What do do when you’re NEW: Part 2 – Prepare Yourself

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

What to do when you’re NEW!

#2 – Prepare Yourself

You are going to a new place. What do you know about this place and these people? Are you prepared to lead them? Do you know what kind of church this is? Do you know what kind of pastor they really need to lead them forward? Are you prepared to be that pastor? If you are not that kind of person, are you prepared to change, to learn a new way of doing things, and to manifest a new type of leadership?

Often I see pastors moving from one place to another with little real understanding that this new place is different from the last.

Often I see pastors going to a new place with the expectation that they know everything they need to know from the prior church / churches to fully tackle this new church.

Often I see pastors moving into churches that have dynamically different characteristics from those at the church they are leaving, who expect that their role will not be any different from what it was before.

Usually these pastors stay about three years; then they move on, never really understanding the why of their failure to connect with this church and its people.

Prepare yourself!

A. Learn the history.

Every church has a history. Do you know it? For United Methodists we have a wonderful legacy archived in our Annual Journals. Every time I accepted a new church I took a day and went out to the School of Theology at Claremont. There in the stacks of books are all the conference records going back to 1876 and the beginning of the conference. I looked up the start date of the church, and then I started a few years before that, pulling Journals off the shelves.

Back in the “olden days” the District Superintendents would write up a complete report on the work of all the churches in the district. There are pictures of each new church building, along with paragraphs about what struggles and successes each church was having. There are also notes about communities being considered for a new church start. There are also statistical tables for all churches, with categories including reported changes over the years as well as essential things like Membership, average attendance, baptisms, classes of children, youth and adults, Women’s and Men’s groups — all valuable pieces of information. Take your laptop computer and make a spreadsheet of the entire history of the church. Note the pastors who served the church and the years during which they served. Which pastors had numerical success and which didn’t? When did the membership hit peaks and valleys? Did this correspond to the community’s growth or decline? Why did the community grow or decline? What were the benchmark years?

Look up the community’s history on the Internet. What information is helpful in understanding the church? What events are local holidays? Who were the movers and shakers in the town in its growing years? What are the local issues confronting the town today? Who is doing something about those issues? Is there a local government? Is there a local paper? What are the hot button issues in the paper? Read the online editorials. Check out the High School sports teams.

A personal example might be helpful here: The City of Lompoc was laid out in 1875 as a temperance community. The WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) was prominent in this town, and the Methodist Women were central in the historical growth of the WCTU. Not surprisingly, the Lompoc Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1876 as the first church in the town. One hundred thirty- nine years later you might think that’s not a big deal — who cares, right? Lompoc today has its own “Wine Ghetto” of local growers and vintners. But the church still has a strong temperance note to it. Pastors might want to avoid talking about their favorite Pinot at the UMW luncheon. If you don’t check the history, you might not sidestep the potential land mine.

You aren’t really ready to negotiate your way into the church until you know the history, so take the time to learn. Ideally you should do this before you move there, but you can do it anytime in the first month.

So, prepare yourself.

B. Understand Your Church

Once you understand the history and know where these people have been you need to understand the nature of the Church.

The pastor must be a bit of a chameleon. You must change to reflect the situation around you. The role of pastor will be different in different churches. If you haven’t already done so, read the articles about “Understanding Your Church” on this website. You will notice, first of all, that churches of different sizes (based on average attendance) have different characteristics. This is the fun and interesting part, but not the most important. The most important part of the article is the role of the pastor in relation to churches of varying sizes.

Many pastors assume that, because they have gone to seminary and fully understand the Bible and Church History, they are ready to lead a local church; further that, having successfully been a pastor to a church with an attendance of 35, they will know how to lead a church of 250. Yet, the role of the pastor is almost completely different in those two churches. The pastor who has successfully been a pastor to a “Cat” (a church with fewer than 35 in average Sunday attendance) for five years must make significant changes in leadership style to nurture and grow a “Garden” (a church that averages over one hundred but under a hundred and seventy-five). If the pastor does not make the changes, and continues to manifest a style that works well with a “Cat”, the “Garden” will wither and die, and the congregation will shrink down to the “Cat” size which the pastor is comfortable leading.

It is imperative that the pastor develop the skills required to lead the new church.

So, prepare yourself.