Five priorities in your first year
As I write this, I am sitting at the 2 ½ mark in a church revitalization setting. As I reflect on the past couple of years, I see some things I did well in the first year. I also see several things I wish I had done better in the first year (and the second … and the beginning of the third).
In this post, I’ll share five tips for creating success in your first year.
Preach the Word
This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’m firmly convinced that the primary thing declining and dying churches need is to hear the Word faithfully preached with passion and conviction, week in and week out. There also is something to be said for hearing the Word proclaimed each and every week by the pastor. This will be especially true if your church has gone through an interim period without a consistent preacher. Your presence in the pulpit each week will provide a continuity that comforts your congregation.
Whatever else you may do during your first year, don’t neglect this responsibility. Paul told Timothy this was one of his most important tasks: “I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of his appearing and his kingdom: Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:1-2, CSB).
Love your people
Spend time with them. Visit them in their homes, workplaces, and schools (if it’s possible). Eat lunch with them. Drink coffee with them. Send them notes on their birthdays and anniversaries. Let them know you’re praying for them through phone calls, text messages, and emails. Tell them often that you love them.
This is an area where I wish I had focused more over the past couple of years. I did some things well (particularly hospital visits), but I dropped the ball in other areas (home visits). While there’s more than one way to show your people you love them, be aware that your people probably have unwritten expectations. If the previous pastor made multiple visits each week, your congregation will consider that “normal.”
So, how do you find out these unwritten expectations? You ask. Have conversations with key leaders about these expectations. Tip: You also can let your congregation know you’d like to get to know them. You can even have a sign-up sheet for those who would like a home visit, allowing you to make an appointment to see them.
Again, this one may seem obvious, but many churches are declining or dying because there has been a lack of discipleship. In some cases, discipleship may have been lacking for years. Pick one or two individuals (I would suggest young men ages 18-30) and begin discipling them. If we want to see the trajectory of our churches changed, it will happen as the people in our churches are changed, and this happens through intentional, relational, one-on-one discipleship.
The most important place to start is with young husbands and fathers. Make time to meet weekly with one or two men, based on their schedule. I pastor in a military community, so I’ve met guys at IHOP at 4:00 am after they finished their night shift. (Note: I suggest meeting outside the church office as often as possible. Coffee shops and diners are great places. They’re nonthreatening environments and tend to create a less-formal feeling than sitting in the pastor’s office.)
Don’t make unnecessary changes
The first year is not the time to implement every single change a new pastor has on his radar. The people of your church are more important than your personal preferences. In many cases, the people serving in leadership roles stepped up when no one else would, even if they don’t have the gifting for those roles. If you immediately begin removing them from leadership, you risk doing further damage. Don’t let your desire for more a more polished worship service outweigh your desire to honor those who are serving.
As you are probably well aware, churches can be highly emotional places. People tend to have strong feelings about everything from the color of the carpet, to the placement of the communion table, to the number of songs before and after the meet-and-greet time. Your first year is not the time to completely overhaul your facilities or worship service outline. Wait. Let your people know you love them more than your vision for the building.
There is an important caveat, however. If there are unhealthy leadership structures or dangerous facility issues, those must be addressed with more urgency. But even then, be careful not to lead out on your own. Bring in trusted leaders from your congregation and, perhaps, even leaders from your association or denomination to advise you how to proceed.
Don’t get discouraged
This is easier said than done but, if you’ll allow me to use a worn-out metaphor, keep in mind that church revitalization is a marathon, not a sprint. One of the best pieces of counsel I’ve been given in ministry is that many pastors overestimate what they can accomplish in one year and underestimate what they can accomplish in 10 years. There is no magic bullet to church revitalization, but trust that the Lord will bless and multiply your efforts as you preach the Word, love your people, and wait on unnecessary changes until you’ve build substantial trust with the congregation,.
Church replanting and revitalization is hard work. Most likely, it is going to be harder and take longer than you imagined. Don’t give up! Trust that the Lord will be faithful to His promises as you are faithful to the calling He has placed on your life!