The first month as the ____ pastor/director/minister/associate at a new church I think can be one of the toughest months as you get to know the congregation, learn the culture, and try to figure out how things work. You get all sorts of people coming up to you with smiling faces and firm hand shakes, telling you their names and after a while it sounds like the all familiar teacher from Charlie Brown – “Whon whon wha wha whooon.”
If you’re in worship ministry, you may get tons of emails of people within the congregation wanting to do ‘new’ songs. (Looking at the bright side…your iTunes library will grow with free mp3’s that were attached to all those emails). If you’re in outreach or small groups ministry, you may get phone calls and ‘surprise’ visits from people who want to know what you’re all about and what makes you the right person for the job. (Questions like: “Why did the other guy really leave?” “Have you ever worked with my type of small group; I just started it” “What is the most exciting mission trip you have been on?”) All questions to get to know who you are. Be confident. Be prepared. If you’re in Youth ministry, you get to meet parents and teens. And you sometimes may get extremely varied responses. Some teens may look at you like you’re their long-lost best friend. Others act like you shot their puppy and then ran over him with your car. Some parents may give you the pleasure of awkward conversations about their teen dealing with [insert issue here]. Some parents will want to be involved with your planning and want to sit in the back every week and meet with you to give you their encouraging critiques [do those words go together?]. No matter what areas you come into, ultimately, you have to learn the rhythm of the church. [Where to put forms, what drawers in the kitchen you must never touch under any circumstances, etc.]
The worst part, though, is that a lot of times you just don’t know what to do! It’s a weird contradiction. You simultaneously have a whole lot to do and very little to do. How? Well, you don’t have a daily routine of things to get done, but you have a lot of “newbie steps” to do that can seem overwhelming.
So, what do you do in the first few months at a new church? Let’s go through some of them so that things can go a bit smoother for you:
1. Get to know people.
This is priority number 1, and priority number 2, and 3, 4, 5…
If you do nothing else the first month at a church, this should be it. If you can avoid it, don’t jump into leading a small group or teaching a Sunday School class. Try to hang back and use the time to meet people and get to know them. Learn names. Learn names. Learn names. [It’s one of the hardest things for me. And the bigger the congregation, the harder and longer it’s going to take to learn names.] If you’re church still has a paper back directory [most churches today use online tools like this] or grab one and study it. Once your first Sunday has passed and you have been able to meet some people…go on Facebook and reach out to as many of those people you met as you can. Identify the people who are the ‘social butterflies’ and ask them to introduce you to everyone! You’ll of course get to know the teens, but you need to get to meet everyone you can. Those little old ladies and the other people who might not come up to you could have a big impact on your ministry so get to know them as well.
2. Learn the culture.
This may be obvious to you but just in case you don’t know…each church is different. If you can, sit down with a staff member or church leader and have them clue you into everything they can think of. You’ll get it all eventually, but whatever you can learn early on will keep you from stepping on a landmine down the road. If there is a way for you to, go back and read old newsletters and bulletins. Those things are filled with clues to the church culture. Most importantly, just be observant. You can learn a lot by keeping your mouth closed and opening your eyes and ears. If you are conscious of how the church operates and try to adapt yourself to its rhythms, you’ll be good to go.
3. Your office.
The first couple weeks, you may find yourself saying, “Hmmm, I’ve got nothing to do…” Use this time to organize your office. You probably won’t have time to do it after the first couple weeks. If there is one thing I have noticed about offices, is that when someone has an organized office…it communicates something about them – that their professional and they take this job seriously. It’s just a good idea to take a couple of days to set it up right so you don’t have to worry about it later.
4. Meet with core people.
You will have a lot of people you need to meet with. Church staff, parents, leaders, students, volunteers, – the list goes on. You may or may not be able to meet with all these groups of people in the first month, but you should at least make plans to meet with them at some point. You are meeting with them to get to know them, of course, but you are also meeting with them to share your vision. They need to know what you’re about, what you’re going to do, and most importantly the role they play in it.
5. Get to know the community.
This one can be easy or hard, depending on your community. Drive around and get to know the area. Learn where the schools are. See where students hang out. Read the local newspaper or check out online resources about the town. Get an idea about the heartbeat of the place. This is your mission field – study it carefully. Ask questions. This should be something you continually do, but make the first steps in this first month.
You should be observing and evaluating the ministry from the first minute you come through the door. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? What sort of things did they do in the past? What curriculum (if any) is used? How are the facilities? Just look at every aspect of the ministry, and see how it works. Again, ask questions. Even asking those you will be working with (staff, volunteers, students and parents, etc.) on how things are. Getting that clear picture will help later.
7. A plan for the future.
You should start laying the foundation of your plans for the ministry. You don’t need to lay out exactly what you want to do, just some general goals for the future. (Example: let’s say in a year you want to have started a special needs ministry. Set that as a goal, and then make some plans on the how to. Or, say you need new volunteers: set a goal that in 8 months you’ll have 4 new volunteers.) Have an idea of what you want to do, but remember to keep it flexible enough so that if it’s not a good idea that’s ok. And in 8 months when you have learned some new things, you can apply them.
The first month at a church can seem a bit overwhelming, but it is also an awesome time to meet new people, make new friends, learn about a new place, and have an opportunity to do some awesome things for God’s kingdom.
Enjoy the first early months, but be sure to use them to your full advantage.