I have had the privilege and challenge of serving in three churches before the one I currently serve. They were established churches with rich histories. Of course, each of the three had their own distinctive personalities.
As with every church, there were positives and things not as positive. I was called to each area of ministry understanding that no church is perfect, and I am certain the people knew no pastor is perfect either. I certainly was not.
I made more than my fair share of mistakes and blunders, and I’ve got the scars to prove it. Unfortunately, and thanks to me, my previous churches also carry a few scars of their own.
With the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom that comes from 25 years of being a pastor, I have given a good bit of thought to what I might have done differently – and by differently, I mean better! The internal scars I carry and those I unintentionally left on churches might have been avoided if there had been an older pastor in whom I confided and who would have been bluntly honest with me. Of course, in my youthful exuberance I may not have received the wisdom offered, but at least I would not have jumped in unwarned!
So … if I could go back and re-do year one at my previous churches, what would I do differently?
Focus on the church’s mission and vision
Nearly every church has a mission and/or vision statement. It may be gathering dust in a file somewhere, or it may be incorporated into the constitution and bylaws, but too often the people and church leadership haven’t paid much attention to it. In my first year, I would find that statement. If it did not exist, I would work with the leadership to develop one anchored in the Great Commission. I would spend that first year talking about the mission of the church at every opportunity – in sermons, deacons’ meetings, leadership training, and whenever and wherever I could.
Why is this so important? Because change is hard. Most new pastors come into a church with passion and desire to lead the church forward. Proposed changes can be received coldly. The young pastor can easily get frustrated at statements like “We’ve never done it that way before,” or “We already tried something like that, and it didn’t work.” This opposition can lead to adversarial relationships and even to a short pastoral tenure.
But suppose the groundwork had been laid by preaching and teaching and talking about the mission for a year. Any proposed changes would be linked straight back to that mission. Change is very often resisted because there is no “why” behind it. The mission of the church answers that question.
Imagine how different it might be if the pastor could say to the leadership, “Because we as a church believe that reaching the lost is our priority, I would like to propose that we …” The groundwork is laid; the mission is in view; and the change now fits with what the congregation has confirmed as their priority.
Learn the stories behind the traditions
Every established church has traditions. Some of those traditions are deeply entrenched, reaching back for generations. As a younger pastor, I saw traditions as anchors that kept the church stationery. Traditions seemed like impediments to progress, and thus those who held to those traditions appeared to be obstructionists.
As I kept bumping up against the walls of tradition, it created inner frustration and produced more than a few tears. I knew about the tears I cried, but I was probably unaware of the tears of the members who felt I was insensitive and bull-headed.
If I could start again, I would listen more and talk less. When I encountered a tradition that seemed like an obstruction, instead of attempting to bulldoze my way through it, I would find long-time members and ask them why we covered the communion table with a white cloth, or why we sang the doxology every week after the offering, or why we took up the special offering for a particular children’s home. I’d also note the names engraved on plaques and painted on stained glass windows to find out who those people were, what they meant to the church, and if they still had family in town.
Why would I do these things? Because behind every tradition is a story … and stories have power!
Taking time to know the stories doesn’t mean I have no intention of moving forward. On the contrary, it shows that as a new pastor with an eye on the future, I also value the history of the church where I am called to serve and lead. I build credibility with the people because knowing their stories honors their history instead of belittling it.
Beyond credibility, I can use the stories of past victories and cherished traditions to rekindle the pioneering spirit that once burned in the church. I am now asking the church not to abandon the past, but to build on it.
Walk slowly among the people
I borrowed this phrase from my friend Larry Wynn. It means to take time to get to know people personally. I can’t tell you how often on Sunday mornings I’m bouncing back and forth between the worship center and my office, attempting to answer a dozen questions on a variety of topics while trying to focus on the upcoming sermon. It’s easy to walk by people without offering even a short greeting. I’m a man on a mission, but I’ve totally forgotten that my mission is to be a pastor to the flock.
The danger is that you can seem cold and distant, too busy to stop and shake a hand or hug a neck. People want to know they are important, that they matter. As a former pastor once told me, “People can overlook a lot of things, even poor preaching, if they know you love them.” If I could go back and start over, I would intentionally slow down, engage in conversations, smile, make eye contact, and sip my coffee with my people more slowly.
Spend time developing key leaders
No matter how good a leader you are, you are always better off investing time in those who will be able to step up and lead with you. Moses’ father-in-law gave him that advice. Jesus modeled that wisdom. The Apostle Paul both trained leaders and called upon those leaders to train others. We do our churches a disservice when we neglect this vital aspect of ministry.
In Ephesians 4, Paul tells us that God gifted leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry and, in turn, to build up and strengthen the church. When we derive our sense of worth from being “the guy” and trying to solve every problem and run every committee or team, we rob members of the opportunity to use their gifts and passion in service and may even stand in the way of the church fulfilling the church’s mission. It is far better to spend the time needed to coach others, give them opportunities to serve, and allow them to assume real responsibilities in the church and community. In doing so, you multiply your ministry.
Do not sacrifice your family for the church
Being a pastor means you have a very high calling. It is a calling you take very seriously. It is not a 9-5, 40 hours-a-week job. You will receive calls in the middle of the night. You will get up early to be with a member about to face major surgery. You will be asked to counsel, to comfort, and even to referee. Quite frankly, sometimes the expectations can be overwhelming.
If you have a family, then it is imperative that you zealously guard family time.
You are responsible to carve out time for your family. You are responsible to communicate with your leadership the importance of time with family, and to model it by not keeping people busy at the church every night of the week. It means you’ll have to say “no” to some things, even good things, in order to say “yes” to your family. Not everyone will understand, but don’t let guilt keep you from doing the right thing. Too many pastors have sacrificed their family on the altar of the church.
Don’t misunderstand – I didn’t do everything wrong, in fact, I did many things right. But as I look back at more than two decades of ministry, I wish I had some do-overs. My solace is that God is both gracious and merciful. He used me often in spite of myself.
Lost people came to Christ. Hurting people found comfort. Members stepped up into places of leadership. God took care of those churches. God took care of my family. And God took care of me. May He do the same, and even greater, for you.
Jimmy Long serves as pastor of Grace Fellowship in Greensboro.