In 2013, I made the transition from youth pastor to senior pastor in the same church where I’d served in youth ministry for six years. The senior pastor before me, my former boss, served for 27 years. The past few years have been quite a ride, to say the least. Here are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned and am still learning:
1) Take the posture of a humble learner. It’s amazing how much this one principle will help you and save you from additional grief.
Learn the history of the church. Learn the history of specific traditions at the church. Learn about major conflicts that have happened in the past 30 years at the church that have shaped it. Learn about the different ways that the elders have historically shepherded the church, and why certain methods did or didn’t work. Learn what makes your church unique.
It is so tempting to come into an established church, identify what you think is wrong with it, and then dictate that it change. Sometimes that’s necessary, but often it’s done very poorly. Remember that you’re a pastor, not a dictator. You’re there to serve that unique congregation and to help it thrive as the unique congregation God has created it to be. That means that you have to learn from it before you change it.
Rather than coming in and telling the church what it’s mission, vision, values, and purposes should be, learn from the people in order to discern what God wants the vision and values to be. Obviously, most orthodox Christian churches are going to have the same basic goals, based on biblical commands, but how a church pursues those goals will largely depend on its context and makeup.
In personal conflicts, fielding criticisms, leading the leaders, try to have the heart of a learner. That will demonstrate that you actually care for people, which means more to them than any organizational expertise you may have. Also, when you learn from people, God will use it to shape you into the person he wants you to be. And in the end, both the church and you will be healthier, because you sought to be a learner, and you modeled that spirit for the church.
2) Expect a variety of hardships specific to following a long-haul pastor.
Vocational ministry is characterized by all sorts of hardships. There are also specific hardships that you should expect to endure as a pastor following a long-haul pastor. Three examples are the grief of the congregation, the exodus of some attenders, and criticism for unspoken expectations.
When you step into a church that’s recently lost its senior pastor of 27 years, that church is still grieving. As excited as they may be that you’re the new senior pastor, they are still grieving, and that grief will play itself out in a variety of ways in the years to come. The elders and deacons lost one of their best friends and their leader. The church lost its main teacher and shepherd. It’s important to remember this as you start your ministry, because you will likely be rearing to go and ready to unleash the church to be all that it can be, but remember that what your people actually need is for you to love them, not to immediately change everything that’s familiar to them. That might come in time, but you first need to shepherd them through what they’re going through.
Expect people to leave. Some people will leave before you get there, some will leave in the first four weeks, some will leave after a year, and some will leave after five years. Whenever there’s a transition in leadership, people leave, because it’s change, and people don’t like change. You should care for the folks who are leaving, but you also can’t take it personally. Some will leave and come back. Some will leave and talk bad about you without ever talking to you. Some people will try to hurt you before they leave. And some people won’t leave, who you really wish would leave. In short, expect the makeup of the church to change. Don’t be cavalier or cold about people leaving, but allow people to transition out who need to transition out.
People will have unspoken expectations of you from day one. You may or may not ever learn what those expectations are. Do your best to keep lines of communication open with your key leaders, but expect people to be disappointed with you, either because you don’t do things the way the previous pastor did them, or because you do do things the way the previous pastor did them. Some people want you to be the previous guy, and some people couldn’t wait for you to take over so that you’d change everything.
I’ve had people voice their disappointment me with me that I didn’t carry a physical Bible into the pulpit with me every week (although I do now, because I like what it represents). I’ve had friends of the former pastor tell me how disappointed they are that I haven’t been meeting regularly with them like the former pastor did. I’ve had men in the church voice their frustration with me because I haven’t “made” them an elder yet. I’ve had people complain, because they don’t like what the church is becoming, and ironically, some of the same people have complained to me that they’re frustrated that we haven’t implemented their ideas yet.
People all have their expectations of how things should be. That’s fine, because everyone has the right to their opinion, and sometimes we will like their ideas. However, it’s impossible to please everyone by making their dreams come true for the church. You’ve got to keep your eyes on Jesus, bounce your ideas off of other key leaders so that you’re not working as a silo, and move ahead as best as you can discern the Holy Spirit is leading you.
And by the way, I don’t have “thick skin.” I care too much about what people think about me and say about me. I’ve always preferred to be that way instead of too arrogant, because I know that I have to give an account to Jesus about how I’ve lead this church. That being said, it’s sinful to make other people your God, and it’s sinful to make you your God. So, focus on the gospel truth that you are both a sinner and a saint, and seek to center yourself between humility and assertiveness as you completely rely on Christ for strength.
3) Preach the Gospel and Pursue People.
Work hard to preach the Bible well. Seek to make complex concepts simple enough for the teenagers to understand, and then you’ll reach the majority of folks in the room. Apply the passage to yourself before preaching it. Preaching the Gospel every week is such an incredible gift, and we must constantly be filling ourselves spiritually, so that we don’t get tired of preaching it. Pray often for the Holy Spirit to work through you as you honestly acknowledge to God that you can do nothing of eternal worth without Him. Try to help people understand what a Bible text says, show them why it matters to them, and show them how great God is for coming, living, dying and rise again.
Expect people to compare your preaching to the previous pastor’s preaching. Some may say you preach too long. Some may say you don’t use enough illustrations. Some may that you talk too much about Jesus. Others might say that they enjoy listening to you. Others might say that they enjoy not hearing so many illustrations in a sermon. There are going to be comparisons. There will also be unsolicited feedback and criticisms, which aren’t necessarily bad things. We can all grow at becoming better preachers. Honestly, this is one of the reasons why I value having a team of elder-preachers in a church, so that the church can hear the same gospel preached from different men of different ages with different personalities.
Preach the Gospel, and also pursue the people. Genuinely care about them. Learn their names, jobs, and the things they care about. You cannot possibly replace the previous pastor, but you can have a friendship with people that’s totally different than their friendship with the previous pastor, because only you are you. People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. It’s really true. I’d way rather have a godly pastor who cares about me and is a mediocre preacher than to have a pastor who doesn’t appear to care about me but hits every sermon out of the park. Obviously, we need a team of shepherds in order to shepherd the whole flock, but as much as we’re able to know and care for as many people we can without compromising our health or the health of our families, then let’s do it!
The Church in America and around the globe needs godly, humble pastors. Most of our churches won’t be megachurches. None of us have all the gifts required to organize and shepherd churches by ourselves. By God’s grace alone, we are each a piece of the puzzle of God’s Kingdom, and we must not overvalue or undervalue the unique assignments that God has called us to. If your immediate assignment happens to be following a long-haul pastor’s ministry, then humble yourself, preach the Word, love the people, and depend on Christ. Have a 7-year outlook on the future of your church, rather than a 2-year outlook. Change takes time. May God bless you wherever he calls you.
Dan Hallock is the lead pastor at Cedarhome Baptist Church in Stanwood, Washington. He is a graduate of the University of Wyoming and Denver Seminary. He loves music, fishing, and hanging out with his wife and three kids.