On Starting Well

September 17th, 2009

If you don’t like the first few sentences of this article, you’ll stop reading. Because I’m smart enough to know that, and insecure enough to care. I’m tempted to hook you with funny stories, outlandish promises, or words likesexfree, and get a raise!

Unfortunately, while you and I both know these tricks typically work—hey, you’re still reading—they ultimately cheapen both of us.

During the first few months of a new ministry, the same rules apply. Although you have a short period of time to make a good first impression, shallow hooks shouldn’t be part of the plan. They may draw an initial crowd, but you’re better served by laying a solid foundation. Which means you have two options: You can develop these skills with practice—i.e., you can perform them poorly enough, often enough that eventually you learn everything that doesn’t work—or you can read this article.

Rule One: Understand the Power Shift

There’s a cosmic shift that occurs in your status the moment you accept a job. And this shift, of course, is down.

Between the time the church offers you a position and when you actually say yes, you enjoy the mystical status of a celebrity. People find you wonderful, witty, and winsome. You’re the dream date who can neither do nor say anything wrong. Unfortunately, moments after accepting the post, at least a few observers will start to wonder why you need the work. (This dictum is cousin to the dating principle, “I’m too good to date anyone who’d go out with me.”)

I’m writing about this power shift not because I like it, but because there are rules that surround it. Namely, you can ask for the world before you accept a job, but nothing for 12 months after you sign on. Why? Because trying to renegotiate a new contract not only smacks of the NBA, it implies that you were either stupid or duplicitous when you signed the first one (neither option being positive). So if you think you deserve a $300,000 signing bonus, a six-month sabbatical every year, and first-class plane tickets for all mission trips, ask for them up front, not three weeks into the job.

Rule Two: Act Decisively

For years we’ve been told that the best way to start a new position is to take plenty of time to learn the existing program. “Don’t make any quick changes,” people warn. “Wait a year or two to get the lay of the land.” To all of this I politely respond, “Bunk.” Sure it’s wise to understand the program before modifying it, but two years in youth ministry is way too long to wait. In fact, two months is pushing it.

Walter Gerber, a senior pastor in Menlo Park, California, rightly notes that it’s during your first year that you have the rare opportunity to make changes. These additions, modifications, and deletions need to be thoughtfully and carefully articulated, to be sure, but if you wait too long to act, the clay will no longer be wet. It’ll dry and crumble.

Instead, find the balance between riding roughshod over sacred ground and moving the group forward on the path. When in doubt, seek the counsel of parents, students, and the senior pastor.

But, for heaven’s sake, do something.

Rule Three: Don’t Knock the Nose Off the Pharaoh

We’ve all seen pictures of the Great Sphinx of Giza—that wonderful Egyptian monument parked next to the Pyramids. It has the body of a 240-foot lion, the head of a man, and a panoramic view of the surrounding desert. What it doesn’t have, though, is a nose. Why?

Because somebody knocked it off.

Sphinxes were made in the image of kings, but many are without noses because new kings often ordered sphinxes made in the image of their predecessors defaced. Often as one of their first acts of power.

Five thousand years later we see these monarchs as weak, self-centered bureaucrats, not legendary leaders. Yet most of us knock off a few noses of our own. How? By bad-mouthing our predecessors, listening to others do the same, or by unnecessarily dismantling their work.

Let’s take these one at a time:
Speaking ill of others. Unless you’re forwarding your predecessors’ mail to the state prison, you shouldn’t say anything bad about them. (And even if they’re doing time, it’s still best to keep quiet.) You gain nothing by tearing down their memories—those who disliked them are unlikely to dislike them more (as if that were the goal) and those who still esteem them will only think less of you.

Listening to others talk trash. Well-intentioned people (and a few ill-intentioned ones)—under the cover of there-are-a-few-things-I-think-you-should-know… or I-really-like-what-you’re-doing, it’s-so-much-more-helpful- than—will attempt to talk down your predecessors. Don’t go there. If you sense they have legitimate needs to discuss their disappointments, ask them to tell you about what needs weren’t met. After listening carefully, you’ll have won the right to say, “I believe my predecessor, while not perfect, was God’s choice for this job back then. I’m not in a position to comment on what did or didn’t happen in the past—but let me tell you what I hope to do.”

Dismantling their work. I’ve already gone on record as an advocate of change, but let me be clear: It’s not change for change’s sake, and certainly not change to discredit your predecessors. Celebrate their successes. When you do find it necessary to deep-six a program, do so with class. Explain that it was a successful program during its time, though it’s not the best option going forward. Better yet, don’t drop it—rather, launch a new venture alongside it. That may provide a graceful transition from the old program to the new—and keep you from making enemies out of those not quite ready to part with the past.

Whatever you do, don’t take down a fence until you know why it was built.

Rule Four: Study Ancient as Well as Modern History

My first week as the college minister was spent reading through old files. I was fortunate to start the job a couple of weeks before the students came back to town—a luxury you’ll likely be denied—so I had time to hide in my office and sift through the paper trail. By reading the minutes of old elder meetings, studying dated budgets, and scanning other documents, I not only learned about the previous 15 years of student work, but I spotted trends to which few others were privy. I also gained enough working knowledge about the college ministry’s history to ask some fairly intelligent questions.

Rule Five: Don’t Sweat First Impressions

It may seem odd to warn you against first impressions in an article touting the importance of them, but while you’re putting your best foot forward, realize that most everyone else is as well. The first wave of contact you have with church people will be odd at best. And the truth is many of those who aggressively court your favor or imply that they’re congregational power brokers are probably fringe players.

Rule Six: Get to Know People

When I was about eight years old, our church called a new minister. And about three months after he arrived, he stopped by our house to visit. I’m quite sure this meeting was prearranged (our house was spotless, and my brothers and sisters and I were scrubbed clean). Yet that evening of forced spontaneity served a good purpose. I developed some type of bond to this man who stood behind the pulpit each Sunday morning.

During your first few months in the saddle, you must make similar connections. Find ways to hang out with both kids and parents. Learn names. Do lunch. My wife and I started one job by inviting 200 college students to our apartment for breakfast. It was just the type of stupid idea that worked. Dan Meyer, now the senior pastor of Christ Church of Oak Brook (Ill.), and his wife had 60 coffee gatherings in one year. At each stop they asked, “What do you love and cherish about church?” and “where do you sense opportunities for new approaches?”

Rule Seven: Find a Mentor

When you start a new job, find someone further down the path who can coach you, then campaign for regular time with them. You need friends as well, but you clearly need someone farther along in the learning curve who’ll take you on as an informal pupil.

Rule Eight: When the Tree Lands on You, Be Sure to Pick the Fruit

I don’t know you very well—okay, I don’t know most of you at all—but I’m confident that at some point you’ll make some sort of goof on the job. (Who doesn’t, after all?)

The question is, “How will you respond?” I have four suggestions—especially for errors you’ll make early in your tenure:
Take the blame. It’s coming your way anyway, so head the posse off at the pass. You’re far more likely to survive.

Invite criticism. Better yet, embrace criticism. Don’t just view it as God’s chisel—which is how St. James clearly defines it—but earn the reputation of being someone who welcomes critical comments. This posture not only will help you win over a few enemies, but it’ll also ensure that many of those inclined to talk about your faults behind your back will bring those concerns to you directly.

Look for the upside. If the tree lands on you, be sure to pick the fruit. If for no other reason, it’ll make it easier to eventually lift the tree off.

Don’t retreat into stagnant conservatism. As I noted previously, do something! The kingdom of God has enough managers—we need leaders, even flawed ones.

(Special thanks to Steve Moore, vice president of Baylor University, and Dan Meyer, senior pastor of Christ Church of Oak Brook, Ill., who helped with this article… and have a history of starting—and ending—well.)


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.