A checklist on how to start well in a new church
Take the time to listen and learn
- Give yourself a 90 day to 9 month listening, learning and observing period while you build trust and connect with the church community relationally. Make relationships a priority and get to know the church
- Go right through the church directory – try to personally meet and connect with as many as possible over the early weeks and months.
- Download a map the area and mark in everyone’s home (most people will know where each other live, you have to come up to speed in a big hurry)
- Map the family connections – you may be surprised about who and how people are connected
- If you are in a country church – find out families who have children away at uni, work or school.
- Find out about former active members who may be in aged care or any who normally attend but might not be well
- Any active pastoral situations that need to be followed up
- Get to know the families, children and youth (who may be harder to connect to) as well as older members (who are typically easier)
Listen carefully for any live conflicts, tensions, and polarisations (avoid getting triangled into any of these). Stay well self-differentiated in the early settling in phase (don’t take on any systemic anxiety that is not yours).
Get your head and heart around the church system
- Ask for a list of ministry leaders, office bearers, formal leadership positions and for those who have held them in the immediate past
- Have a careful look at a couple of normal years of church calendar activities for significant events that the church hosts or in which the church participates. Some of these may not have been communicated up until now
- Look through a few service outlines and roster sheets (so you know how things have operated and who has been active particularly in an interim period)
- Go through the constitution, policies, guidelines and any formal documentation the church may have and make your own copies
- Check on any role or position descriptions and review or reporting processes
- Ask about and note active projects, partnerships, connections with hospitals, funeral services, community welfare agencies, community groups, local ministries
- Learn the financial situation of the church, insurances, budget, book-keeping system
- Learn how the building and facilities work, who is responsible for which pieces of plant and equipment
- Find out about any missionaries connected to the church, groups the church has supported or particular relationships the church has with organisations or individuals on a national or international level
- Find out about the church website(s), how it works and is updated and who the webmaster is
- Find out about the local minister’s network and how the church relates to other churches in the locality
As trust deepens dig under the surface and find out what church members take for granted
- Who, what, how, when, where, why
- Let people share their favourite church stories (learn the key ones) – this is a key window into shared values of the church
- Exegete the church system – Draw out the rules, roles, rituals, goals at the formal, informal and tacit levels
- Create a system power analysis (lists of people with positional power, communal respect, spiritual authority, wisdom, communicative power) Who appears on multiple lists?
- Understand the specific implications of your predecessor’s theology, leadership style, and ministry philosophy on denominational linkage, leadership structure and vision/mission
- Begin the gaps and overlaps analysis (comparative strengths/weaknesses, gifts and role expectations. Reflect on the changes the church and leaders will grapple with as your gifts and strengths/weaknesses become apparent over time)
- Manage their history and yours with care – no comparisons with your previous churches or their previous pastors (honour both)
Know yourself and look after yourself – this is a major change
- Know how you process change, loss, connecting and building relationships and be aware of the major transition you are in (remember moving churches is a massive whole of life transition).
- Know how you manage stress and take steps to do what you need for self care in transition?
- While this is happening personally be careful not to be aloof or distant.
- Have a mentor with whom to process your personal adjustments
- If you get ill or highly stressed be aware of the importance of still managing the bonding process between pastor and new church
Have the role clarity, personal care and personal development conversation
- Within the first few months talk through with the leadership the expectations they have of your role and if there is no clear position description, delegation of authority, or partnership in ministry understanding work with them to put these in place.
- Clarify expectations around days off, leave, holidays, availability and working hours
- Discuss issues like study leave, professional development, mentoring and supervision, conferences, etc
- There needs to be a frank and clear conversation around wages, allowances and benefits
Steadily put deposits in the ministry and leadership trust accounts
- Use your energy in the first few months to gently pastor, teach, encourage, facilitate community, and lead services smoothly and well (remember trust is built with 1000 small acts of service, care, wisdom, guidance and support)
- Use your first few crises to reach out and let people know you will be there
- Use your first few misunderstandings and conflicts to create a culture of normality around healthy ways to deal with conflict and that we can ‘learn how to get along together’
Be careful about changing things too quickly
- THINK about the changes you would like to make (there is a lot in first impressions so write them down), then don’t make them (your first impressions are probably not the whole story). Learn why things are the way they are before seeking to change them
- Start informal conversations with others in the church around vision, direction, future, outreach, growth – listen to the heartbeat of where and how people would like to see the church grow and develop.
Slowly start the conversations around vision and direction
- As you settle in and build trust and credibility, start to ramp up the vision conversations and slowly shape these into a formal process that combines the local vision (who we want to be as God’s people in this place – this belongs to the people) and your vision of how you best lead ministry as pastor (your own vision of effective pastoral ministry in and through the church).