From One Young Gun to Another

About five years ago I landed a dream job. Fresh out of seminary and with barely any experience, I became the Assimilation Pastor at a church with more than 1,300 weekly attendees. I was way out of my league. Seminary did a great job teaching me theology and exegesis, but I was vastly unprepared for a host of other responsibilities. I had to manage difficult personalities, tell people “no” when their ideas conflicted with the vision and mission of the church, develop elaborate processes for ministry involvement, and delegate key ministry roles. Now I’m starting over. As the senior pastor of a 200 year-old Presbyterian church facing issues of relocation and revitalization, I am facing a whole new set of issues for which I feel vastly unprepared.

Maybe you find yourself in a similar situation. Maybe you are realizing seminary only did half the job you thought it did. Or maybe your new ministry position is more complex than you ever imagined. God taught me some incredible lessons five years ago, and I’m re-visiting them again. Here are six things I’ve learned that helped me keep my head above water, and even begin to thrive.

#1 – Be a student of your surroundings

There’s a scene in Maverick where Mel Gibson promises to lose at poker for one hour. Why? An hour is a long time. What is he doing? He’s observing the other players. Who has an obvious tell? Who likes to bluff? Where can he gain an advantage? Mel Gibson is learning everything he can in that hour: He’s being a student of his surroundings.

In the same way you study a map before a road trip or let your eyes adjust to a dimly-lit room before walking in, you’ve got to take the time to study your surroundings. Unfamiliar territory requires some degree of familiarity before action. Do your best Maverick impression and spend time studying your surroundings.

I’ve been at my present church for just over four weeks, and already I’ve been asked a dozen times, “How are we going to grow the church? What is our vision? Our mission?” It has taken great discipline, but each time I’ve answered, “Give me six months.” Why? I once heard John Bryson say, “Guys never wish they had planted a church sooner, and they always wish they had waited longer.” In the same way, you’ll never regret learning too much context about your church and your community before you begin to implement a plan of action.

Learn the people. Learn the community. Learn the church. Study your context. Don’t jump into action, but take time to learn the rhythms of where you are. Don’t delay action forever, but, if you’ve done your homework, when it is time to act you’ll be more prepared to interact with your people in a healthy way.

#2 – Rely on relationships

Before you can sell somebody on a solution, you have to sell them on the problem. And before you can sell somebody on the problem, you have to give them a reason to listen to you.

In my previous church I was hired to help small groups play a more central role in the life of our church—to engage believers in spiritual formation beyond Sunday morning. Before I could do that, however, I needed help our people understand why that engagement was necessary. During my first three months in that new role, my wife and I had over 60 people to our home for dinner. Why? We were building relationships; getting to know the folks I’d be leading, and letting them get to know us. As time wore on, I continued to spend time with leaders and new faces over breakfast, lunch, and coffee. That time was invaluable, and relational capital is an investment you will never regret.

When we left our previous church we experienced the fruit of our relational investment. Our final Sunday was similar to Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:36-37—tear-filled embraces let us know we hadn’t merely implemented ministry programs, but had cultivated relationships and impacted lives.

#3 – Be particular with the process

Anybody can cast vision but saying something louder and more often isn’t going to affect change. What are the processes that will move your people from seeing the vision to living the vision? Put those processes in place, and then patiently shepherd your people through them.

Don’t plan a new evangelism initiative or offer a children’s ministry program as standalone events. How can you integrate them into other activities to achieve greater strategic impact? Consider a sermon series through the book of Acts and write small group curriculum to help your people realize their place in the Great Commission. Train your small group leaders to help their groups identify their own personal “Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.” Then, consider a “reverse offering” in which you give each small group a small budget to host a neighborhood barbecue or community VBS. Don’t just cast vision, but walk with your people and help them take the necessary steps in actualizing that vision.

Vision inspires change. Processes facilitate change. Habits sustain change.

Your vision will inspire your people, but it is incumbent upon you to establish the processes necessary to making that vision actionable, thereby helping form the habits to sustain that action.

#4 – Leverage the LOOGYs

In baseball, a LOOGY is a Left-Handed, One-Out Guy—a relief pitcher who only has one job: to come into the ballgame and get one out.

In your church there are a lot of LOOGYs who don’t know they are LOOGYs, and as a result they are going to give you a lot of advice on a lot of things. Don’t write them off. Instead, leverage them. Find their sweet spot and plug them in. Chances are they can be a boon to your ministry. Help them find their place and partner with them.

Maybe you’ve got somebody who is exceedingly organized and really wants to help lead a small group, but they can’t teach. They’d probably do a great job at follow-up. Perhaps someone always gives you new ideas for new ministries, but doesn’t have the ability to see them through. Ask them to pray for ministries the church is currently doing. You’ve got someone who is eager to help with your Sunday morning hospitality ministry, but you haven’t see them smile in five years. They’d do a great job emailing your first-time guests and keeping track of your new members. Find a way to leverage the gifts your people do have in a way that channels their passion for the health of your church.

#5 – Favor feedback

Feedback is crucial. You have to know if the processes you’ve put in place are achieving the goals you’ve established. So ask questions. Be objective. Invite criticism. Be humble and listen. Not every piece of feedback will be accurate or helpful, but it will start you thinking outside of the box.

A friend once told me, “We allow everybody to see us with our clothes on, we allow those we know well to see us in our bathing suits, and we allow our spouses to see us naked. As pastors we must have trusted companions who see us and know us to varying degrees of intimacy and vulnerability.” With degrees of appropriateness, seek out those with whom you can be vulnerable and transparent.

Proverbs 27:5-6 reads, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Ask the Lord to give you a heart willing to receive wounds from a friend, then seek out friends who will wound you in love. Cultivate this type of atmosphere among your staff. Model how to receive criticism well. Publically thank brothers and sisters who are honest with you.

Inviting criticism is frightening—there’s no doubt about it. Approach brothers and sisters you love, establish a framework for feedback, and trust the Lord to bear fruit in your soul.

#6 – Have joy in Jesus

Ministry should be fun, so love what you do! In certain seasons this won’t always be easy. In those tough times, hold fast to the Word of life and shine like a light in the world. Strive to proclaim with Paul, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all,” (Philippians 2:17). When this is your heart’s disposition and your internal compass, those with whom and to whom you minister will rejoice along with you.

Rejoice in your relationship with the Lord and let that joy spill into every facet of your life. Your spouse, your kids, your friends, your co-workers, and those you minister to should all sense your passion for Jesus and your love for them. Devour the Word of God, cultivate sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading, commune with Lord in prayer, and never lose sight of the cross.

Chris is husband to Liz and daddy to Aletheia, Judah, and Evangeline. Chris is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Reading, Pa and has a PhD in Organizational Leadership. Chris is happy to be back living in the north after five hot years in South Carolina.