How Do I Approach My First Year of Ministry?

Got questions about church leadership?

Wisdom from Lyle Schaller, Father of Church Leadership

Dwayne's Story

Dwayne Hunt had served on staff in two larger churches before he succeeded his father as pastor of a small African-American Pentecostal church in Memphis, Tennessee. Looking for advice, he went to his bishop with a list of questions only to be told, “If I tell you that, you’ll know as much as I do.”

So Hunt picked up Schaller’s book, The Senior Minister. “My dad was the type of pastor who did everything,” he says. “You’re successful if everyone looks to you.” Hunt found help in Schaller to follow the model he had experienced in his two previous churches. “Schaller’s book told me not to feel guilty and to expect others to do the ministry.” He also read other Schaller books such as Activating the Passive Church. It “gave me ideas of specific things to do and mind-sets to instill in the people,” he says.

“Schaller helped me know what to do in the first year, how to use it to create victories,” he says. “He helped me stay the course.”

Attendance was ninety at the time of the father-son transition. Today over twenty years later, attendance exceeds eight hundred. Hunt himself has become a bishop, and the church has birthed other churches. “We work where people function out of their giftedness,” he says. “They see the value of shared ministry.”

The Sayings

Questions to ask when candidating:
“‘Before I can talk intelligently or responsibly about the possibility of becoming your next minister, I need to know what business you are in here today. What issues and questions dominate the agenda at your board meetings? What are the priorities used to allocate the money in your budget? What are the criteria that determine how your minister’s time and energy is spent? What are the offices and positions held by your most talented and dedicated lay volunteers? The candidate, of course, will have to translate the responses to these questions and interpret them, but this interview does provide an excellent opportunity for raising the question.”

In small-membership churches:
“First, the recently arrived minister MUST earn the confidence, the trust, and perhaps even the passive support of the influential members of the congregation--including some who do not hold official office, but who possess permission-withholding power; such as a local patriarch. This usually means a considerable amount of calling on the members and personal contact in order to establish that trust level. Second, and to some extent concurrently, the recently arrived minister must identify, visit, and build a personal relationship with the residents of the larger community who do not have an active relationship with any worshiping congregation. Gradually, some of these people will begin to identify this minister as “my pastor.” During these visits, the minister can begin to identify some of the unmet religious and personal needs of these people. Third, the new minister must identify potential allies within the membership. This process should include (a) identifying the unmet religious and personal needs of these potential allies, to which this congregation might be able to develop a programmatic response, and (b) identifying and affirming the distinctive gifts, talents, skills, and strengths of each of these potential allies, including some latent gifts. These three steps typically will require six to ten months of the new minister’s time and energy.”

In larger-membership churches:
“The larger the congregation, the more critical that first year of a new pastorate is in building the foundation for what follows. From a long-term congregational perspective the events and activities of the third or fourth or fifth or sixth year may stand out as watershed happenings, but the wise senior minister recognizes the value of building an action agenda during that crucial first year and of enlisting allies to help implement that agenda.”

What people look for in you:
“In the small membership congregation the people will seek to discover whether the new minister really loves them or whether this is merely a post-seminary apprenticeship or a stepping-stone in the new minister’s career. In the large congregations the leaders will seek to discover whether the new minister is an aggressive leader who is willing to take the initiative or is a reactive leader who waits and responds to the initiative of others and to changing circumstances.”

The first year sets the trajectory:
“The key variable appears to be those first few years of a new pastorate. If a congregation is going to experience numerical growth with the leadership of that minister, the numbers usually will begin to reflect that within the first few years. In other words, a disproportionately large number of long-established congregations reporting numerical growth began to experience that growth shortly after the arrival of a new pastor. This is not an argument in support of short pastorates for ineffective ministers! This is simply to note the immediate impact of a new minister, many of whom stay for decades and the congregation may continue to grow in numbers throughout that very long pastorate, but those first few years usually set the direction for the future.”

New ministers and inherited staff:
“Two overlapping questions that come up repeatedly in conversations with senior ministers concern (a) the tenure of “inherited” staff remaining from the era of the previous senior minister and (b) the difficulties in constructive supervision of program staff. One approach to the first question requires the intervention of a strong committee when the senior minister announces a departure date or before the process is completed for the selection of a successor. In operational terms this usually means that all other staff members are advised they may be expected to resign sometime in the future. In some cases every program staff member, including the secretary to the senior minister, is asked to submit a resignation dated six or eight months or a year after the arrival of the new senior minister. This means the newly arrived senior minister, instead of being the villain who decides who must be dismissed, becomes the hero who decides which resignation will not be accepted. While this procedure has much to commend it, it has two price tags. First, there is a risk that the most valuable staff members, who usually find it easy to secure a new position, are tempted to move during this period of uncertainty. The second disadvantage is that the procedure creates a long period of uncertainty which may immobilize program planning and development efforts. A related approach is less rigorous, and perhaps equally effective. The lay leadership quietly informs all program staff members, including the secretary to the senior minister, that the new senior minister will be given the authority to build a new staff and that decisions on terminations and tenure will be made by the new senior minister. Thus the initiation of the idea that changes may be necessary is carried out by the lay leadership, not by the new senior minister. That is an important distinction! Both approaches are based on the assumption that the senior minister is (a) the chief administrative officer of the parish and (b) responsible for the overall life, ministry, and program of the parish. If it is assumed that the new senior minister should not have the authority to build a program staff, his or her area of responsibility should be decreased accordingly.”

Potential opposition:
“Whenever the long-established congregation that has been on a plateau in size for many years begins to experience significant growth . . . most of the minister’s allies and supporters will be people who joined the congregation since the ‘new minister’ arrived. Most of the opposition comes from members who have seniority over the new minister.” Only so much can happen: “During that crucial first year it is possible to help people become aware of new possibilities, to begin to grasp a new vision and to help them look down a new road, but there is a limit on how many changes can be accomplished during the first year.”

The Summary

The new pastor can make a big difference: “The most critical single factor in determining the effectiveness, vitality, morale, attractiveness, numerical growth or decline, community image, and outreach of the large congregation is the senior minister.”

Excerpt from the authors' book Wisdom from Lyle E. Schaller: The Elder Statesman of Church Leadership, coming October 1 from Abingdon Press. Used by permission.

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