It’s called the “honeymoon phase” of your ministry, and it’s usually pretty fun. You walk in the door and everyone walks to make a good impression on you just as you want to make a good impression on them. It’s like a first date that lasts three to six months. Everything is new. No one has heard your sermons before. All your jokes are new. All your illustrations are new. Everything you do is new. You are so new that even your annoying qualities haven’t started annoying people yet!
In Deuteronomy 24:5, there is an interesting provision in the law. A newly married man was not supposed to be sent off to war or be given certain other tasks so that he could “be happy” with his wife (I’ll let you figure that one out) for the first year of his marriage.
When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken.
I’m not advocating instituting such a law in our modern world, but I think there is an interesting principle at stake. The honeymoon phase of a marriage is important. Those early months set a tone that can carried forward. My wife and I got married on Sunday and left for Dallas on Tuesday. We didn’t have a honeymoon and we jumped right into our lives. She went to work and I poured myself into seminary and work. It is a wonder our marriage survived. Would that we had made more time for each other in those early months.
It is equally important that a pastor make good use of his ministry honeymoon. He needs to use the early months of his ministry to lay the foundation for what is to come. The old cliche says, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” As a pastor, the best chance to show the people who you are, who you are going to be – to define your character – is in those first few months. It is much tougher to correct that first impression later or to rebuild the bad impression you have left if things don’t go well.
Here are some random thoughts I have about those first few months in the church.
1. Be yourself – but your BEST self.
Never be someone you are not, but you don’t have to be your worst self! When you are going out on a date, you get a shower, put on your nice clothes, run a comb through your hair and slap some stinky stuff on. Do that to your heart and soul as well. I’m not advocating being fake – NEVER! Don’t pretend to like the local sports team if you don’t, but you also don’t have to pull out your best zingers!
Eventually, people are going to figure out your flaws. You are not perfect and they will realize that. But you don’t have to advertise or put them on display for all to see!
I remember a new pastor in our community who went to visit a family. They introduced themselves and he said, “Wow, that is a really weird last name.” He looked at the little girl. “Someday you will get married and you will get to change your name.” Why? What good comes from insulting someone’s name? He did not last long – that was part of a trend!
Be yourself, but don’t be your worst self!
2. Respect the past.
Going in to an established church is fraught with peril. Some people are loyal to previous pastors. Some might have been injured by them. When you go into a new church, respect the past. That doesn’t mean that things have to stay the same forever, but don’t try to change everything your first week. When you visit someone’s home, do you rearrange the furniture? Don’t start changing the furniture in the church the day you walk in the door.
3. Build pastoral trust before you start making structural or ministry changes.
I wrote on this recently. You need to earn the right to lead before you start trying to mold the church. The right to change and mold a church according to your convictions is a privilege earned as you pour your blood, sweat and tears into a congregation. It takes time – estimates run from three to five years at the minimum. You rush the process, you will pay the price. The ministry graveyard is full of the tombstones of the careers of those who ignored this advice.
4. Invest in the community.
The smaller the community, the more important this is. Join the rescue squad. Coach Little League. Volunteer as a chaplain. Get involved in the community. Whatever you do, don’t disrespect it.
5. Follow the rules.
When I came to Southern Hills, I realized that we had a problem. Our Constitution and Bylaws were grossly inadequate and there was a long list (and conflicting lists) of unwritten rules.
I reminded people that we were governed by the Bible and our Bylaws. There is no such thing as an unwritten rule. We are going to live by our written rules. We are going to follow the Bible (as best we can) and we are going to abide by our governing documents. If those documents are horrendous (and lets face it, a lot of Baptist churches have stupendously horrendous bylaws) then we can elect a task force to rewrite them. But we need to live by our congregationally approved governance.
What you do not want to do is simply act like you are the emperor! Remind the people of the importance of their own congregational decisions. So many churches adopt their bylaws then ignore them and just do whatever they want. Remind them that their decisions matter.
6. Meet and greet.
Get to know the people. By name. I’m terrible at this. If there’s a pictorial directory, get it and study it. If not, take pictures with your camera or have someone help you out. But make it a priority in your first couple of months to get to know everyone by name. That matters.
7. Feed the flock.
Here’s where my bias shows through, but there is no more sacred or important thing that a preacher does than the message he preaches on Sunday morning, in which he proclaims God’s word to the congregation. Don’t feed your folks dog food. Don’t reheat leftovers from your previous church. Don’t give them fast food. For the love of all that is holy don’t go on the internet and find prepackaged food! Serve them the best meals you possible can! Prepare the finest feasts you give them from the Word of God week after week.
The way to a church’s heart is through it’s spiritual stomach. Feed them well from God’s word!
8. Don’t let your mouth write checks your ministry can’t cash.
I remember a youth pastor candidate who regaled us with his plans for his youth ministry. Wow, it was really exciting. Suffice it to say that reality did not match the promises of his 12 point plan!
Don’t set lofty goals and heavenly visions that you aren’t going to achieve. Dream some dreams? Sure. Cast some visions? If you must. But don’t cry wolf with wild plans that will never come to fruition.
9. Set good habits early.
Things like office hours, days off, family time and such things need to be established early. Let them know that while you are on call, you also prioritize your family. You will come to the hospital for emergencies, but you will not abandon your family for the sake of the ministry.
10. Don’t be afraid to procrastinate.
Not every problem in a church has to be dealt with today. When I arrived at Southern Hills, one older gentleman showed up in my office with a list of grievances that the older folks had against the younger folks in the church. I developed my standard answer. “Let me get my feet on the ground and figure out what is going on around here, then we will deal with that in a few months, okay?”
Some things can’t be procrastinated, but many can be. Frankly, some things are little more than tempests in a teapot and will blow over. Other things can wait. Some must be dealt with. The trick is knowing which is which, of course.
But when you walk in the door and people begin to bring you their grievances, don’t be afraid to ask for time to get your feet under you, to figure out the church, and to get things set up before you deal with all of these issues. Chances are that situation has been brewing for a long time. It can simmer a little longer while you figure out what is really going on. Ask for a little time to get perspective, to talk to a few people and to figure out the best course of action.
Just get in there and be a man of God. Love the people, serve the Savior, stick it out through good times and bad, and see what God can do!
That’s my advice. Perhaps its worth what you paid for it, I don’t know. But since it’s free, don’t complain!