As still a rather newish seminary professor, I am growing accustomed to seeing yet another batch of graduates go off into their first pastorate. I regularly get asked for a tip or two about what to do upon arrival (or sometimes I just offer them without being asked!). So I thought I would give ten of them that I regularly pass along one way or the other. Though surely there are others who have given such a list (Ah! A quick Google search after I compiled my list netted this one from the Banner and another one from Thom Rainer for some other ideas), here is mine for what it’s worth.
1) Form an external prayer team before you arrive. As Paul asked others to pray for his ministry (Eph 6:18-19; Col 4:3-4), so it is wise to ask for prayer support to sustain you through those early days. Giving friends and family who know you best some specific prayer items to ask the Lord to go before your arrival will best insure your paths will be straight.
2) Systematically visit with the congregation through your first year. Getting to know your new flock is essential to properly caring for them (Prov 27:23). Whether going to their home or having them to yours, simply being with them, asking questions, listening to them, and then praying with them will help you learn about the unique nature of this local congregation.
3) Work on becoming friends with your elders. One major mistake young men can make is not cultivating friendship and a team approach to ministry with the men the Lord called to be shepherds of the church prior to their arrival. Learning about their families and work, spending relaxed time with them outside regularly scheduled meetings, asking them endless questions about the life and history of the congregation, and praying with them as much as possible are vital to cultivating healthy working relationships.
4) Leave everything in place for the first year or so. If you were to visit someone’s home, and thirty minutes into your time there began rearranging their furniture and suggesting interior decorating changes, your hosts would question your mental state. Though meant to be a bit of an exaggerated analogy, as a pastor is called to the church to bring his gifts and talents to bear, and a year can seem like a long time, it is more the relational side of things in mind here. After all, the church is called the household of God (I Tim 3:15), and folks have been there for years and decades before you arrived. Take time to observe and learn about the purpose of congregational traditions, ministries, and ways of administration before you start suggesting changes to them.
5) Focus on stirring the congregation to pray. One possible exception to the tip immediately above is in the area of prayer. Unless you are called to an exceptional congregation that is very rich in its prayer life, finding ways to encourage prayer is one of the greatest things you can do for a church. Many young men focus on the ministry of the Word but forget that prayer is forever linked together with it by the apostles (Acts 6:4). Praying after visits, inviting others to join you quietly for a time of prayer, and emphasizing prayer through preaching and teaching are ways to encourage this.
6) Make an appointment to speak with some leading pastors and community leaders. Your call is not only to the congregation but to the community in which you live. Requesting a meeting or going out to lunch a time each month in that first year with evangelical pastors, ministry leaders, and even a local government official or two will give you incredible insight into the town or city where you live and fast track your learning curve. I did this as a church planter because of being trained to do so. Consequently, I discovered so much about the history and culture of the town as well as had friendships that developed that, over time, became quite supportive of the congregation and me.
7) Do not become involved at first in too many outer responsibilities. Just as new parents need to “nest” and spend more time at home caring for their little one, so a new pastor must be careful not to get overly involved too quickly in affairs external to the church. Time will come for being on presbytery committees or traveling to preach. Show the Lord and the congregation – and yourself! – that your first ministry priority is to the ones who called you and, ahem, are paying your salary.
8) Lay out a three-to-six month preaching calendar. You do not want to spend each week of your new charge wondering and struggling over what you are going to preach the next Lord’s Day. You should go into your ministry with a set plan of preaching for those first months – the first sermon you will preach, the first book you will preach through with each text chosen by date (should be a smaller rather than a large one), and perhaps a few topics you will want to bring to them. I would caution about trying to lay out your preaching too far in advance, for as you learn about the congregation and consult with your elders you may be led to preach from Scriptures much different that you would have thought when you first arrived.
9) Do not forget you have a family (if you do). Those first months can be exhilarating, challenging, and exceedingly frustrating – sometimes all at once! You can think you should squeeze all the above and much more into them. In the midst of all the pastoral pressure, it can be easy to neglect your own family and their needs in the move and adjustment. Be sure to shepherd them first and foremost by walking them through their transitions, helping your children make new friends, maintaining family worship, not overwhelming your wife with too much hospitality, guarding your days off, spending some evenings at home, etc. As a qualification of an elder is to manage his own household first (I Tim 3:5), model to the congregation your love for them.
10) Work toward creating an atmosphere of prayer by scheduling a season of prayer. Nothing can bind a congregation together like special times of prayer. Having an extended evening of prayer, helping the congregation to understand and practice fasting for some specified ministry needs, creating prayer societies for a time period, or utilizing some other way to encourage a season of prayer during those first months or year will be a way to ask for God’s blessings on the church and its ministries.
Yes, this list purposefully begins and ends with prayer – and encourages it throughout. How else can an inexperienced man with the impossible assignment of representing Christ to his people possibly succeed?