Notes on your First Church: Part 1

What to Do and What Not to Do in Your First Year at a Church 

When I was on the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, one of the “urban myths” about TMS graduates is they tend to have “short and problematic” pastorates, especially in their first church. Admittedly, in my consulting and interim pastoral ministry I “picked up the pieces” that a TMS grad had left behind a few times; however, the real data doesn’t support the myth. In the United States senior pastors currently enjoy tenure of about 2.5 years. A few years ago I did a substantial survey of about 1500 pastors dealing with tenure and other issues. These are the results for just the TMS grads (who are senior or preaching pastors) in how long they were (or had been) in their first church:

  • One year or less: 17.58%
  • Two to Five Years: 39.56%
  • Five to Ten Years: 29.67%
  • More than Ten Years: 13.19%

This means that roughly 43% of TMS grads have been in the same church for more than five years. In comparison to national averages that is really exceptional. Nearly 67% of TMS grads also followed a stable pastor who had served for five years or more. This was actually higher than the overall average by about 15%.

However, that still means that roughly 57% of TMS grads stayed at their first church for less than five years and the overwhelming majority of those entered a less than stable situation where the previous pastor had served less than five years. In this regard TMS graduates were no more or less inclined to succeed or fail. 1

Regardless of the stability of the previous pastor and that ministry, often new men fail because of what they did or didn’t do in their first year at a church. 2 During my nearly 25 years of doing interim and consulting work and studying churches and trends at length, I’ve developed an “idea list” of the things to do and not do during the first year of ministry, mainly as a senior or lead pastor.

What to Do: 

  • Learn everything you can about the history of the church. Who started it? Why was it started? What is their heritage? What are their traditions?
  • Learn everything you can about the neighborhood demographics and trends. This is one of the more neglected aspects of churches and their leaders. There are often trends that are at least foreseeable that should change decisions that are being made in the present.
  • Learn who your key leaders are in the church. Understand the difference between “paper” leaders and “real” leaders. They may not always be the same.
  • If there are former pastors in your congregation find out who they are and why they are no longer in full time ministry. Get to know them very well.
  • Prioritize the essential areas to address in terms of change or emphasis shift, do the research, and understand the history of why something is being done the way it is.
  • Learn thoroughly all of the ministries in the church and their leaders. Observe them all in action if possible.
  • Preach in a manner that people get to know you and your preaching style gradually. If the church is used to a 30-minute sermon don’t walk in and preach for 50 minutes.

What Not to Do:

shutterstock_144304855-300x212

  • Avoid, if possible, doing anything major on anything. My research demonstrated that a pastor who has to undertake a major change or major problem in a church in their first year, 70% of the time they will leave that ministry within two years.
    • This doesn’t mean not to take head on major issues of discipline or other problems just to save yourself, but if that happens understand you may be simply an interim pastor.
  • Don’t preach a long series through a difficult book of the Bible. Let the people get used to you and your preaching style with shorter series or book studies.
  • Don’t even suggest or even hint that you are going to seek to change the church polity or leadership model. Altering polity is generally about 13th on my list of the ten things to fox at a church. Both J. C. Ryle and Charles Spurgeon asserted that the New Testament commands no specific form of polity as against another.
  • Don’t say unkind things about former pastors or people who have left the church and don’t take sides in prior disputes.
    • Note: reaching out to people who have recently left the church before you arrived may seem like a good thing to do, but don’t. Remember the old saying, “be careful what you wish for.”
  • Remember the difference between your personal preference and biblical imperative and make sure the biblical imperative really is biblical and imperative.
  • Do not make promises about any current staff you may inherit, to anyone. If you go to a situation with a larger staff in place remember that one of them probably wanted the job you now have.
    • Generally, this won’t be an issue as very few churches with a pastoral staff of three or more are going to call a freshly graduated student to be their pastor. If the church does, there are almost certainly problems beneath the surface.
  1. For the purposes of this article I am equating “success” with a pastoral tenure of five years or more and “failure” as a ministry less than 2.5 years.
  2.  I have often heard men that have left (or worse split) a church say things like, “the people wouldn’t obey the Word” or “weren’t willing to submit to the Word.” I have personally investigated that type of claim well over a dozen times and have never found it to be the foundational reason for a failed pastorate.
This entry was posted in Church Ministry, Ministry, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching by Dennis Swanson. Bookmark the permalink.
Dennis Swanson

About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master's Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master's Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.
  • Les Williams

    The number of years do not always relate well to the things you achieve. Brookside Baptist in Boynton Beach was all but gone when the called Dr Phillip McLovin. In his 2 years we grew from 80 to 200 on Sunday. As the minister of youth we saw a boost as well. We went from 20 to 50 each Wednesday. Sadly, after McLovin left the old ways returned rather quickly. In 6 months we were less than 100 on Sunday. I departed soon afterwards. In 6 more months they were all but empty seating on Sunday. They closed the following year. Ministry is much more than the time you are there it is about the heart you give it while you are there. Give it your all and when your time is done and God moves you along you can go in peace as you have given it your very best. Give not a second thought to the number of years but only to The Calling.

    • Don

      From what I have observed, rapid change in a short time with an established congregation often results in the congregation not “owning” the change. So when the “temporary” pastor leaves, the congregation simply falls back on their old way of doing things. Often the rapid growth is driven by the pastor’s personality. Discipleship has not taken place, leadership development has not taken place. The congregation learns from a series of “short term” pastors that the pastor will eventually leave them…so why invest in a temporary relationship with a pastor. The internal leadership of the church simply anchors down since “pastors come & go, but we are the ones that remain.”

      • I think that’s a really great point. It’s easy to see why rapid change could contribute toward a quick departure. If the attitude is “our pastor did this” versus “we did this,” and there are negative consequences (whether real or perceived), I can see where people might quickly sour in their trust. Developing discipleship and leadership training is slow, hard work and takes a lot of time. For the long-term, obviously it’s much better (the fact that the pastor is making disciples and training leaders shows that he is investing in them) for the church’s future strength (not to mention it’s a mandate). Unfortunately though, “flash” growth is a lot easier to do and looks a lot better in the books.

    • Dennis Swanson

      Without knowing the exact circumstances it’s hard to evaluate, but the scenario you present is more common than might be imagined. I would say though, that tenure of ministry is a consideration in evaluating success or perhaps better, sustainability. Often ministries aren’t sustainable because they are built around personalities; once the personality is removed, then there is decline, sometimes catastrophic decline. A successful ministry takes time to build and then be sustainable from one pastor to the next. I will address some of those issues in part two tomorrow.

  • Kyle Sanderson

    This was very helpful. Thank you for sharing from your experience and research. Proverbs 12:15.

  • Karl Heitman

    Phew! Made it thru my first year!

    Serious question, Dennis: what does neighborhood demographics have to do with anything?

    • I think it’s just practical. For me, it was just helpful to know that my county has decreased in population every year since the end of WWII, mainly due to the great economic shift in the region which left many without jobs since the primary source of income (coal) was never replaced. That places folks around here in a pretty significant financial burden. Also, knowing the area demographics has been helpful for planning outreach activities, where people are coming from (distance-wise), what to expect in the weather… it just gives me a big picture idea for what’s going on 🙂 I’m sure there are other reasons… but those were the first things off the top of my head…