, and prepare to move your family to the next place God has called you. Perhaps your story is a bit different and this is your first ministry position and instead you have just finished College or Seminary and this is the first place of service for you. Maybe neither of those fit you. It could be that you are a layperson, with no ministry training or experience that has been asked to take over a ministry of your church or a sister church in the area. No matter your situation, it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for you and isn’t easy for the church. Most people don’t usually like change, and in some cases you are coming in as the new guy after a person who has been there for decades. So before you cause a riot, fight the law, or rock the Casbah. Yes, the Clash puns are intentional. Here are a few tips for transitioning to a new ministry and church.
1. Learn as much as you can about the Church.
It is important to take time to assess the situation and find out what is going on. What are you walking in to? Hopefully you have asked lots of questions and got lots of information during the interview processes, but nothing prepares you for the actual reality of the situation. Learn the history of the church. Get to know the people, where they have been, where they are now, and where they are going. Get to know the lay leaders of the church. If there is one, call the city/county/regional association or diocese and ask them about the church. Even call sister churches around the area to find out information. If you are taking over a ministry of a church you are a member at, you might think you know what all is going on but you would be surprised how much information there is about the church’s operations that you might not know about. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Like the old GI Joe cartoon PSAs say, “knowing is half the battle.”
2. Be patient and be prepared give a lot of grace.
Be patient and assume that you will inherit some unresolved baggage. You will need to pay particular attention if you walk in to a situation where a long time minister has left the church, if the church has forced their minister to leave, or if the minister left because of impropriety. All of these situations require healing on the part of the congregation for different reasons. Just because there was an interim minister it doesn’t mean that the healing is complete. Be patient and assume that there will still be lots of baggage. This can be difficult since it requires a lot of effort and time, which are two things that can be in short supply when going to a new church. Even though you are busy, taking some time to do this and fix these holes in the beginning can do wonders in the long run.
3. Build relationships …
Okay, now you’ve found out all you can. Now, get to know the congregation and start to build relationships. Relationships are important, invest time in the people. You don’t have to be their best buddy, and actually it would probably be better if you weren’t, but develop a relationship as their leader and friend. Take the new members class, if your church offers one and you are able to do so. This is a great way to get to know new members of the church who are in the exact same boat you are. Don’t just stop at building relationships with the congregation, but also build relationships with other ministers in the area. If you have relocated to this church from a different area, this can be very important for many reasons. First, it can help you get to know the area from other ministers who have been serving there. Second, it can keep you from feeling distant from those that you have left. If this isn’t your first church, don’t neglect the relationship you have with those in ministry at the place you just left. Going forward these will become the most important relationships you have. There will be times where stuff happens and you will just need to talk to someone about it. Many times you can’t talk to someone in the congregation about it. There are times where you shouldn’t talk to your spouse about it either and you should avoid speaking about it to other ministers in the area. These are the instances where having those connections with those other ministers are key.
… but be careful not to fall in to any traps.
This builds off of the last suggestion. You’re the new guy and now that you’re now everyone’s best friend, be careful not to fall in to any traps. First, it is important to build relationships but be careful with those that seem to want to become your best buddy immediately. While some of these people are genuine and they truly just want to get to know the new guy, there are others that are wolves in sheep’s clothing. These are people with an ulterior motive. Some of these might try and become your best friend simply in order to get their agenda passed but there are others that are far more sinister and will become your friend purely to sabotage your ministry later. I know some of us have and will never experience this at a church. However, it is important to remember that these things have happened, that we are all sinful humans, and not everyone that attends church services are legitimate, sincere, and devoted followers of Christ.
Second, be careful with those that are quick to criticize the person you replaced. There will be a number of people who will come to you with criticisms of the person you replaced . You need to be careful not to fall in to this trap. Don’t be critical of the person no matter how much you might want to. Sometimes us ministers enter in to new places of ministry inheriting a HUGE mess. This can be as simple as working with a horribly designed stage or space, to a large mess dealing with hardened and hurt hearts because of shortfalls of your predecessor, see number 3. While many of these people are well meaning and just want things to improve, there are some that just like to criticize. Remember that the people that are criticizing your predecessor are the same people who will probably be talking about you to your replacement.
5. Don’t make changes right away, even if you were specifically brought in to make changes.
Okay, so this one could and probably should easily be number 1. Impatience is your enemy here. First, remember change always comes with a cost. As the new guy you automatically start off with a bit in the bank. This is just purely because you are new and the congregation knows you will make some changes. However, you need to make sure that you spend that wisely. This is where knowing the church helps. Know what the church considers successes. Small successes allow you to have more in the bank to pull from when you need to make big changes. Know where the untouchables are. Untouchables are things that the congregation will have a huge fit on if it is changed or replaced. These untouchables can be as simple as the coffee and doughnut time before Sunday morning, or they can be more complex. I’m not saying that these should never be changed, as some of these untouchables are things that need to be changed. The important thing is to establish the congregation’s trust before you try and make big changes.
Second, ministry in the end is all about people and sometimes it can be easy to forget this. It is important to know who all of the affected people will be and involve them in the decision making process before making any changes. Hopefully, these are things you have already found out in number 1 and 3. It is also important to remember that what might seem like a small change to you, might be a massive thing to someone else. I’m reminded of a story I heard from a friend of mine. My friend was the new music minister of a church where their sound and media systems were decades out of date. During the interview processes, it was made clear to him that they wanted and needed an update. So, one of the first changes the new music minister did was to buy a new modern digital soundboard and a nice shiny new iMac to run words. What the music minister didn’t know was that the sound booth was a long time ministry of a couple of members of the church. This angered the members, not because the changes were made because they knew the changes needed to happen, but because they weren’t consulted in the matter. They eventually instead left the ministry upset and eventually left the church feeling alienated from a ministry they loved.
6. Be yourself , trust in God, and don’t neglect your family!
Be who you are. It is tempting to put up a front when you start off at a new church because you want the congregation to like you. Though not everyone will like you, generally people like you best when you are just being yourself. Yes, people might end up leaving because of that but just know that no matter what you have to trust in God and that he brought you there for a reason. You can’t make everyone happy. If you try to you will drive yourself crazy.
It is important to really know yourself and to have your relationship with God to be as strong as possible. There will be times where you feel like you are the wrong person for the job or where you are overwhelmed by all the stuff you have to do or where you will be disoriented as you get used to a new place. There will be many people, see number 3, that will try and influence any decisions you might make or be critical of everything you do. With all of this you might feel discouraged, but this is where it is important to really be able to have the wisdom to discern the path that God is taking you and the church you are serving. Remember that God was, is, and will be working in that church before, during, and after your time there. Stay connected with those that will encourage and don’t get discouraged with any and all detractors that might be there.
I want to end by saying don’t neglect your marriage and family. The transition will be difficult for them as well. It takes months, if not years, to figure out big family transitions and most people will want you to finish it all in weeks if not less. Try and strengthen your bond in your marriage and with family as much as possible before undertaking a transition because there will be stressful times for everyone involved. Time will be short and you will be overworked, but remember to make time for your family. If you have to, turn off the cell phone and computer. Just what ever you do, don’t neglect to nurture your family relationship.
There are plenty of other suggestions that I could have added, but I believe this is at least a good start to your first months of ministry in a new place. I leave you with this classic verse and benediction:
“May the Lord bless you, and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.” – Number 6:24-26
If you have any suggestions or comments on anything I might have missed, feel free to comment below.