As I packed up my office and prepared to enter into my first full-time ministry opportunity, my boss came in with a book as a parting gift. “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins. The premise of the book is simple: “The actions you take during your first few months in a new role will largely determine whether you succeed or fail” (page 1). Admittedly, I don’t think it’s wise for pastors to be building their goals and strategies solely from the wisdom of secular books about the workforce like this one. However, getting started on the right foot as a pastor will pay dividends for your service to the flock in the long run, and because of this, I chose to read it. As I read the book and began serving my new church family I regularly found myself exactly where Watkins wrote that I would be and felt the pressure he said I would feel. I came to appreciate the reality that the first 90 days of a new job are important, and hard, whether you are a CEO or a new minister.
With the semester coming to an end this spring, many seminary students across the country have their eyes toward the horizon that is graduation. And with that graduation will come ministry opportunities for many young alumni. These opportunities will be an answer to prayer and the start of an exciting journey for the glory of God. They will also be hard, especially those first few months! So for the soon-to-be vocational pastor, here are some exhortations to guide you in those first crucial months:
If you’re in seminary reading this, chances are you’ve heard the stereotypes about new pastors fresh out of school. Naïve and ambitious, filled with head knowledge from the rigorous theological study but with hands and hearts that haven’t quite caught up. You may think you won’t fall victim to these stereotypes, but then again so did everyone else! So how can you serve in your new post for those first 90 days and guard yourself against these tropes?
First, your earliest days in ministry need to be marked by a posture of clarifying and defining expectations every day. What do your elders want to see you do in these first few months? What do you want to see happen? The closer those answers can align, the better it will be for you! Most pastors are hired to do more than one thing at their church. Some expectations of the job cannot be fulfilled immediately. Do you and your elders agree on which things need to wait and which things can be done from day one? You can never over-clarify what is expected of you those first few months but a lack of clarity can cause conflict and division that takes more time to resolve and holds back ministry.
Second, in your first three months garner as many easy wins as you can. A word of caution here: a proper definition of “win,” is essential to this being effective. An easy win is not a major change or philosophical shift that requires a plethora of time and energy. An easy win is fixing the leaky faucet in the bathroom. An easy win is updating the website if there are some outdated events posted on the homepage. Ask the elders if there are any younger men eager to be discipled and take them out to coffee, or serve on the greeting team. If you’re really eager for an easy win, volunteer to run slides on Sunday mornings! Easy wins serve the church, give you easy confidence boosts, and help you assimilate into the community. Many people will have a healthy dose of skepticism about a new pastor. Finding easy ways to build credit and express your love and service to them is an easy way to honor them and the Lord. Maybe most important, you are not too special to run slides on Sunday and easy wins put us back into a righteous humility.
Third, remember that swinging for the fences raises your chances of striking out. Seldom does a church need an all-star, especially when they hardly know the guy. Let your first 90 days be marked by hitting singles. The allure of the home run in ministry never goes away, and sometimes God calls people to swing for it, but I can almost guarantee God has not called you to hit home runs right away. Preach the Word, pray for people, attend your new small group, and be ready to fulfill the normal duties and responsibilities of ministry. The more you try to impress people or change things in the name of growth or improvement the more you may actually convey pride and a demeaning attitude toward them and the prior pastor. If God has called you to the ministry, He will have you there long enough to see the home runs 5 years from now.
Ultimately, if you are called by God to enter into a new church as a shepherd, let your first 90 days be marked by prayer and praise. Consider the way Paul models prayer for churches as he begins many of his Epistles and urges Timothy to pray for all people (1 Tim. 2:1). Those examples are a good reminder for us that elders are meant to be devoted to prayer (Acts. 6:4). In those first few months you’ll be learning simple things like small group schedules, which children go to what classroom on Sunday morning, and your schedule will be packed with lunches and coffees as you acclimate. It’s easy to forget to come before the Lord on behalf of your flock during the transition. In your first 90 days, don’t wait until you know their names to pray for them. Learn their names by praying for them! Carve out some time and begin praying through the membership rolls the minute you arrive. It will always be tempting to do something other than pray.
In the same way, it will often be tempting to wallow in discouragement early on. We must be grateful for the opportunity. Even when early problems arise, don’t lose sight of the fact that God has put you there and that the people you serve are trusting you with serious aspects of their spiritual formation. Likewise, be grateful for the grunt work you never daydream about in your seminary courses. Filling out an expense report is much better than having no money! Ultimately, praise the Lord for giving us that Savior on the cross, Jesus, the true and great shepherd who you now get to model in your ministry through the grace He offers. Truly there is no better feeling knowing that regardless of these first 90 days, eternity with God is sealed now and forever.