Just as the final word in real estate is “location, location, location,” so also there is a final word in beginning a ministry. That word is “relationships, relationships, relationships!”
First, celebrate your beginning. For church members, the end of a pastoral interim is made up of equal measures of hope and relief. They’re glad the search is over. They’re glad someone will be “in charge.” They’re eager to see what you will do. Use that moment for a service of mutual commitment and covenant. Speak out loud in front of the whole congregation the promises you and the search committee have made to one another. Pray God’s blessing on this new, shared enterprise.
Second, establish an ongoing structure for communication and support. Many American Baptist churches have as part of their polity a pastor relations committee. That group has the specific responsibility of supporting the pastor and serving as a conduit for concerns raised by the church. Larger Baptist churches in the South tend to have personnel or administrative committees, but the communication and support functions are often absent. These are crucial if you want to succeed long term.
Third, begin as you mean to go on. Pastors, particularly, are tempted to do too much in the early days. Resist that temptation. If you plan to take Fridays off, start out taking Fridays off. If you don’t plan to attend every committee meeting, don’t begin attending every committee meeting. Drawing these kinds of boundaries early helps make for realistic expectations later on.
Fourth, do make relationships a priority. If possible, visit every family in the congregation within the first six months. If the church is too large for that, at least visit every elected leader. The more time you spend getting to know people and where they live, the better you will be able to be their pastor.
Fifth, don’t give your trust too easily. Often when the new minister arrives, the first people to seek out and befriend him or her are the people with an agenda of some kind. That agenda may be a specific project or a pet peeve, or it may be power in the church. A good rule of thumb is to take no one in the congregation into your confidence for at least six months after you arrive. Give yourself time to observe people in the give and take of life. Remember, as Barnette says, “Trust no one fully, except God.”
Sixth, don’t be a lone ranger. In some ways this sounds like the opposite of the fifth point, but it isn’t. We all need people with whom we can be honest and accountable. Most often for ministers, this will come through the ecumenical ministerial association or ministerial prayer group, or even a lectionary study group. The important thing is to find and cultivate a group with whom you can be yourself.
Seventh, take your time. Eager ministers often shoot themselves in the foot by making changes too quickly. Even a church that tells you it is highly motivated for change and calls you with that understanding will resist if you move too fast. It’s far better to take at least six months to get to know the congregation before suggesting any major changes. An even better approach is to use a strategic planning process so that suggested changes emerge from the congregation itself.
Just as the final word in real estate is “location, location, location,” so also there is a final word in beginning a ministry. That word is “relationships, relationships, relationships!” The more you care for your people and are seen to care for them, the better you will fare in the inevitable ups and downs of church life.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.