Congratulations! You’ve been called to a new ministry position. Whether it’s your first or your tenth post you are more than likely excited and filled with high hopes.
But there are a lot of unknowns as well. Have you made the right decision? Has the church or organization? Will you fit in? What are the opportunities? The potential landmines? What do you absolutely have to know – and to do?
We know beyond a doubt that the first ninety days of any new ministry set the tone and temperature for the months and years to come. That’s why it’s so important to be fully prepared. Today we begin a series of posts designed to set you up for success in the first ninety days of your new ministry. To start….here are five key things to do when you begin a new ministry position.
Do your homework. Much of your success during the first ninety days comes before you report for work on the first day. Take the time to learn all you can about your new church. Ask for materials about the church—such as any founding documents, services and strategic plans—anything that will allow you to gain a little extra knowledge. Jot down key questions you want to get answered.
One critical area to be aware of is past conflicts that have gone unresolved and underground. Often congregations are haunted by these conflicts and the residual damage caused by them. These conflicts might have centered around sexual indiscretions on the part of leadership, power struggles as to who ultimately was in charge (pastor vs. lay board), policy and program disagreements, etc. Congregations often are allergic to conflict, handle them poorly, and then see the devastating results.
One good way to know that a conflict was never resolved is in the response from congregants when you mention the past incidence. If the congregant quickly dismisses it with, “Oh, that was a long time ago, and everything’s been fine since Pastor So-and-so left,” know that the issue was never truly resolved.
Unresolved conflict has a nasty way of rearing its head in the present. As an example, let’s say that a former pastor was found to be spending discretionary funds for personal vacations, and was dismissed when discovered. What could remain from this incident is a prevailing distrust on the part of the congregation and lay leadership towards you now. And that might show up with a very harsh policy as to how you will account for your use of discretionary funds.
Hopefully you have an understanding that this mistrust is not about your misconduct, but is residual from others’ misconduct.
Know the key players. A common mistake is the failure to recognize the full set of stakeholders whose expectations will influence your leadership capacity. It is important for you to develop a working understanding of the broader political, cultural, and regulatory environment within which you operate so that you are better able (1) to comprehend and predict the areas that are likely to be priority concerns in your leadership position, and (2) to tailor your own action plans so that they conform and support those priorities. Understanding the big picture will not only keep you on track with your church’s expectations, but it will also enhance your ability to anticipate and adjust to shifts in those expectations.
On the relational level, know who the influencers are – those who have formal titles and roles and, just as important, those who have informal authority.
Start with a clean sheet. Just as you research the church, research yourself! Do an in-depth personal inventory of your own skills, behaviors and attitudes. Think about previous positions and experiences: what worked for you and what didn’t, and why. You’ve got an ideal opportunity to build the new and improved professional you.
Write down those personal characteristics that you’d like to improve. Then, develop a strategy to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. For instance, if you were never prepared for meetings, write down ways to improve your performance. If you were always late on assignments, develop a routine that will keep you on time. Develop a reputation for honesty and integrity. It is a reputation you must earn over time. And live up to that reputation at all times, at work and everywhere else.
Design and implement your own orientation program. As part of your orientation, your church should have done a number of things to bring you up to speed and get you plugged in as fast as possible. But you can’t bank on the organization taking the initiative. Sadly, few churches recognize the value of making orientation a priority. Don’t worry. Remember the old phrase, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.”
Set up meetings with the key people with whom you will interact. Remember names. Find out who in particular you will need to work with. Look for resources you need or that you can draw upon. Send the right message. Dress conservatively (along the lines of how members of your congregation usually dress). Don’t let your clothes attract more attention than your ideas. Hold in check any behavior that could be deemed offensive to others, including drinking alcoholic beverages over the lunch hour or at professional or social events where congregants are present. Be careful in using profanity.
Stay grounded in the daily reality of your congregation. Churches exist to reach and serve congregants and the surrounding community. Find out all you can about your new church’s demographic base – income, vocations, etc. – as well as the demographics of the surrounding communities. Find out what attracts your congregants to the church.
Continually ask, “Why did you first come to First Church? Why have you stayed? Why have some people left?” This also will alert you to conflict that has been resident for many years, often underground.