Ministers who work with congregations might do well to pay attention to how they begin. Working with a congregation is much like marriage – it matters how you start. The following suggestions may be very helpful if you are beginning a new work. On the other hand, these suggestions may also be helpful even if you have served this congregation for months or even years.
- Know that the congregation wants you to succeed and do well. Be gracious and appreciative of what they do. Know that for the most part, these people are probably doing the best they know how to do when it comes to working with you.
- Be a student of the congregation and its history. Ask questions. Attempt to learn names. If a pictorial church directory exists (either hard copy or online) take advantage of this tool and review the names of these people.
- Get to know the strengths of the congregation. Ask various people, “What are the strengths of the congregation? What does this church do well?” (Don’t worry about asking about its weaknesses. That will come.) Begin by learning what this church values.
- Be quick to be curious. Be genuinely interested in who these people are and the story of this congregation. However, be very, very slow to critique. A critique usually has to be earned and may not be appreciated if given too soon.
- Know that upon entering a congregation, people will often tell you things about their lives that they may not bring up again. “Yes, we moved here after my divorce” or “My husband died suddenly two years ago.” Listen intently and later make notes. Otherwise, these details may become a blur within a short time.
- Credibility has to be developed over time. A seminary degree may help to get you “in the door.” However, credibility has to evolve through serving and loving these people. Pray that God will help you see opportunities to do this in practical ways with this congregation.
- Get to know each elder and his wife. Yes, this will be easier with some more than others. These relationships are important. Many have learned, however, the significance of ignoring these relationships.
- Keep a record of what you do (funerals you attend, hospital rooms you visit, lunches/coffee with people, etc.) For many of us, keeping a complete and thorough calendar is sufficient. It can be so helpful when you need to know just how many times you have met with someone or how often you have gone to the hospital.
- What do these people like? Pro football? College basketball? Local high school football, basketball, soccer? You don’t have to become a raving fan of these teams. However, if these people were fans, etc. it would probably be helpful to at least know something about their interests.
- Preaching/teaching. Be down to earth. People will appreciate this. Say something that is helpful, encouraging, etc. Beware of using seminary language (words that only people who go to seminary would know). Work on clarity. These people will appreciate your attempt to be clear and helpful. Know that many of these people will listen more to what you have to say if you demonstrate a willingness to “get your hands dirty” through practical service.
- Put your own relationship with God first. Pay attention to basics such as reading your Bible, prayer, etc.
- If you are married, your relationship with your spouse is so important. Don’t allow the busyness in your ministry to cause you to neglect this person. There is no one person more important in your life and ministry than your spouse.
- Be slow about how you characterize people. Far too often, I have misjudged people. I thought early on that certain people would become our best friends. I was wrong. In time, others became some of our dearest friends.
Jim Martin is Vice President of Harding School of Theology. Jim spent many years as a preaching minister in Texas before taking on that roll. He has spent many years encouraging and developing ministers both in person and through his writing. You can read more from Jim at his blog God Hungry! Jim also has an email list where you can receive encouragement. There is no cost to subscribe, “Jim Martin’s Encouragement Note”
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