I was reading on Forbes.com a couple of weeks ago about the proposed buyout of Motorola Mobility by Google. The author, Eric Jackson, views the move by Google to be a misstep by current lead executive (and Google co-founder), Larry Page. At one point Jackson writes…

Academic research clearly shows that some of the riskiest strategic shifts for companies happen in a new CEO’s first year on the job. They want to put their mark on the place. They’re also much more self-confident than they probably deserve to be.

I must qualify what I write by making very clear that the senior or lead pastor ought not be viewed as or act like a corporate CEO. Plenty of pastors have made terrible mistakes by an overestimated view of themselves. Be that as it may, this quote resonated with me as I inherited an established ministry nearly 4 years ago, and have counseled a number of guys on their “first steps,” as they do the same. As long as I’ve been in vocational ministry I’ve served under a pastor lead model for church. Such a model affords a senior pastor a significant level of authority over the ministry, which has both it’s pros and cons.

There are unique realities when taking over an established ministry, which should be considered before the new lead pastor endeavors to make significant changes. The more I consider these uniquenesses, the more attractive birthing new works becomes, as new works are far more flexible. The culture of a church is, in many ways, established in the first 3 to 5 years of it’s life, and course corrections are more difficult for a church with an established culture. This being the case I think that it is very important that incoming lead pastors, taking over existing works, take to heart the truth behind Erick Jackson’s quote; even if it isn’t directed at pastoral ministry.

It is certain that there are changes to be made when a new pastor takes over a church. Many of those changes can be made without much grief or pushback within the first 12 to 18 months, as that is something of a honeymoon or grace period for a new pastor. Longstanding “members” of the fellowship will be more forgiving and gracious, even if they’re not fully in step with the alterations. In some ways I think that the body views such moves with a good level of openness saying, “Well, he’s the new guy,” or “He’s just learning; still a little young/green.” Whatever it is, it’s easier to get away with in the first year and a half.

When initial changes are made, some people will leave. Generally speaking, the people who leave in the first 6 months of a transition would probably have left anyway. Unless they themselves had taken over the church. The alterations that are made serve as a nice smokescreen for why they left. It’s a whole lot easier to say, “I really didn’t like the change they made to the service order,” than “I don’t like the new pastor.” Not everyone will be able to connect with the “new guy” as the transition takes place.

Over the last four years I’ve discovered that the church is like a wife. I realize that this is not a totally insightful observation; she is called the “Bride of Christ.” I want to say what I’m going to say as delicately as I can, because I’m sure someone is going to misunderstand what it is I’m trying to say. A church, like a wife, desires security. The pastor is not the groom, clearly Christ is the groom and the church His bride. Be that as it may, the church still desires a level of security and consistency. A senior leadership change affects the consistency and can shake the security, so I’m convinced that making frivolous moves to to put the mark of the new leader on the place, which amount to nothing more than cosmetic window dressing, are unnecessary (e.g. “Let’s change the name to something cool”).

My counsel for new guys is simple.

  • Be strategic. Be calculated. Think through the ramifications of the changes, as ideas and adjustments have longterm consequences.
  • Fundamental changes to the vision and mission of the local body should only be made if it is clear that the church has been off course or without vision.
  • Vision/mission corrections should have firm Biblical basis (e.g. What is the mission of our church? To make disciples by equipping the saints).
  • Larger changes ought to be done incrementally. If a new [smaller] church plant is like an agile speedboat, an established larger church (or cultured church) is more like an aircraft carrier, which takes time to turn. So, instead of making a hard 90º turn, it may take six 15º moves to go in the new direction.

It’s definitely characteristic of youthfulness to desire to do things quickly, but when taking over, it’s good a good reminder… take your time.

6 replies
  1. Gunnar Hanson
    Gunnar Hanson says:

    Good word Miles. I think many guys come in ripping and roaring out of impatience and then leave because of the “resistance” they’re facing after a short while. The slow deliberate approach ultimately produces lasting results. You also cracked me up by pointing out the significance of the name of the church. Changing names is the trendy thing to do man. Piper made a good point a few years back when asked about the significance of the name of the church. He replied something along the lines of “The early ‘had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name’ (Acts 5:41)…” His quote definitely slowed me down in wanting to remove “Baptist” from my church name.

  2. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Miles – looking back, what changes did you make too fast, or not fast enough? Are there any sacred cows that should not be touched until the new pastor is tenured?

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:

      To be honest Tim, I think we made changes at a very good pace. We had a great executive team of leaders in place through our transition, and we had worked together for quite awhile before the transition. Maintaining consistency through all of it helped us to grow, not shrink, through the first year.

      Unlike many “new guys” I made no changes to our Elder Board until after the first year. To me (and I know a lot of guys who will disagree with me on this one) that may be an area where the incoming outsider should get to know the culture a bit before making adjustments.

      Things that are hindering the church from effectively executing it’s vision are the first things that should be strategically changed. Most of that takes place behind the sunday morning scenes at a leadership level. Such changes are made and the average person at the church isn’t really aware what exact changes have taken place, but they know there’s a difference.

      For us, our former pastor, Pat Kenney, had been through an awful lot the 5 years leading up to the transition. His late wife was battling cancer, and he was facing serious health problems himself. The board had freed him up to focus on his and his wife’s health, and the church went into a maintenance mode for a few years. When I took on leadership of the church we basically had to re-focus our vision and get back on mission. Clearly communicating a vision and direction affected a swift reengagement in the work.

  3. Josh Olson
    Josh Olson says:

    Great practical points, Miles.

    Your post made me think of Warren W. Wiersbe’s point in “On Being A Servant Of God” in his advice to young men in the ministry…and I’m paraphrasing,
    “Don’t tear down the old fences until you know why they were put there in the first place.”

    • Jeff Jackson
      Jeff Jackson says:

      Great stuff Miles. It’s been a HUGE blessing to see how the transition has unfolded.

      Regarding changes to the vision and culture of an existing church, at the risk of being labeled “emergent” friendly, I highly recommend a section of a book written by Erwin McManus called an “Unstoppable force”. The section on a “theology of change” is brilliant and practical.

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