Note: This article was written Bob Johnson, and originally appeared in the 9 Marks Journal. Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. It contains invaluable advice for a young man just installed into ministry.
Yesterday the congregation installed you as their pastor. (It sounds like something you do to a dishwasher, doesn’t it?) There were prayers, hugs, smiles, singing, food, picture-taking, and now it’s Monday. Where do you begin? You know that you need to prepare excellent sermons, disciple church members, and do evangelism. But how do you actually start? What should you do on your first day?
There is a sense in which you shouldn’t do a thing. No, don’t stay home and watch ESPN. Just don’t think that you need to change everything in three months. You may have the title, but the position of pastor is as much earned as conferred. There is much to learn about your church before you start making changes. Besides, Christ promised that he would build his church. You don’t need to try to manufacture growth.
With that in mind, here are five priorities you should bring to your first day of ministry.
Learn everything you can about your people (Involvement – 1 Peter 5.1-4).
You are a shepherd. Good shepherds smell like sheep, and they know their sheep by name. Suggestions: Read the minutes of past business meetings. Learn all that you can about the founding of the church. What was the original doctrinal statement? Have there been any revisions to the statement or the church covenant? If so, why? Did the church ever split? Are there any unresolved issues?
Become familiar with the “old-timers.” You are standing on their shoulders. Ask them about traditions, histories, policies, and so forth. Develop questions to ask every member of the congregation in order to assess their spiritual health. The involvement you gain—and the trust you earn—may even be more valuable than the information you gather.
Spend time with your leadership (Humility – Philippians 2.5-8).
Suggestions: Visit your leaders at their place of work. Find out about their families, history, gifting, and leadership strengths. Ask them the questions that you are planning to ask the congregation. Ask them what you can pray for, and how you can best serve the church. Ask them for their assessment of the congregation’s health? Have a list of books ready to suggest for them to read. Plan a retreat with them in order to learn more about each other. Tell them what you hope to learn about the congregation. Discuss the history with them. What events should be celebrated? Share your evangelistic conversations. E-mail them daily.
Serving your leaders will model for them how to serve the church. The first people you disciple need to be your leaders. They will disciple you as well.
Plan your preaching (God’s means of growth – Romans 10.17).
Faithfully explaining and applying the Scriptures will have more impact on your church than anything else you can do. Preaching is your number 1 priority, but is listed here as number 3 for the sake of thought-progression. The information you gather will influence your preaching plan.
Since the gospel is foundational for worship, evangelism, discipleship, conflict resolution, marriages, and everything else your church faces, consider an initial expositional series through the Gospel of Mark or 1 John. Be prepared every time you preach, and preach excellent sermons.
Meet with people who aren’t in your church (Considering others – Philippians 2.4).
Meet with pastors in the area. They can give you impressions about your church, and information about the community. Consider publicly praying for that pastor and church the following Sunday.
Meet with city officials. What changes are taking place in the community? What are the needs as they see them? Is there anything that you can pray for? Is there anything that your church can do?
Visit the neighbors. Introduce yourself to the people around you. It is remarkable how much you can learn, while earning much needed trust.
While the information that you gather from these individuals will be helpful, seeking them out will also provide evangelistic opportunities.
Plant a fruit tree (or a garden) (Faithfulness – 1 Corinthians 4.2).
Things that produce fruit need cultivation and time, and watching a tree grow will remind you of that. You have started a marathon; pace yourself.
A pastor laid out an ambitious plan in his first two months to grow the church through an aggressive outreach strategy, relocate to a more visible site, and rid the calendar of worn-out and useless ministries. Nothing that he proposed was wrong, but without earning the trust to lead, he left after nine months. Behind him was a fractured, bruised, and beaten flock.
Another pastor said that he did not want to make any changes for a year while he learned as much as he could about the people. Now, fourteen years later, he has led them through many changes which were earned by his faithfulness publicly in the pulpit, and privately in personal ministry.
James Boice once said that we usually overestimate what we can do in a year, but underestimate what can be accomplished in ten. If you’re a brand new pastor, set priorities now that, by God’s grace, will bear fruit ten years from now.