Jim was right out of seminary and into his third year as pastor of his first church. He had worked hard all three years, but the church didn’t grow. In fact, if anything, it was smaller than when he arrived. His frustration level was high.
I ran into Jim at a seminar I was doing at Exponential a few years back. He seemed like a bright kid, one who was eager to learn. He sat in the front row and asked a lot of good questions.
While I was packing up my equipment at the end of the seminar, Jim approached me with a question. “Just about everything you recommended flies in the face of what I was told in seminary and by my pastor friends. Who’s right, you or them?”
I asked what he had been told. Here’s his answer: “I was told to spend the first two or three years getting to know the members better. So I did. I spent hours going to coffee and dinner with members or sitting with shut-ins listening to them talk about the past. I did my best to be in every home at least once. And after all that, the church declined.”
I had to bite my tongue for a moment. Then I said, “You were told to do everything wrong. My guess is that none of those giving you advice ever pastored a growing church. They couldn’t have, acting that way. The unchurched aren’t going to be found in church; they are found out in the public. You won’t grow a church by spending all your time with the members.”
One of the basic rules of consulting is that a pastor can make more changes in the first year than in the second through the sixth year. The old adage is true: it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
So what should a pastor do in his or her first year of tenure? The answer to that depends on the size of the church. At a church under 200 in worship, 80% of the time should be spent figuring out and implementing ways to bring in new people. In a church in the 200-500 range, much of the time has to be spent developing a staff and key leaders. In a church over 500, a strong emphasis has to be placed of taking staff to a level at which they need little to no supervision, which means that the pastor seldom has any thing to do with hands-on ministry other than teaching.
I could go on, but it should be apparent that no matter what size church you are pastoring, spending time taking care of the membership is never a priority for the pastor. It is for someone, but not the pastor.
Now, I can hear some old hats, who were successful years ago, say “But we cared for the members first and our church grew.” That may have been true 30 years ago, but it isn’t now. 30 years ago, people came to church on their own. Not so today. Today you have to go to where they are to reach them. And that changes everything. Either the members drop their selfishness and embrace God’s mission for every church – to make disciples – or those churches die. It is that simple.
So the next time someone tells you to spend your first couple of years as a pastor simply loving your flock, turn a deaf ear and reach out to the unchurched. Hopefully you won’t lose your job.
Question: What did you learn the hard way during your first year or two of leading your church? Share your experiences in the Comments section below.