When a minister assumes his first pastorate, it can be an exciting time for everyone. There is so much hope and anticipation. But there is also so much that is mysterious and fraught with difficulty. The following are some bits of advice from some lessons I've learned over the years, some of them the hard way.
I once had an old pastor tell me to go to a church and buy a burial plot there, that this was the only way to endear myself to the people and communicate to them that I was serious about the community. I didn’t do it. But I do agree with the logic. You should only ever go to a place where you could stay for a long time. God may move you in 6 months, but you should never go to a place thinking about the next place. Ask yourself, "If God did not move me for 25 years, could I be happy here?" And do what you can to communicate this commitment without presuming on the Providence of God.
2. During the process of getting to know the church, find out who in the church wields the power.
I had a friend who always asked this diagnostic question: If the church were to need a new van for the bus ministry, who would I need to ask?
Is it the deacons? Is it the elders? Is it the congregation? Is it the members who have the most money and the history of funding big projects? A new pastor can find out a lot about a church with how this question is answered.
The answer to this question tells you who to watch out for, and can be a huge indicator of a church's relative health.
3. Identify the biggest problems the church is currently facing.
It’s amazing how much you can learn in the interview process if you’re intent on listening more than talking. Yes, they’re trying to get to know you, but you are also there to get to know them. These are the people God may be calling you to lead.
Watch carefully. Listen critically.
Talk to the staff you’re inheriting. Ask them what the greatest hindrance to ministry has been in their time there.
Talk to the old pastor off the record. It may be that he’s bitter, and has nothing good to say about the people. But it could be that because of his unique experiences, he has insight that no one else does.
It’s always better to walk in to a situation with eyes wide open.
4. Find friends.
In every church there are people who make it their ambition to be the friend of the pastor. Do your best to discern which are interested in genuine friendship (and which are interested for more self-serving reasons). Times will come when you need a close friend in your congregation, or you will need a place to start when explaining yourself for a dumb move you’ve just made.
Maybe this person likes to take the pastor hunting, or fishing, or they just like having a pastor over for Sunday dinner. Consider how much you will need them – and quickly befriend them. You may never survive without them.
This isn’t merely self-serving. God has given the church variously gifted people, and some are perfectly placed there for encouragement. Find your Barnabases and receive them as the gift from God that they are.
5. Get to know the constitution and/or bylaws.
Like it or not, your church has some rules by which it plays. If you plan on doing the church any long-term good, you need to play by the rules. Get to know the church’s constitution and only work within the framework of that constitution. Do research on other constitutions. Once you’ve got the constitution mastered, think innovatively about how to get things done with it.
6. Look for like-minded brothers nearby.
You may have a passel of friends from seminary or your old place, but you may be surprised at how badly you just need a friendly face 2 years into your ministry. Make sure that you have some men who could become confidants, accountability partners, and general shoulders to cry on. There has to be a like-minded pastor in a church within reasonable driving distance. Find him.
7. Identify your church's idols.
You will be able to get a handle on this based upon what questions the search committee (or deacons or elders, or whoever’s in charge of finding you) asks you. Are they all questions about money and location? Are they all questions about your personal spiritual disciplines? Are they all theological/doctrinal questions? Do the questions center around particular cultural issues or topical concerns? Are they asking how much time you plan to be in the office? The types of questions asked often betray the hearts of the people asking. Listening well can help you see what other potential objects of worship exist for your church that might distract from Christ-centeredness. This will help you discern a church's spiritual condition and plan to preach and minister effectively.