For all of us, the first time we do something, it’s uncharted territory. We may read about the experience, we likely talk to others who have done it, but nothing fully prepares us for the first time. Whether it’s flying a plane, playing golf or cooking a soufflé, it takes the actual experience to understand all that’s involved.
I still remember my first revitalization effort; it was in a small rural church in the deep South. While it was many years ago, some reminders are still fresh in my mind. First, they didn’t really care if they were revitalized or not. Their ambivalence frustrated me, though my hurried desire to make things happen quickly certainly did not help ease their concerns. Second, I had no real resources or relationships to assist me in finding the steps to stumble forward in the process; it was all trial and error. Thrown into this rural pond by my school professor, it was going to be sink or swim for me — with a whole lot of thrashing in the meantime.
To be sure, the people were amazingly patient with me. And since I wasn’t a country boy by birth or experience, I had a great deal to learn. The lessons were valuable, though, and made me a better pastor in the years to come. And for that, I’m grateful. I suspect the people I pastored in subsequent years are grateful, too.
So, how do we prepare for leading a revitalization effort for the first time? What counsel can I give to those of us who are striking out in this calling for our initial ministry opportunity?
First, know yourself. The better you know yourself, the better you will be able to pastor the people you lead. Your strengths, your weaknesses, your passions, your uniqueness: All these things and more, are valuable pieces of information that inform the decisions and direction of your ministry. In addition, the NAMB Church Replanters website offers a list of characteristics found in effective replanters and revitalizers. It would be wise to see how you measure up to this list of qualities in your own life. Of course, the church will have many gifted and skilled individuals, too, but knowing yourself will help you see how all of you complement and strengthen the Body of Christ in your ministry.
Second, know your community. Get to know it well. Talk to key longtime members of your church and interview town officials. Ask them what makes the community special and unique. Learn about its history (a research librarian can help you with this), and what its current needs are, too. If it is like the communities where many churches in need of revitalization are located, then things have changed a lot since the church began. The goal is to allow God to share His vision with you for impacting this community effectively with the gospel.
Third, be a dispenser of hope. Be expressive, optimistic and anticipatory of what God wants to do among His people in the months and years to come. Believe that God has great things in store for the church. Teach the people by your attitude as well as your words to look forward to the future, to the unexpected intervention of God on behalf of His church. Be an encourager, continually cheering the people on to a better future. Celebrate small victories and pay attention to those who respond positively to your affirmation and hope. These will be key influencers of others down the road.
Fourth, be courageous. Eventually (usually not right away), some things that are not going well will have to be addressed. Earning trust and credibility as the pastor of the church is a key to addressing these items effectively. Remember, it takes time to earn trust, and only a moment to lose it, so be wise and discerning as you address the issues of concern. Eventually, you will have to confront these concerns, whether they are persons, programs or policies; so, do it with boldness, always grounding your efforts in the veracity of Scripture and the love you have for the people involved. If you don’t have both of these components yet, then wait until you do.
Fifth, don’t do it alone. For the effort to be successful, this needs to be a team effort. Enlist those who are advocates of change and already on board with your process to help you in implementing the things that need to happen. Remember, they may actually have more invested in the outcome than you do, since many of them are long-standing members of this community, and likely will be for some time to come. Realize they want the church to be effective, too. So, equip them, delegate to them and empower them to use their gifts in multiplying the momentum needed for beneficial forward progress.
Finally, be in it for the long haul. All the evidence shows that pastors who stay longer than six years at their ministry post are able to see more effectively and accomplish long-lasting change. Longevity earns credibility and enables you to be an insider to a church that has likely seen many pastors come and go over the years. Your perseverance speaks volumes to the congregation about your love for them, your willingness to wait on God to work in their lives, and the value they have in His kingdom work. It makes a difference only eternity can reveal.
Published April 29, 2021