The Pastor’s Joys and Challenges of Starting In A New Church

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“Hey, you must be the new guy.”

It was starting to sink in - it was my first day in the office. It was the third time someone had given me the “new guy” greeting.

In a previous post, I shared what a pastor experiences when leaving a church. In this post, I share some of the joys and challenges a pastor experiences when beginning a tenure in a new ministry context.

It’s important to note that much like pastoral transitions, the beginning joys and challenges differ for each staffer because every ministry context is different. There are various factors which inform a pastor’s onboarding experience - the overall health of the church, the health of the individual, the direction of the church, the inheriting ministry’s life stage, its history and legacy - just to name a few.

So with that being said, here are a few joys and challenges I’ve personally experienced in the midst of my onboarding process:

The Challenges  

1. Test of Personal Security

In Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, Thor is the son of Odin, heir to the throne of Asgard, a demi-god who is not only powerful but excruciatingly aware of his calling to protect Asgard as his father’s successor. But with Asgard subsequently destroyed and Earth nearly ruined, his identity collapses. He plummets from the Mjolnir-wielding god of thunder to Fortnite-addicted beer guzzler. The point of his character arc? Thor’s existence was wrapped up in his gifts and calling to become the “worthy” king. Once the latter unraveled, so did his identity.

Ok, so the analogy was a bit dramatic, but here’s the point: Every pastor is known for certain gifts, wirings, and personal qualities. That is until they’re no longer known. See, when a church staffer enters a new ministry universe, people don’t really know anything about him or her. They’re an unknown commodity.

Sure, it’s natural and time will naturally bring familiarity, but this process can feel like an odd thing for a pastor who feels like a real part of one’s reality zapped out of existence. I didn’t realize how accustomed I was to being who I was in my previous world until I entered a new world. It can be a bit of a gut check.

2. Swallowing the Beginner’s Pill

If you’ve ever volunteered at church before, you know how nerve-racking things can be in the beginning. You feel overwhelmed because you don’t quite know what you don’t know. And the more you begin to know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

This creates a humorous see-saw between trying to learn and receiving a ton of helpful information (much of which is not immediately applicable) to having new realizations of information deficiency (all of which is discouraging).

Early on, I was overwhelmed by what felt like a fire hydrant of information from policy to philosophy to ministry softwares. I was sharing with my wife one night how discouraged I felt from feeling so behind. I was startled when she reminded me that I was just 6 days in and that I needed to be patient with myself.

I still have to remind myself that I had just parachuted into an already moving train and that it’s a gift of a season to be acquainted with the passengers on board, much less the location of my own seat.

3. The Battle of Expectations

What do you think is worse? People being excited for a pastor’s ministry role or no one caring about what the pastor will do? Ok, probably the latter, that’s pretty depressing actually. But here’s what’s challenging about the prior: everyone’s excitement is rooted in their own personal vision for the pastor’s ministry.

See when ten people say to a pastor, “I’m so excited that you’re going to lead that ministry!” While I’m sure it’s a genuine sentiment and a sign that people are behind the staffer, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a unified excitement. It can be excitement over ten different ideas about what “success” will look like for that ministry. One person may be excited about how the ministry will go “deeper” while another person may be excited how the ministry will go “wider” and so on. The staffer’s own vision may not even be accounted for!

There’s a real temptation to want to please and fulfill the wishes of every person who expresses excitement. I know this because I feel that tension everyday.

It takes intentional solitude and discipline to filter everything through prayer and crucial conversations to clarify ministry vision and direction. It also takes a ton of wisdom to be able to communicate diverging paths in winsome ways.

THE JOYS

1. Experiencing Personal Growth

It’s uncertain who coined the phrase - “If you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room” but it’s a double-edged idea isn’t it? On the one hand, who doesn’t want to feel like the smartest person in a room? On the flip side, if it’s true that we’re the average of the 5 people we spend the most amount of time with, it should exhilarate us to be surrounded by those who are smarter than us.

I am rarely the smartest person in any room. I feel lucky to have been surrounded by so many intelligent people at various seasons of my life, and my current context is no exception.

I’ve sat in on meetings where I’ve felt like my brain was actually growing. I’ve had conversations where I’ve sat speechless in light of true courage, wisdom, and brilliant strategy. There have been lightbulb moments, one after another.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable having my mind expanded, but there’s a joy knowing that steep learning curves exponentially adjust the growth curve.

2. The Blank Canvas Effect

This is just my own wiring, but I love the blank canvas. There’s something about the emptiness of something and the potential to fill it with beauty and logic that makes me come alive.

Some people love the actual operations of an event. But I love the “void and empty” space where the why, when, where, and how of that event doesn’t even exist yet.

I love it because it forces me to dream. It causes me to ask deeper questions and ask meaningful questions about the status quo. I love writing things on the whiteboard that require refinement. But even deeper still, this space makes me press further into God. I feel compelled to ask Jesus what’s on his heart. I find myself wrestling with God in different ways. And as a vision begins to materialize, I find myself asking him to test my motives and purify my intentions which leads me down another rabbit hole where I find more of him.  

I get that some people find this weird, but this space makes me come alive and pray relentlessly.

3. Witnessing God’s Radical Faithfulness

There are a myriad of emotions when you first dive into the pool of a new ministry, but one of the neatest things is when you see the ways God lets you know he’s with you.

One night, I made a specific prayer for my wife and children as they begin at a new church. Less than 24 hours later, someone I hadn’t yet met reached out to me and shared an encouragement addressing my very prayer topics.

On other occasions, I’ve sat in my office asking God, “How in the world am I going to find someone who could partner with me in this? I don’t know anyone.” God has answered these prayers again and again and again in the strangest of ways. There have been divine appointments in the cafeteria where connections have been made. I’ve had key conversations without even knowing they were turning points until after the fact. I’ve had people come up telling me, “You’re an answer to months of prayer. I’m all in, just tell me what to do.”

It’s one thing to believe God is at work. It’s another thing to see it transpiring in tangible and visible ways.

A Concluding Thought

These thoughts are raw and scattered probably because I haven’t hit a month yet (at the time of writing).

I’ve had to confront my humanity, my sinfulness and weakness, yet God’s presence and power. It’s been a surreal season.

If you’re a pastor starting in a new church, be patient with yourself. This season is a gift. Yes, it’s important to be strategic and get some early wins, but don’t forget to enjoy the season, take time to get to know the people you’re meeting, and treasure your church for what it is.

If you’re at a church where someone has just begun, take a moment to pray for the staffer. He or she is probably putting more pressure on themself than anyone else. Don’t hesitate to greet them and their family. They’ll interpret it as “being seen” and “being welcomed.” And that can make all the difference.

As I finish writing this in the cafe of my new church surrounded by faces I don’t recognize, I’m grateful this is my church with all its early joys and challenges.