So you’re a young leader and you’ve been called to pastor an existing church.
It’s exciting. It’s humbling. It’s faith-building. It’s terrifying.
And if you’re not careful, it can be debilitating. There are very few callings that are more laden with minefields than a young pastor called to serve an older church.
But if it’s done well it can be extremely rewarding, for both the young pastor and the older church.
I did it three times when I was a younger pastor – with mixed results.
- One short-term success
- One short-term failure
- And one long-term (and still active) success
From these experiences and my conversations with dozens of other leaders, here the top 5 lessons I wish I’d known before stepping in as the pastor of my first older church as a young leader.
1. Spend More Time Listening Than Talking
Older churches are a storehouse of experience, faith and wisdom.
That’s sometimes hard to see, since all that treasure can be buried beneath years, even decades of neglect, pain and betrayal. Nevertheless, it’s there.
But you have to pay close attention to notice it. That happens by spending a lot more time listening than speaking.
Here’s a good way to break down the ratio of listening to speaking.
Years 1-2 (Ratio of 3/1): In your first 2 years in a new pastorate, spend at least three hours in purposeful, listening-based conversation for every hour you spend in sermon prep and delivery.
Years 3-4 (Ratio of 2/1): Spend at least two hours in purposeful, listening-based conversation for every hour you spend in sermon prep and delivery.
Years 5+ (Ratio of 1/1): From year 5 on, spend at least one hour in purposeful, listening-based conversation for every hour you spend in sermon prep and delivery. Yes, every year. Listening never stops.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:9)
2. Learn The Culture Before You Can Lead The Culture
Pastors are often told we’re the ones who need to set and lead the culture of the church.
That’s true in some situations, like church plants, long-term pastorates and extreme crises.
But small churches are different. You have to be granted permission to change the culture. That starts by learning what the current culture is all about so they can trust you to move it forward. And even then your input will be limited and participatory.
For a more detailed understanding of this important principle, check out my previous article, 3 Steps To Culture Change In A Small Church (Hint: It’s Different Than A Big Church.)
3. Foster Genuine Relationships With Older Allies
Find a friend from a previous generation.
Not to manipulate and use them. Genuinely find at least one long-term church member to spend time with, learn from and work alongside.
As a young pastor, you will have no greater asset in moving the church forward than someone who already has the long-term trust of other church members and is vouching for you.
4. Don’t Dismantle The Past, Build On It
History is not our enemy. At least it shouldn’t be.
If your plans for the church are seen as a threat to the congregation’s beloved history, even your best ideas have no chance of finding daylight. But if church members can see that a new direction is an affirmation of what’s already been done, the sky’s the limit.
This is where the previous three points can be extremely helpful. When you take the time to listen, learn and appreciate the past, you can use your church’s history as a friend, not an enemy.
5. Outlove Them (Or Outlive Them)
When the first four points fail to move the ball forward, this is what you have to do. It’s the advice I give when younger leaders ask me how to deal with entrenched people and problems in existing churches.
First, outlove them by
- Answering anger with gentleness
- Responding to meanness with kindness
- Resisting stubbornness with patience
When older church members push back against otherwise-reasonable changes it’s not usually because they’re just mean, but because they’ve been hurt. Ask the Lord to help you love them back into a place of healing and wholeness.
Second, not everyone will receive even the most sincere, loving response. So, for the others, play the long game (understanding this is anything but a game) and determine to outlive (that is, outlast) them.
Stay faithful to your God-ordained course. You’ll keep walking it long enough that they’ll either 1) stop complaining, 2) come around, or 3) leave on their own accord.
I’ve had to use the “outlive them” option a handful of times. It’s hard, it’s frustrating, and it takes a ridiculously long time, but in the long run it’s been worth it.
It’s always better to win people over as true allies.
Loving people is always the first and best option.
(Photo by Annie Spratt | Unsplash)