Your First 90 Days
How to hit the ground running as a new lead pastor
At the beginning of 2022, I became lead pastor of an established church with a wonderful 60-year history. The people love Jesus and want to reach the community, but they also needed to take some intentional steps to secure the church’s future. That meant I had to balance loving the church well and taking new ground quickly, which is tricky.
Becoming the pastor of an existing church is like jumping onto a moving train. When you land on the train, it’s already speeding down the tracks. People are expecting you to guide them to a destination, but you don’t yet feel in control. And why should you?
Everyone knows more than you about the church. The people know more than you about the history. The board knows more than you about the finances. The staff members know more than you about the ministries.
This makes lead pastor transitions notoriously difficult to navigate. It gets even more treacherous when you throw in other complicating factors, like following a pastor who resigned due to moral failure, retired after a long tenure, or left the church finances in disarray.
Another variable is whether the church was growing, plateaued, or in decline when you became pastor.
No two situations are the same. You will need to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide you in your context. However, there are some essentials to keep in view.
Looking back, I can identify specific things I did right away that helped me make the leap and position the church for influence. If you are moving into a season of transition, here are eight steps to take during the first 90 days:
1. Prioritize preaching. Everything else will be screaming for your attention. But a lot of those things can wait. You must devote your time and energy to preaching.
Don’t apologize for saying “no” to other things so you can protect time for sermon preparation. You can accomplish some things through preaching that you can’t accomplish any other way.
The gospel is what changes people. If you faithfully and effectively preach it, God will use His Word to bring the church together and move everyone in the right direction.
2. Call the church to prayer. When we pray with others, God knits our hearts with theirs, works miracles, and brings us into alignment with His will. The best way to fortify the unity of the church during the first 90 days is for the congregation to pray corporately.
Gather people to pray as often as you can. Establishing a weekly prayer service or meeting will communicate that prayer is important. In addition, every staff meeting, volunteer meeting, board meeting, and congregational gathering should include a time of prayer.
3. Learn to provide grief counseling. Change brings loss, loss brings pain, and pain brings grief. It’s inevitable. So take time to listen to the struggles of congregants. Let them talk about the challenges of the pastoral transition, and even how they miss their former pastor.
Listen to people without judgment, and then encourage them about the future. This will build trust.
4. Invest in relationships. Everything moves at the speed of relationships, so get to know as many people as you can. Spend lots of time with your staff, deacons, primary influencers, and attendees.
Get a vision for where God is leading and then passionately pursue it.
During those first three months, my wife and I shared meals or coffee with 60 individuals or couples. That’s an average of five per week.
Was it tiring? Yes. But if you’re a shepherd, people matter to you. And relationships are the tracks on which your vision travels. Without relationships, your plans for the church are going nowhere.
5. Create small wins. Hand out free donuts on a Sunday morning before church. Find a facilities problem and fix it. Find one system or process that is frustrating for people and correct it. Baptize one person. Send a check to support a missionary. Share the gospel with one person in the community.
It doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy. Even small wins add up during the first 90 days, especially if the transition has been challenging or the people haven’t felt like they were winning lately.
6. Celebrate constantly. Tell people about all those small wins. Did you have one child accept Jesus in kids’ church last week? Did you hear of a member visiting a shut-in or taking a meal to someone who is ill? Did anyone in the church do anything to live out a gospel principle?
Any good thing — even a small thing — that aligns with the culture you’re trying to create is worth celebrating. What gets celebrated gets repeated. Celebrate in services, staff meetings, board meetings, one-on-one conversations, and small groups.
When someone complains about the new things you’re doing, the best way to change the tone is by celebrating what God is doing. It won’t take long before a culture of celebration takes root and supplants any undesirable cultures of complaining and scarcity.
7. Align change with mission. I still believe Jesus is returning soon, which means time is of the essence. I want to reach as many people for the Lord as I can, as quickly as I can.
So I decided to pace the change based more on mission than preference. If I want to change a program, ministry leader, or event for personal reasons, it can wait. But if something is hindering the mission of reaching people for Jesus, I’ll make the change as soon as possible.
When you can get people to agree on the mission, it increases the chance those same people will support decisions that facilitate mission fulfillment. They may not like the change, but they will at least understand why it is necessary. It’s hard to argue against change that brings more people to Jesus.
8. Operate in faith. The two primary fears in a pastoral transition are that people will stop giving and people will leave. Both of those can, and probably will, happen. That’s OK. The worst thing you can do is make decisions based on those fears.
Get a vision for where God is leading and then passionately pursue it. Don't apologize for it or shrink back from it. Go after the vision boldly and courageously, believing most of the congregants will want to go there with you. As you operate in faith, God will provide the people and finances to support His work.
Less than one year after starting my new pastoral role, God is blessing our church with growth, salvations, miracles, and a fresh sense of expectation for what’s ahead.
When you become the pastor of a church, everyone in the congregation probably will know more than you about a lot of things. But you have one advantage. If God has placed you there as the leader, He has put the future of the church in your heart.
That means you can see things up ahead no one else can see. And while it is important to know where the church has been, the most important thing in leadership is knowing where you’re going.
So lead boldly and compassionately, inviting the people of your congregation to travel with you. Your church’s best days are ahead.
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Influence magazine.