4 Traps for Clergy When Moving to a New Congregation

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Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches says that the arrival of a new minister can be a marvelous opportunity to start anew for both the minister and the congregation — but only if the pastor steers clear of four common traps that can derail the new relationship.


In a recent conversation, a minister asked me what I thought were the major traps that most often snared ministers when they moved to a new congregation. Great question! Healthy churches and ministers pay attention to potential trouble spots and act in a proactive way to avoid getting derailed early in the new relationship. Several traps come to mind:

1. The trap of expectations

A new minister coming into a congregation is a wonderful season of new beginnings and possibilities. People await a new pastor with great expectations. Often those expectations are exaggerated and grandiose. The new pastor is seen as the one who will reverse decades of decline, inspire apathetic congregants, make everyone happy at all times, and never disappoint. Sometimes the grandiosity is in the mind of the new minister. She or he thinks this church is everything the last church was not. The grass looks so green on this side of the fence! Personal foibles and bad habits are overlooked in the infatuation with a new opportunity.

Unrealistic expectations, wherever they originate, are a setup. They lead us away from God’s design for us and His church. And they trap us in impossible situations. A new minister will never succeed as the Messiah, and the congregation will soon expose its cracks and fissures, reminding everyone that it really isn’t heaven on earth. Talking about this and anticipating the inevitable disappointments is an essential component of a healthy relationship between minister and congregation. The humility that comes when we acknowledge that we are all earthen vessels and deeply flawed is a great place to begin a relationship between minister and congregation.

2. The trap of agendas

The arrival of a new minister invites the congregation to imagine new possibilities. That is a wonderful and divine part of the opportunity. However, it is helpful to remember that all of us have agendas. Some are overt, some quite covert. Simply put, some people will see the coming of a new minister as an opportunity to advance a cause or seek a role that has been thwarted previously. The arrival of a new clergyperson is a new day that will bring frustrated congregants out of the woodwork. Others will assume they will have the same intimacy or insider status that they had with the previous person. Some will have been deeply disappointed by the previous minister and will see someone new with frosty indifference.

It is important to be aware. Avoid the trap of believing everything you hear. From search committee members to the most detached congregants, personal agendas abound. Watch with a degree of prayerful detachment those around you. Get up on a mental balcony in every meeting and during every conversation and ask what is really going on. Constantly ask: Why this? Why now? The coming of a new pastor evokes a wide range of personal responses that it is wise to take notice of in those early encounters.

3. The trap of talking

Since clergy are seemingly paid to speak, the usual pattern is that they do — profusely, often, and repeatedly. Watch out for the trap of verbosity. The entry into a new congregation calls for a season of diagnostic rather than prescriptive conversations. If your medical doctor walked into the exam room and immediately began a monologue about your health without ever asking for input from you, I hope you would jump up and leave the room. I’d offer the same counsel to a congregation and its minister. In the early days, keep your ears wide open, your eyes wide open, and your heart wide open. There will be a time to speak the truth you bring to the situation, but initially talking should consist of words of invitation to others. Ask many, many questions, especially around the themes of heritage and hopes.

4. The trap of silence

To be blunt, after 100 days on the job, a new minister had better have something to say. There are those who counsel a full year of observation before making any move toward active leadership. But the pace of our culture dictates a new reality. There is a shorter learning curve, so silence can be a trap for a new leader, should it go too long. It will be misinterpreted as a lack of leadership ability. The first 100 days offer a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for a new minister to define himself or herself and establish some trajectories for ministry. Pay attention to this time with careful and prayerful thought. In our coaching of new pastors, we encourage breaking down the first 100 days into ten 10-day blocks of time and becoming exceptionally deliberate about the proactive use of those days. These are days to emphasize relationships over tasks, so plan your time accordingly.

After 100 days, a new minister should emerge from a time of study and observation with clear and compelling observations. The people need to hear from you. The rest of the first year will be a time to begin an extended congregational conversation that will shape the church’s agenda for the near future. Use those days to engage around “what if” questions. Invite dreaming about God and about possibilities. You should share what matters to you, what you love about your new church, and your generous vision of the future so that you can invite others to join in creating that vision and making it a reality. Speak up!

Beware the traps and enjoy the ride. It really is a marvelous opportunity to start anew.


This article is reprinted from the newsletter of the Center for Healthy Churches. Used by permission.

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About Author

Dr. Bill Wilson is founder and director of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was previously President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health.


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