Long ago a friend dared me to run a 5K. I agreed to it when I found out there'd be treats at the end, of the Krispy Kreme doughnut variety. I got to the starting line and found a not-so-crowded spot, at the very front. I didn't know the front was for people who, you know, are in shape and have better goals than to "finish without passing out." The gun sounded and we all took off. And for that first quarter mile I was feeling great, flying with the best runners. Then one passed me, then another, then a few more, then lots more. And sometime around 1/3 mile I started questioning the goodness of life. Thankfully I did finish the race, and I got my doughnuts. And I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Be in shape before running a race, and 2) It's important to start slow.
When ministry leaders find themselves on the starting line of a new assignment, it can be very easy to buy into the hype and the excitement of the moment and start with a sprint, making changes and pushing the limit of what's possible. The problem with that is the same thing happens like in my race: you burn out, wear out, and end up struggling to the finish line. I believe good starts in ministry are important, so important I'm writing a book about how to get off to a good start. And getting off to a good start begins in those first steps off the line. As a leader you can choose to take off and sprint, to make drastic changes, to redefine leadership roles, and aggressively push in a new culture. Or, you can choose to step off the line with a slow, steady pace, gathering momentum and building on the previous miles so that you reach the finish line effectively. I believe starting slow involves listening, relationships, learning, and building.
Listen to as many stories as you can - When you come into a new assignment, you're the new guy. So you need to listen to as many people as you can. Your fellow staff members, volunteers, and others in the community know more about your church and ministry than you do. By hearing their stories and how God has used them, you can get a sense of what's been done before you got there. When I arrived at my current assignment, I sat down with all of our volunteers to let them talk. The only thing I wouldn't let the conversation move to was my predecessor who'd been let go. But I just let them talk, about their family, their ministry, how God had used them, what they were doing, etc.
Cultivate relationships - A pastor I know made a really significant change in his church and I asked how he had been able to do that, and his answer has stuck with me: "I ate a lot of pie." This pastor knew that the key to leading effectively was through relationship capital. After arriving, develop relationships as much as possible. Three levels of relationships church leaders will have are their volunteer team, their fellow staff, and other church leadership. It's important to develop relationships with those you'll spend time with. In our good intentions we want to develop relationships with every person in the pews, but the reality is that's an almost impossible proposition, especially in the first year or two. Those relationships happen over many years of crisis, life change, and a few potluck meals.
Learn your culture - Every church has its own unique culture, what the values are, who the key people are, what their history is, what their "style" is, and what landmines are out there. My first ever ministry assignment was a part-time youth minister. Early on I made a big change to what we would be doing for our summer missions. Little did I know that the church had done the same mission project for decades and it was something way bigger than a week on the summer calendar. I didn't take the time to learn the culture, and it cost me. As part of listening and cultivating relationships, find out more from those who've been at your church longer what the culture is. Chances are you'll have a "church historian" in your circle who can help you understand the landscape. Scouting well gives you the ability to navigate any potential issues, and gives you the perspective necessary to lovingly lead people towards your vision.
Build a vision coalition - This isn't a line in the sand of Us vs. Them, it's the culmination of listening, relationships, and learning--you're starting the process of leading the church or your ministry towards a vision you believe God has for them. After a year or so, I remember sitting down with my volunteer team and asking them vision questions. It was time to start working towards transforming the culture, and I knew accomplishing that would happen through these volunteers. So we started asking questions of why and how. And we started praying towards what we wanted students to be, know, and do when they graduated from our student ministry. As a leader, this coalition becomes an incredible resource for you. They can help you with the timing, the process, and ultimately the worship element of the vision--your goal as a leader is to help people love Jesus more and serve Him on mission daily.
Those of you in ministry, what did you do early on to start off well? What lessons did you have to learn the hard way?
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.