5 Things to focus on in your first year in ministry
I have seen the story unfold so many times I could tell it in my sleep. A young pastor walks into established church and tries to change the church’s structure and culture on the first day. Instead of getting to know the people, the culture, and his neighbors, he goes full bore after a checklist of changes he wants to accomplish. The church resists the changes he wants to implement and he gets frustrated. His preaching becomes caustic and angry. More people begin to resist him and an ugly ditch begins to grow between the shepherd and his sheep. This arrangement ends in the young pastor looking for a new place to go, leaving the ministry, or his firing by the congregation.
The early years of a young pastor’s ministry do not have to be marked by tension, stress, and hard feelings. By focusing on several simple tasks in the first year of ministry, a young pastor can lay the groundwork for a fruitful, God-glorifying ministry.
1. Spend time getting to know people.
Too often a man graduates from seminary and assumes church members will give him their attention because they are impressed by his eloquence and intelligence. Maybe you are more spiritual than this and think people will be arrested by the power and passion of your preaching. They may, but in most cases people will start listening to you when they know you and know that you love them. Trust must be earned, and your preaching will not shape the life of the church until the people sitting under you develop this trust.
In most cases people will start listening to you when they know you and know that you love them.”
One of your most important jobs in your first year will be to spend many hours listening to people. Sit on front porches, go to community events, and welcome people into your home. When you do this, ask lots of questions. Ask people about their background. Hear the story of their lives and their walk with Jesus.
If the person has been living in the community for many years, ask them what they appreciate about the community and how they have seen it change over the years. Ask long-time church members about the church’s history. What pastors do they speak well of and what characteristics do they emphasize about this pastor? Also, find out when they believe the church’s “golden era” was and what they cherished most during these years. You will doubtless hear things you disagree with and which frustrate you, but it will help you gain an appreciation for the church’s history and culture.
2. Do not try to change things.
When you arrive at the church you will be tempted to change the constitution, trim the membership roll, and update the music at the earliest moment. Resist this urge with every fiber of your being. We live in a world that is going through rapid changes, and many Christians resent what they see in our culture because they feel like these “advancements” have been imposed on them.
The church is one of the few places where they believe things are the way they were in the past and they get to have a say so in it staying that way. If you come in and begin pushing changes from day one, particularly in older churches, many people will begin to resent you. In your first year, look for evidences of grace in the church instead of focusing on everything you think needs to change. You will be surprised at how many of these evidences you see and this mindset will give you the proper perspective to address changes in the future.
Spend the first year of your ministry on the heart of the church’s message, not on the structure of the church’s function. Don’t preach through the Pastoral Epistles so you can talk about elders or do a five-week series on church discipline.
“Spend the first year of your ministry on the heart of the church’s message, not on the structure of the church’s function.”
Instead, you should major on the basic message of the gospel. Preach through a Gospel and emphasize the person and work of Jesus. Work through a few Psalms and show the beauty of knowing and trusting God. Your people will not understand what the church should be until they understand Jesus, the gospel, and the Christian life, so focus on first things first.
3. Work hard at effectiveness in preaching and teaching.
Chances are, you wrote most of your seminary papers at strange hours of the night. You took it easy during the first few weeks of the semester and then in October realized you had a lot of work left to do. The only weeks you can cruise in the ministry are the weeks you are on vacation. As a pastor, you will be under the gun every week. Putting off your sermon work until the last minute will make you stressed out, superficial, and ineffective.
You will need to labor at being organized in your work as you never have before. Determine a method for approaching your week, setting aside what you will work on each day. Do this knowing the possibility of losing half a day of sermon study is always around the corner. Determine to start on your sermon early in the week and do not fall into the fatal habit of putting this important work off while thinking you can get to it later.
4. Pray for God’s help and be patient.
Before the first day you’re in full-time ministry, you need to sit down, read 2 Corinthians, and remind yourself that you are facing an uphill battle. The ministry is hard and you need to remember the power for ministry comes from God and not from yourself. You need the power of the Holy Spirit to help you and to make your ministry effective. This means you must spend time before the Lord in prayer, casting your anxieties on him and begging for him to empower you to serve him and his church. Pray for your family, pray for the people God entrusted to you, and pray for the people in your city who do not know Jesus.
“The ministry is hard and you need to remember the power for ministry comes from God and not from yourself.”
Have you noticed how many of the metaphors Paul uses to describe the ministry involve agriculture? Farming takes time. Crops don’t grow overnight; and neither do disciples or churches. The results that come from preaching, praying, counseling, and discipling take time. Forget every story you ever heard about a guy who went to a church and saw it double in the first year. We hear these stories because they take place in exceptional circumstances and should not be confused with the ordinary experience of pastors in their first year of ministry. Instead of being frustrated at what you perceive to be a lack of progress, focus on the things which will truly make a difference in your ministry and plug away at those things every day while trusting in God’s Spirit to make them effective.
5. Work on your physical fitness.
No one ever took me aside and talked to me about the physical toll the ministry can take on a pastor. The ministry is a stress-filled and sedentary vocation. Every visit to someone’s home involves the offer of food and every meeting seems to take place around the table.
While I affirm the central role meals played in Jesus’ ministry, you need to know these meals will fill out your center in short order. This weight gain carries side effects such as high blood pressure, stress on your back and knees, and the general feeling of lethargy which dulls your mental abilities. You need physical exercise in the form of cardio, weights, or manual labor, to keep off the weight and as a release valve for your building stress.
Many times you labor in the ministry without obvious results. You finish counseling a couple and don’t know how things will turn out for them or you preach a sermon and don’t know if it transformed anyone; but when you spend an hour cutting the grass you can see what you accomplished. If you hit the gym or run first thing in the morning, you will feel like you have gotten something done even if you lose the rest of the day driving around to hospitals.
Real reality, faithful ministry
Get to know people, preach the word, pray, be patient, and be healthy. Plugging away at this daily work will not make for an interesting reality show, but it will help you build a firm foundation for an effective ministry.
Scott Slayton (M.Div., SBTS) serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, Alabama. Scott and his wife Beth have four children: Hannah, Sarah Kate, Leah, and Matt. He regularly writes at his personal blog One Degree to Another. You can follow him on Twitter @scottslayton.