4 Keys To A Successful First 100 Days As A New Senior Pastor
By: William Vanderbloemen March 12, 2013
Turnover in churches is high right now. Senior Pastors are retiring as baby boomers age, and the wave is only going to grow. Perhaps more than I’ve ever seen, there are scores of people facing their first senior pastor job. Landing the gig is one thing, but then what? I’ll never forget a friend of mine getting his first senior pastor job and telling me that he felt “like the dog that caught the bumper.” What do I do now?
Over the course of my ministry as a senior pastor and our work in executive search for church and ministry job positions, I’ve found a few key steps to making the first 100 days on the job a great head start to a long tenure.
1. Listen. I learned this one the hard way (I didn’t do it very well). In my first days as a senior pastor of a large church, I felt a need to get many new initiatives launched to show that I was working hard. Little did I realize that the best initiative I could have spearheaded was a listening campaign. Take the pulse of where your church currently is. Create a spreadsheet to make sure you have touched base with most, if not all of the major groups in the church. Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson (and ironically the son of a senior pastor) was once asked the secret to his success. He said something like, “Listen. You’d be surprised how many people lose just because they weren’t listening.” When you arrive at a church as the new senior pastor, people want to know that you’re listening. You’re also likely to hear plenty of good data that can help you discern what the next best steps for your church might be.
2. Unlock your history (and you’ll unlock your future). One of the best pieces of advice I got in seminary was this: “When you arrive at your new church, take the time to read the Board minutes. All of them.” When I first heard this I thought it was a joke. No senior pastor has time for reading old board minutes, right? Wrong. No matter how old or established your church is, it was founded as a mission. Whether or not your church is innovative now, it was in the beginning. When I started the senior pastor job in Houston, I read our history and found that our church had many “firsts” – first church in the city and first on the radio. All of those firsts were with the hope of reaching new people. When it came time to start a new service that would reach a different type of person than our traditional services, the stories of our history of trying new things in order to reach new people made a huge difference. Change isn’t nearly as scary for a church if it’s part of the church’s history. Somewhere in your church’s past lie the keys to successful future initiatives you will launch as the new senior pastor. Unlock your history, and you’ll unlock your future.
3. Schedule random acts of kindness. The old adage is true: People generally won’t learn from someone they don’t like. When I took the senior pastor job at a large church, I was really concerned about how I would relate to every member. I had been a senior pastor before, but at a much smaller venue where I knew everyone. I remember the chair of the pastor search committee telling me, “William, here’s a secret. The congregation doesn’t expect you to be at every hospital bed, but they do expect to believe that their senior pastor would want to be at every bed if possible.” There are some senior pastors out there who are relational gurus. They just have a likeability factor that seems unteachable. As I have interviewed and come to know many of them, there seems to be a common theme: Do enough relational work and care for your people well so that they begin telling the stories of your heart for the people. During that first 100 days, you will likely not be able to meet everyone, but if you can schedule visits that show your heart for the people, particularly visits that people wouldn’t predict, stories about your kindness will spread quickly. My guess is that a few random acts of kindness each week will quickly curry the favor of your new congregation and set you off to a good start as the new senior pastor.
4. Beware of the first five people at your door. One of my seminary professors told our class, “Almost without exception, beware the first five people at your door in your first days as senior pastor.” I dismissed this advice too, only to realize later that there is truth to the teaching. Of the first people to proactively meet you when you arrive to town, some will come with a very good agenda, and some will come with an entirely different agenda. In my experience, nearly all will come with some agenda. That doesn’t make them bad people, but the wise senior pastor will take time to evaluate those who show up at the door first.
Whether you are a senior pastor for the first time or you’ve been a senior pastor before, I hope the tips above help you find success in your first 100 days. I know from my own experience that you have a tough job ahead of you, but with the Lord’s blessing and your hard work, you will reap the reward of seeing the Kingdom advance in your community.
What are your tips for success in a new church job?