Part 5 – Make a Good Start

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

One of the simple joys of my life is that I umpire Little League Baseball.  I mention this because in umpiring, as in being a church pastor, the first events that take place are critical and actually very similar, and I suspect they carry into many other areas of life.  Here are four key things I learned as an umpire that can help you make a good start in your new church.

  1. Be in charge.

When the plate umpire takes the field, he or she is in charge of that field and that game.  The managers will manage their teams, the players will play the game, the outcome of the game is in their hands to win or lose.  But the conduct of the game is on the broad padded shoulders of the umpire.  When I step onto the field it takes about two minutes for everyone to know who is in charge.  By the end of the first inning everyone knows what to expect during the rest of the game.

The most common mistake I see in pastors of failing churches is that the pastor has failed to lead.  The pastor did not show up ready to take charge.  Instead the pastor showed up wanting to be liked, or loved, or respected, or admired, or simply accepted as a pastor.  The pastor wanted the congregation to make the first move, to show their love for their new pastor.  That is a false hope.  The congregation is in shock, or trauma, or deliriously happy all because the old pastor just left.  The congregation is not in any way ready for a new pastor to accept the mantle of authority worn by the old pastor.  Even in a system like the United Methodist Church where we cycle our pastors like a turnip field, people are just not prepared emotionally for a new pastor.  So, don’t expect the congregation to welcome you like a long lost cousin.

The congregation will come to respect you, admire you, like you and even love you, if you take charge of the church and lead it forward.  You do this with your competence, compassion, wisdom, and leadership.

When you show up the first Sunday, be ready to lead.  Be in charge.

  1. Keep your eyes on the ball.

In the game of baseball, everything that happens in the game is a result of what is done with the baseball.  Keep your eyes on the ball and you will make the right call.

At church we don’t have a singular small red-stitched horsehide orb on which to stay focused.  But we do have other things that demand our attention.  Knowing where to look at the right time is critical.  As the new pastor, there are many things to look at in your first few weeks and months.  Here is a short list:

Things to do or know the first week and every week:

  1. Who are in critical health situations – visit them immediately.
  2. What is the financial position of the church, especially in the transition year?
  3. What are the critical decisions that need to be made immediately? (Be careful with this.  Usually there are no critical decisions to be made the first week and you should avoid making any.  But sometimes your predecessor has left you a ticking time bomb and you will have to make a decision.)
  4. Who are the leaders in the congregation?
    1. Who are the people who want to be leaders?
    2. Who are the actual leaders – the influencers – who make things go?
  5. If you have a staff, what do they do, what are the job descriptions, are they doing what they are paid to do?

Things to do or know the second week and evaluate bi-weekly:

  1. Who are in weakened health or are living in convalescent facilities? See them now and figure out how to care for them long-term.
  2. What is the organizational structure of the church and does it work well?
  3. How well do the staff coordinate? Do they work well as a team?  How often do they meet as a staff?  How can you build a better team?
  4. How do we make worship better? Don’t assume that the old order is worshipped by the congregation.  Immediately fine-tune it, make it better, and make it yours.   If you explain your reasons for change so the congregation can understand what you are thinking and why it is important to do it now, the congregation is more likely to embrace your changes quickly.
  5. Where are we going? Is it the direction in which we planned to go?

Stay focused.  Keep your eye on the ball.

  1. Be in the right position.

An umpire who is working alone covers a lot of ground. When the ball is hit and the runner takes off for first base, the umpire sprints out to a position to the right of the pitching mound to make the call at first or second.  The umpire always wants to be in a position to see the ball enter the glove and also see the runners foot hit the base.  The trick is to hear the ball hit the glove, and see the foot hit the bag, and determine which happened first.

Being in the right position for a pastor means being in a position to see and hear all sides.  This is especially critical in the first weeks at the church. Sometimes people will hide their intentions so the pastor is kept in the dark about things going on in the church.  Sometimes people will try to line up a big opposition to some program the church is proposing.  Sometimes people will express their unhappiness about one thing, hoping you get the hint and fix something else.

Being in the right position means staying in touch with everyone.  Before the congregation can pigeon hole you, stay as neutral as possible on all issues.  Then you will be able see and hear and understand all sides all the time.

  1. Wait for it.

The wise umpire will wait just a half second longer to make the “Out” or “Safe” call.  The reason is that we all tend to have expectations.  We see the play unfold and we expect certain things to happen.  But sometimes what we expect to see isn’t what happens.  The wise umpire will wait just a bit longer and make sure of what actually happened, and then make the call.  Most of the blown calls I have seen umpires make were because they acted too quickly.  Watch carefully, see clearly, rerun it in your mind quickly, then make the call.

Many of the mistakes I see pastors make are because they are expecting something to happen, or they feel pressured into making a call they aren’t really ready to make.  Sometimes pastor’s expectations for the new church will be shaped by how things went at the last church.  If things went badly they may be defensive because they expect them to go badly again.

Sometimes there are frustrated members who want the pastor to act quickly on some issue they feel strongly about.  Don’t let someone else make things an emergency for you.  Take a moment and decide how much of an emergency it is in reality.

You would never steer your car without the ability to see the road ahead.  Don’t steer your church until you have a clear vision of the ramifications of your decision.  If the road ahead looks foggy, don’t go there.  Wait for it, the fog will lift.

I have also written a three-part series here on the TEOLIS website called “New Pastor – New Church” and I encourage you to look there as well as you consider the best way to make a new start at your new church.  God Speed and Congratulations on your new church!

Copyright 2016 – Steve Petty