Starting Out The Right Way

Olympic coaches and runners have taught us that how a sprinter comes out of the blocks is a significant factor in how well he or she runs the race. The same is true for a leader in a local church. If you get off on the wrong foot - it may be a difficult race at best.

baptism-106057 640When you make the transition from your final stages of preparation to your first appointment as a pastor of a local church there are several adjustments to be made. The most crucial of these adjustments is a change in mind-set. Up to this time you have concentrated on growing yourself from point A to point B. Suddenly, you find yourself in the position of being responsible to move an entire congregation from point A to point B. It's truly a different way of thinking.

The transition is one from being a leading person to being a leader of persons. A leading person may excel in what he or she does personally, but has no track record in leading others to excel in what they do. As a scientist, Jonas Salk was a leading person, but not a leader of persons. As a musician, Paul McCartney is a leading person, but not a leader of persons. Having influence is one thing, but "moving" a group of people is quite another!

There is no magic, fool-proof formula, nor six easy steps that guarantee a problem-free growing church. (I've looked high and low for the perfect church in about 40 different denominations - and let me give you my field level observation in technical language: "There ain't one!") But, there are guidelines that can help you sprint out of the blocks strong, swift and sure- footed.

The guidelines work based on the assumption that you have chosen the right church (a topic for another edition of "The Pastor's Coach"!). Don't just jump at the first offer. Pray! Ask questions. Be able to answer to yourself with confidence why you are convinced God has led you to this particular church.

Perhaps you are a seasoned pastor helping a young leader get started. Do you remember how you felt just before assuming responsibility in your first church? Do you remember wondering how it was possible to be so scared and excited at the same time? Young leader, how are you feeling as you approach your first church? What are you thinking? Without hopefully sounding too fatherly, let me say that your future is bright and the following guidelines will help you bolt out of the blocks well.

Show up as a servant, not a savior.

Having a good measure of confidence is one thing; having all the answers is quite another. People respond best to a team approach, not to the attitude of "I am the way, the truth, and bigger than life...basically I'm one swell guy!" This is particularly true if some of the people have been at the church for a long time and have poured their blood, sweat and tears into it. One young pastor just about to begin his first assignment said to me: "These people haven't seen the likes of me...I'm serving notice. There's about to be a major wake-up call." He got the wake-up call. was a call to another church.

Your role is that of a servant leader. Your job is to lead the people toward God, as a servant of God. You are responsible to lead them in a journey of spiritual maturity. Your job is to cultivate a faith-producing environment that is conducive to their growth. Your mission is to produce Christ followers, and that's based upon the presupposition that you, personally, are a Christ follower. All Christ followers are servants at heart. Your service happens to be leadership, but you are first a servant.

Learn as much as you can as fast as you can.

Digest the history of the church. The past will reveal much to you and give you insights into how to lead in the future. Don't dwell on the past, but know it well. Interview people in the church about what they think the strengths and weaknesses are and what they would change. Make these short, simple and informal interviews. Don't make the interviews appear as if you are fishing for something or suspect there is a problem. (I realize you will have done some of this before you accepted the church's invitation, but I promise you, you will find out much more after you say "I do.")

Conduct exit interviews of people who have recently left the church - not with a goal of wooing them back, but only to learn why they left. Take notes on these interviews and analyze the patterns. Don't worry about the long list of things you may hear. Consider only those things that you are hearing repeated several times. Learn who the influencers are - not just "who" they are, but who they are! Get to know them; learn how they think; learn what motivates them and how you can help them grow as a Christian and, of course, as a leader.

Gather some "change" before you make change.

John Maxwell has taught us this well. Have you seen him do the funny but poignant bit in a leadership conference where he stands up with both pants pockets sticking out, portraying the pastor who has no "change" left? Good stuff, huh? If you've been there, you know exactly how important this concept is.

Accumulating "pocket change" takes time, and lots of it. But you can't wait that long to begin making some changes - therein lies one of the first leadership dilemmas. How can you make change when you don't have much "change"? The good news is that the church will loan you some change upon your arrival. If you spend it well, they will give you more. Within one week of being on the job, the new pastor saw that his church of 200 desperately needed a win. This church in Georgia had reached a plateau and had little money - and even less hope. They really wanted new choir robes but couldn't afford them.

This United Methodist pastor knew that choir robes had little to do with the success of the church in the big picture, but was wise enough to know they needed a win. He told the congregation that God was big enough to provide the money for the choir robes - $2400. He stood in the pulpit and lovingly challenged the people to give. He took a risk and God blessed. Over $2500 came in and you never saw such a pumped and enthused church. They thought, "If we can do that, what could we really do?" This pastor accumulated so much change in his pocket he could barely walk! (If you're reading this, Ken, way to go, friend!)

"God was big enough to provide the money."

On the flip side, if you spend your change unwisely, the church will charge you interest that will kill you. On his first Sunday, one young pastor used up all of his borrowed change. Without discussing it with anyone, he announced from the pulpit that the choir would no longer be wearing robes. He said it was about time they caught up with the 21st Century. He's now trying to catch up with U-haul.

Align your productive strengths with the church's greatest need.

The best way to illustrate this is to tell a short and simple story. The young pastor arrived at his first church and was wise enough to see that the people were not engaged in personal lifestyle evangelism. At first he thought: "I'm in trouble. I'm an introvert by nature and I don't have the gift of evangelism." But God spoke to him and told him to be himself and use his gifts to advance the Kingdom. His gifts were leadership, administration, and mercy. He thought about how he could align those gifts with moving the church forward in evangelism and determined to be faithful in three things.

First, he would cast vision for the lost; second, he would organize efforts for community outreach and personal evangelism; and third, he would let his congregation see his heart for lost people through his prayers. God blessed them with tremendous results. Don't get caught in the busyness of the church. Don't get sucked into using your non-gifted areas to advance the important facets of the church, or worse, use your non-gifted areas to do unimportant things! Discover the critical and essential needs and focus on your productive strengths to achieve measurable progress.

Invest more time in less people.

In 1995, as I left Skyline Church, I learned this principle. It was a defining moment for me. But the length of this article says that I need to skip my personal story and get to the point!

Here's the bottom line. Many pastors spin their wheels running around meeting with people about things that don't matter. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel - he runs and runs and runs but never goes anywhere. Candidly, at times our ego draws us toward the crowd. But from a distance you can, at best, only impress people. You truly impact people - for life - when you are close up. Jettison the meetings and go for changed lives. When you meet, make it about changing lives. Think small group, big impact. Find the leaders and invest your life into them. Love and encourage everyone but invest the majority of your time in the few.

Communicate vision from your heart and mind.

You can't do this too soon or too much. As a leader you need to provide direction, deliver hope, and cultivate an environment conducive to people growing in their faith. Get alone with God and the key leaders of the church; discover together the focus of the church's ministry and the primary path of implementation.

Candidly, you as the pastor will have considerable input when it comes to the vision of the church. You are the senior leader, and you should have significant input, but you are not the only leader. Listen to the others, gain their input and communicate the vision clearly, concisely, creatively and consistently. My wife, Patti, and I attend North Point Community Church and I can tell you that there hasn't been a Sunday in nearly four years when Pastor Andy Stanley hasn't cast the vision. It may only be a few seconds, or it may be an entire sermon, but the vision is communicated over and over again.

Keep the vision simple, and say it often. Cut out everything that is a distraction and take the hill together!

Take care of yourself and your family.

If you grow the church but fail to take care of yourself, you'll soon no longer be able to lead and grow the church. If you grow the church and lose your family, you've lost it all. Take time to play and pray. Take time to reflect and think. Take time to exercise and rest. Work hard and work smart when you work, but keep the real priorities in mind at all times. Ministry isn't a sprint - it's a marathon. Invest your time wisely.

Talk to you again soon.


This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at