10 Do's and Don'ts When Starting at a New Church

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“That was a stupid ministry decision.”

Those weren’t quite the exact words but the effect was the same. The new pastor in the church was describing a ministry decision made by a pastor who was previously on staff. Oh, and this was said during the sermon so some people were offended to say the least. I still remember this moment many years removed.

Whether you’re stepping in as a new lead pastor or a new intern, there are things you can say and do that will place you on the slow but sure road of credibility or set you on the fast-track of unlikeability.

Here are 10 Do’s and Don’ts I’ve been thinking through since starting at my new church:

1. Don’t Throw Shade at the Past

You would think a leader would have the common sense to not speak negatively about past ministry leaders and their decisions, but it happens all the time. To be sure, there may have been poor past decisions, but it reeks of insensitivity (and insecurity). Anyone can be a revisionist historian and strategist. Furthermore every decision that’s ever made was made with a logic in its present (even if it was a flawed logic). Want to sound cool for a moment? Trash the past, but know it trashes your credibility too.

2. Do Inquire About the Past

Those who don’t know the past are doomed to… ok let’s drop the cliche. Why wouldn’t a leader want to know the past? In hearing the past highs and lows, you pull the psychology of a ministry/church, which gives you signposts for how to move it to its future. The future of a ministry is not rooted in its past, but its future can be rooted in the present leaders wisdom in understanding its past. So take people out for coffee and learn.

3. Don’t Pretend To Know Everything

When you’re new, you want to make an impression. Often, the ones with answers tend to impress. So if you do the math, not knowing is not really in the equation. But if you pretend to know everything, you will begin to make stuff up at some point. Which means you will be found out and credibility will be lost at another later point. I’ve heard it said over and over again and it’s a phrase new leaders need to be able to say confidently - “I don’t know, but I can find out.”

4. Do Ask For Help

Asking for help puts you in a position of strength. How? In asking for help, you actually get to reveal your expertise. You get to signal what you know while receiving the information you don’t know. “Hey, so I understand (explains things I understand), but I was wondering if I could get your help on (what I don’t know).” Isn’t this a win win? Furthermore, honesty and humility are winsome qualities. As Craig Groeschel routinely says to close out his podcast, “People would rather follow a leader who is always real rather than a leader who is always right.”

5. Don’t Regularly Invoke Positional Authority

“You have to listen to me because I am your dad.” There is nothing wrong with me saying that to my children. I also say that only when I’ve run out of options. If a leader has to invoke a title to motivate people to follow him or her, it means they’re only a title removal away from having no influence. Sure, it’s necessary to communicate your title for clarity’s sake, but it shouldn’t be your calling card for leverage and motivation.

6. Do Genuinely Invest in Relational Capital

Relationship building is an investment. You may not see the fruit immediately, but trust building through informal spaces such as coffee or lunch can pay dividends in a world requiring people mobilization. But the key here is to be genuine, to be genuinely interested in people. See and love people as people, not as pieces on the chessboard because that’s not very loving.

7. Don’t Overpromise Or Underpromise

You may have heard the phrase, “It’s better to underpromise and overdeliver than it is to overpromise and underdeliver.” But the phrase assumes an either/or. Sure, don’t overpromise, but underpromising can bite back too. I mean, who wants to volunteer for a leader who is passionate for little? How is that motivating? Great leaders with vision always tiptoe the line of bitting off too much, so don’t gamble but don’t just play it safe either. Prayerfully discern the godly tension.

8. Do Envision Publicly with Humility

I shared a tentative 5-year vision plan during my first volunteer meeting in my new church context a few days ago (at the time of writing). I was passionate about what God might do, but shared candidly that it may require adjusting and thankfully, it was well received. I don’t think people mind a leader articulating their plans. In fact, people want to know what the vision is. But I think people mind how a leader articulates it. “Does she believe in this?” “Is he open to admitting he might be wrong?” The leader can seize this opportunity for momentum.

9. Don’t Impose a Pre-Determined Vision

Sometimes a leader walks into a new context ready to copy and paste what they did in a previous context. Other times, he or she wants to live out a contextualized vision of a famous pastor or leader they admire. While undergirded convictions and values are non-negotiable, a vision is negotiable depending on what God has for a particular church in its present season. It’s important to open the can of worm and figure this out. Besides, if a leader walks in with too much of a closed hand, some people may feel inclined to respond with a closed heart.

10. Do Invite Collaboration to Sharpen Vision

I got off the phone a few hours ago (at the time of writing) with a volunteer leader who spoke into the current tentative and evolving vision. “But shouldn’t you as the pastor have all the answers?” Yes, if the Biblical mandate was the pastor doing all the work of ministry, but they don’t. The people of God do the work of God. So doesn’t it make sense that the people of God who do the work of ministry should also play a part in shaping the picture of that ministry? Ask your people for feedback. People will feel honored you asked and you’ll be building a Biblical DNA of ministry.

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t have it all together.

It feels like I’m taking steps forward in some things, and a few steps backwards in other things. It’s a process, but it’s a space worth navigating with wisdom and strategy.

There are four times when I believe people really see what a leader is made of :

1. When things are succeeding

2. When things are failing

3. How the leader transitions out

4. How the leader transitions in

God’s people are watching. God himself is watching.

What an opportunity to bring glory to Him. Let’s get after it!