To a Church Seeking Revitalization…

Depending on how you define it, somewhere around seven to eight out of ten churches are in need of revitalization. Many of these churches have leaders who understand the urgent need for change. Some of them grasp that, without a turnaround, the church will die.

Let’s imagine for a moment you are talking to such a church about becoming their pastor. Almost all the leaders in these churches will affirm the need for change for the turnaround. And they are happy to accept change . . . until it affects them personally.

While you cannot totally prevent such misunderstandings or divergent expectations, you can offer a clear and concise letter or covenant to minimize the future problems. In recent months, I have been encouraging prospective pastors to put in writing clearly and concisely the expectations of both parties before the pastor agrees to go to the church.

When I make such a recommendation, the typical immediate response is, “What does that letter look like?” Here is a sample. It is far from perfect, but it can be used as a starting point.

Dear Members of Town Community Church,

I am humbled and honored you are considering me to be your pastor. I am also grateful you are aware and recognize the need for change for the church to become healthier. With that foundation, I humbly ask you consider this letter. Though it is not a formal covenant, it can become the path for how we will move forward if I indeed become your pastor.

As pastor, I will covenant to the following:

  • I will pray for the members of this church daily.
  • I will love you.
  • I will listen to you.
  • I will seek to lead this church in Christ’s power alone.
  • I will be transparent with you.
  • I will be faithful to study God’s Word so that I may preach and teach to glorify Him.

As church members, will you covenant to the following?

  • You will pray for my family and me.
  • You will allow my family to be church members just like anyone else.
  • You will love my family and me.
  • Because you know change is inevitable, you will make sacrifices of your preferences and desires for the greater good of the church.
  • You will not gossip or criticize behind my back. If you have an issue that needs addressing, you will bring it directly to me.
  • You will love other members of the church, even when you disagree with them.
  • You will pray for this church because she is the bride of Christ.

Please consider these matters carefully and prayerfully. Change can be painful at times. I want us to be certain we are on the same page before we move forward.

Thank you again for hearing me, for considering these words, and for being willing to be the faithful bride of Christ. Regardless of your decision, I am truly grateful you considered me to become your pastor.

In Christ alone,

Pastor Nick

This letter is obviously meant for prospective pastors, but I can see it modified and used in a number of other contexts. Expectations need to be clear and mutually agreed to. Then, and only then, can leaders and members move forward with the great mission God has called us to serve.

Posted on April 9, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Looking at this from the viewpoint of a church member, I definitely agree that prospective pastors should be very up front about their vision for the church. I’ve seen ‘well-meaning’ men take on pastoral roles under less than honourable circumstances, disguising their true feelings and intentions and beliefs until appointed to office and only then revealing their true colours. Even if a man wants to restore a church to more sound doctrine, it entirely defeats the object if his own honesty and integrity is brought into question, and he brings his doctrine into disrepute if he himself doesn’t practice what he preaches.

    Having said this, without being intimately acquainted with the character of the prospective pastoral candidate to back it up, such a letter or covenant as Thom outlined above would not carry much sway with me as it feels too vague and general to be of much value. One would like to take it for granted that all (true) Christians would practice all of these things anyway without being asked, but it is all too easy for the cynical Christian to read between the lines of such a letter, knowing how the ‘well-meaning pastor’ (such as I outlined above) would use and abuse his own words and twist them to his own advantage, using them to justify all his actions and desiring to place himself above rebuke and correction:

    – I will pray for the members of this church daily.
    (Only collectively of course. It would be unrealistic to expect me to pray for you all individually. Besides, that would mean getting to know you all individually and I’ve not got time for things like that).
    – I will love you.
    (I will demonstrate my love by studying hard so that I can preach to you three times a week. I don’t need to know you by name in order to love you. And when I eventually leave this church and never speak to any of you ever again, I will still love you as brothers in Christ. I love you even if I never give any evidence of it – honest!)
    – I will listen to you.
    (And then rebuke and correct you, and reject what you say. Only talk to me of your concerns. I don’t want you spreading dissension in the ranks. If you dare to stir up trouble for me I’m going to make sure no one takes you seriously and will see you driven out of this church.)
    – I will seek to lead this church in Christ’s power alone.
    (It doesn’t matter what my weaknesses and inabilities are – God uses the weak things to shame the wise. I will do all things myself and in my own way. I am the one God has called to lead you. I will allow no one to assist me, nor to question the way I do things. I am answerable only to God, not to you. If you have a problem with that the problem is in you, not me.)
    – I will be transparent with you.
    (so transparent that you won’t see me from one week’s end to the other! But seriously, I will definitely be open with you and tell you when you have hurt me and done me grievous wrong.)
    – I will be faithful to study God’s Word so that I may preach and teach to glorify Him.
    (My role is to preach. That is all that is required of me. All your other church activities are pointless. I’ve been waiting for years to put my theories to the test and prove how I can transform the church just by my preaching and by trusting God to work through it. People have never been my strong point, I don’t understand them. I don’t know how to relate to them – they’re not like me. If I can just spend all my days in my study among my beloved books I’ll be in my comfort zone – and hopefully all my labour won’t be in vain. But even if my preaching doesn’t seem to touch anyone? – well, it’s down to the Spirit, not me.)

    I feel rather as though I have used God’s name in vain in some of these imaginary thoughts running through some pastors’ minds, but unfortunately they are sentiments which one does occasionally come into contact with. The pastors genuinely believe themselves to be serving only God, while the people sitting under their ministry believe they are unwittingly serving Satan by clinging to a role that man rather than God called them to.

    Getting back to the original point. Be up front with a prospective church, but outline your vision for the church in detail. Vision is the thing which many pastors seem to be lacking. They have no plan. They are content just to preach and see their responsibilities as ending there. They don’t need any help in this. They can manage perfectly well by themselves. All the church members have to do is turn up to the meetings, listen to the sermons, contribute to the offering. But surely many pastors must have their specific dreams of what they want to do in the ministry and of how they would like to spend their time. It feels ludicrous to think a man would enter the ministry intending just to play things by ear.

    Give your prospective church a fairly detailed schedule of how you would hope to spend your days, both for your personal life and ministry, with time slots set aside to account for every hour of the day so that they can see that you use intend to use your time wisely and fairly, and so that they know when are the appropriate times to contact you or to meet up. Outline how you intend to exercise your ministry, or your hopes for testing and seeking to more effectively utilise all the church members’ gifts, of your especial desire to search out the men with wisdom or with an aptitude for teaching or public speaking, with the intention of training them up for service. Tell them of your hope to run weekly lessons in Biblical Hebrew and Greek for those interested, and to have regular lectures on Christian history from visiting speakers, of your desire to run courses of mid-week lectures on aimed at specific groups within the church – a series for young men, or for the retired, or for parents etc. Outline your plans for instituting regular pastoral visitation, and explain what those visits will entail. Inspire parents with your vision to get all their children memorising the Westminster Larger Catechism and seek their help to assist you in the task. Give the church a (realistic and achievable) vision of how you would like to organise your weekly schedule and what you would like to add or take away from the church calendar so that people can buy into it from the start and be encouraged and inspired and look forward to your ministry. If the dream isn’t what they are looking for, go elsewhere, or if nowhere is ready for you, become an ordinary church member in a church where you can privately gather people around you who you can mentor and inspire, who are interested to benefit from your instruction.

    • Christopher says on

      “Give your prospective church a fairly detailed schedule of how you would hope to spend your days, both for your personal life and ministry, with time slots set aside to account for every hour of the day so that they can see that you use intend to use your time wisely and fairly, and so that they know when are the appropriate times to contact you or to meet up.”

      You make some good, if rather cynical, points. However, this quote is absurd. You’re just giving the church a hammer with which to beat you over the head if you don’t follow your “detailed” schedule to the letter. And it’s no business of the church how I spend time with my family.

      • Real life, in the trenches, does not follow a neat time line. It does not care about your “detailed schedule.” Should you have a schedule, certainly… but it must be flexible and be prepared for it to be interrupted – often.
        Have a schedule, certainly, but don’t die on that schedule.

        I have gotten busy and taken a late lunch… schedule already shot… BUT in that late lunch run into a church member or perspective church member and ended up doing more ministry in that hour to hour and a half than the first 4 or 5 in what I had “scheduled.” If I had stuck hard to MY schedule I would have missed GOD’S schedule.

        Real life ministry seldom happens in the office and rarely follows your calendar.

  • Where was this advice 21 minths ago? Thank you all for your insight to help us new pastors.

  • Joe Pastor says on

    First of all, I think a “letter of understanding” is an excellent idea. I started with a letter somewhat like this (though not quite as good as this sample)–and that was 15 years ago! Communicating expectations both ways is good and healthy. However, based on my experience, I would say, “But don’t expect that people will necessarily do what they say.” Many will not. “But you SAID…” Sadly, in many cases, it doesn’t matter. People will do what they do. But at least you’ve talked about things in advance. That’s certainly a step in the right direction.

  • What a great idea! I understand there is always a “ gap” in understanding the expectations on both ends. This is a great way to start moving things in the right direction!
    Very helpful, practical and insightful!
    Pastor Lynn

  • Joe Barnes says on

    Dr. Rainer, I love this! As a pastor without a church (looking for God’s call to my first), doing this on the front end allows there to be less confusion or ambiguity in the relationship. Of course, there will always be push back, but the document allows all to be reminded of what they agreed upon at the beginning. Prayerfully, and submission to God’s Lordship, all can return on track moving towards becoming the church God intends it to be.
    This pastor in waiting would want to know, up front, what they can expect from any church that would be interested in calling me. It would speak volumes, to the heart of a churches relationship with God, if they wouldn’t be open to agreeing to the things listed on this letter. Plus, if you’re seeking God’s direction as to the “if I should accept the call of this church” question… Their resistance to the items listed in this letter, is an answer to your prayer. I remind myself constantly that it is not a “job opportunity”, but a “calling from God” that I have surrendered to.

  • Someone much wiser than me wrote, “There’s no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone”. The same is true for pastors, their congregations and was true for the New Testament Church.

  • Robert H Wright Jr says on

    Jesus reminded us that we cannot put new wine into old wineskins. The world as we know it is changing. We will see this when we complete the 2020 US Census. On a regular basis, every local Body of Christ should undergo a review and revitalization process. Within our Body of Christ, we have seceral generations. Each generational is molded and shaped by various factors. We need to address that

    • Sadly, this only happens in a few forward-looking churches and organizations. For some reason, every church, firm, etc has its favorite parishioners, clients, etc. The younger generation(s) cannot compete with the favorites and so frequently vote with their feet. Current leadership/management needs to pay attention to the demographics.

      • Amen! And in every aspect of their ministry that attention needs to be paid. Often there are holdouts that can isolate newcomers or those interested. Churches must be careful to add diversity to all parts of their ministry (programs, music, bible studies, etc…) while staying true to the Word of God, not the word of those with the longest tenure.

  • Christopher says on

    I totally agree that prospective pastors need to be upfront about expectations and about obvious changes that need to be made. However, this can damage your chances of being called. Most churches today consider several candidates at one time. If you are being responsible and discussing needed changes and another candidate is just telling the church what they want to hear, then it’s very likely they will go with the other candidate.

    • That’s true, Christopher. And it’s not always a bad thing.

    • I hear you. However, you are still charged to do what is responsible and maybe, not popular. Prov. 16:33 So be it if the congregation chooses otherwise. It may be a blessing to not be picked. In that. God may be saving you from struggles and strife.

    • Yes! Forgive my cynicism, but I thought it was odd to write a resignation letter before accepting the call!

    • Yes! Forgive me for my cynicism, but I was thinking that it was odd to give a resignation letter before accepting the call!

  • It also depends on how supportive the lay leadership is of your efforts. What are they willing to do about/with the unofficial power structure? Where is their limit of support of the pastor? They might not want to admit that the former exists, and they might not know the how much pressure they can resist until the fire of the latter gets hot. Pay close attention to how the lay leadership talks and votes to make sure the two are in sync and don’t ever think that you won’t be double crossed. It may not be Christ-like, but it is sometimes reality.

  • Shawn M. says on

    I became the pastor of a dying church. I took the position hoping for revitalization. To be hired, the church required a covenant to be signed by me. The covenant clearly stipulated the expectations of both the pastor and the church. One year later, the church began breaking numerous significant covenant expectations and within a couple of months I resigned. Though I reminded them of the covenant…one that they crafted…the church never acknowledged that they were breaking it. The covenant…in my opinion…was one-sided and was really meant to keep the pastor in check. In this case, it was not an instrument that would truly hold both sides accountable. All of this to say, a covenant clarifies what should be, but does not necessarily ensure that what should be is what really happens. In this case, not everyone really knew what was in the covenant. They just liked the idea of having one.

    • D avi d Tro ub lefi led, DM in says on

      1. Common purpose
      2. Clear roles
      3. Accepted leadership
      4. Effective processes
      5. Solid relationships
      6. Excellent communication

      The 6 characteristics of the only kind of team sustaining exceptional results via its efforts (you know, the kind of results God deserves!). Use the list as a report card for your church or group–and contact Triaxia Partners in Atlanta for even more info about implementing it where you are, to God’s glory.

  • This example letter is an amazing idea! I have been a pastor in two churches where expectations were not clearly defined. In both instances, it did not end well. Whenever I tried to inquire as to what the church leadership wanted, the typical response was “you should just know.” Sadly that didn’t help.

    One thing I would add to this example letter…I would include, in the pastor section, the “I will not gossip…” line from the church members section. When we get frustrated, as pastors, we tend to do this. Both to other congregation members and other pastors. I’ve done it. Coming out of my last pastorate, I have learned the importantance of embracing the conflict if I’m having an issue with someone, rather than just bottling it up and never addressing it. We, as pastors, can’t be afraid to bring our concerns to those whom we disagree with. If we expect it of them to do this, then we should do the same.

    Thank you for this post Thom!

  • The problem with this is that the church members have no clue, generally, to what they are agreeing to in advance as far as change is concerned. I have seen one church where the prospective pastor gave the church a list of changes that they would have to approve by vote in advance before he would consider coming to be pastor. They did, but even then, did not know what they were voting on and were surprised when he was called to the church and began implementing the changes they had approved. Just an observation!

    • Reading this, the changes that were being asked for seem to be more motivated by “man’s” desires rather than by what “God” desired for the church. When it’s all about what we want, it’ll never work. But if the changes are centered in and around God, then the change will be easier to handle and not as surprising.

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