Having served my first church for more than a quarter of a century, I can testify that the first few years can lay a foundation for a long, loving, and fulfilling relationship between pastor and people. Ironically, my seminary training didn’t teach me the five key strategies that led to twenty-six years of fellowshipping with a congregation who became my second family. Allow me to share what I believe can help you do the same.
You may have completed the seminary curriculum, but you are only beginning the church’s. Get to know the people, the church—its history, personality and culture—and the community. When I went to my first church it was 99 years old and everything was running well. Other than preparing my sermons, I didn’t know what to do, so I spent a lot of time visiting members and getting to know people in the community. As Ezekiel began his ministry he sat there among them stunned for seven days (Ezekiel 3:15, CSB). Every church and every community is different. Just like you exegete the Biblical text, you must exegete your church and community if you really want to know them.
Don’t you hate it when you are at a large event and the person shaking your hand is already looking at the next person he/she wants to greet? Just like the universal church is the bride of Christ, as Christ’s representative, the local church is like the pastor’s bride, too. Just like no bride wants her husband looking longingly at another woman, your church wants to know if you will be committed. Commitment in this kind of relationship means you are willing to hang in there even if times get tough. I think that if a church does not have a crisis, it will create one to find out if you have what it takes to stay. Close the personal backdoor, stop looking for your next ministry assignment, and commit to staying until God says otherwise.
My mother reminded me in those early years that the church is not the speed boat, but the Old Ship of Zion and that it takes a while to turn a ship. Honor the good things from the past. Those things were good for that time, but you live in this time. Maintain a Kingdom focus and press forward in a patient way. Find one thing the church has wanted to accomplish and make it happen! Honoring their desires first will help get them on board for what God is telling you about the church’s future.
Stand on God’s Word in a firm, but humble, way. Once our church wanted to do something that was acceptable in the church constitution, but violated the Word of God. I stood on the Word. I believe there will be times as a pastor, you cannot do your job unless you are willing to lose your job. Colossians 3:23-24 says,
Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ. (CSB)
Second Timothy 4:16-17 says,
At my first defense, no one stood by me, but everyone deserted me. May it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that I might fully preach the word and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. (CSB)
Never let the ministry become just a job, or preaching just a task, or worship just a calendar event, or prayer just a ritual. Keep your mind, your heart, and your relationship with God, and love for God, fresh. You will be faced with all kinds of days, seasons, situations, and experiences in a long term pastorate. As members become friends and family over the years, and as they face financial, family, health, and other crises, you will carry them along with your flesh-and-blood and personal issues. The care of the saints can wear you out if you let it. The joy of the Lord is my strength has to become more than a cute Bible verse. It has to become the reality of your life.
What you preach and teach to others week after week and year after year has to be refreshment for you as well as your people; it should never be just for them. Disconnect, take time off—the church will keep going without you. Love God first, love the people second. Jesus said,
The one who loves a father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; the one who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:37 (CSB)
Refresh yourself so you can bring your best self to this most important task.
If you do these things, and start doing them early, you can make sure your new pastorate becomes a long-term pastorate.
Mark Croston is the National Director of Black and Western Church Partnerships at LifeWay Christian Resources.