Six Challenges New Pastors Did Not See Coming


Many of you have been there and done that. You’ve accepted the call to a new church. You are excited about the possibilities. Your mind is filled with energizing ideas. You are ready to move forward.

Then it happens.

“It” refers to the event that takes you by surprise. You really did not see it coming. Even if it happened to you in a previous church, you viewed it as an exception. But here you go again.

I have been working with local church pastors for over three decades. I love these leaders. I love their hearts. And I hurt with them when they tell me these stories. Six of these stories are so common, I can almost predict them for new pastors. Of course, I hope they don’t take place; but too often they do. Here are the six challenges new pastors did not see coming:

  1. The search committee really does not want the church to change. But they told you they were looking for a pastor to lead change in the church. What happened? Why have their minds changed? To be fair, the search committee members (or their equivalent) aren’t liars. They really wanted the church to change . . . as long as it didn’t affect them.
  2. The deacons/elders really don’t want you to lead. Again, they told you they were looking for a strong leader. They told you they were ready to follow you. And they were ready to follow you . . . until you started leading them somewhere they didn’t want to go.
  3. Your biggest supporter became your most vocal critic. He was there when the moving van pulled up to your church. He wanted to be the first to welcome you to the community and to the church. He let you know he loved you. And he let you know he had your back. But now you feel the knife he placed in your back.
  4. The church is not really excited about evangelizing the community. When you had the town hall meeting with the congregation, the excitement was palpable. So many of the members talked about moving forward reaching people with the gospel. Then God blessed the church, and a number were reached with the gospel. Those same members then began to complain about “those new people messing up our church.”
  5. The budget cannot be changed. But the treasurer told you the church would be flexible. She said to let her know if you saw a need not in the budget, and she would find a way to make it happen. That was shortly before you became pastor. Now you are discovering the budget is more set than dried concrete. She really didn’t expect you to ask for her help.
  6. The denomination is not really there for you. Your arrival came with great fanfare. Some of the denominational leaders showed up at your installation service. They told you with great aplomb to call on them “if you ever need anything.” Now you need something. And they won’t respond to your emails and calls.

To be clear, not all of the experiences of new pastors are negatives. Not all expectations are unmet. But a number are. These are six of the most common.

Posted on April 1, 2019

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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  • Jeff Scheibenpflug says on

    I agree with Stephen Gifford — A pastor has to come to a church with a heart to stay, if not, he will find a reason to leave and there are plenty of them! I’ve been in the same church for 25+ years. In my early years, I wanted to quit every month! By God’s grace & mercy, and nothing to do with me, I’ve been able to stay. It really wasn’t until I passed the 10 year mark that I began to see things change. Too often I have watched younger, first-time pastors enter local church ministry, expecting great things right away, and when instead they encounter problems, difficult people, apathy, etc, they pack it in. I don’t blame them or judge them because I wanted to do the same! Even so, if a pastor is going to see the Lord work in a congregation, then he’s going to have to be in it for the long term. Besides my daily time with God, one thing that has been tremendously helpful to me: Seeking the fellowship, insight, support, encouragement of pastors who’ve stayed long.

  • Gary Carnahan says on

    Five out of six are all true in my experience.
    It’s very disillusioning.

  • 6. We want younger families in the church. Then once they come the church is unwilling to let go of 1647 liturgy to keep them. No one joins the outreach events. And any change to VBS, kids, or youth ministries is followed by ultimatums.

    7. We want fresher music with our hymns. Then when ideas and talent are added the critic’s rain down bombshells of personal criticism.

    8. We want you to be involved with the youth. This really meant we want you to be involved babysitting our inadequate idea of youth ministry and ignore your 10 years of youth ministry experience.

    • Spot on Nate. Spot. On.

      But this phenomenon isn’t new. The desire to change things without changing them and adding people who are the same as the people you already have is a ministry problem I’ve seen for the last four decades. I recommend listening to this old hymn from 1983 that accurately describes this problem. It sure made me rethink my attitude when I heard it the first time.

  • So then, Thom, your advice to get through it is…?

  • Jeff Bartlett says on

    My son is getting ready to pastor his first church. ( if he gets the vote, which he probably will) He has been a youth pastor for almost 9 years. This will be a lead pastor position. I’ve been a pastor for over 40 years. I’ve faced some of these challenges, which he has been exposed to; being he is my son. What is some good advice I can give him to give him a heads up on these challenges.

    • From my experience, I’d tell him these two pieces of advice:

      1. Spend the first 1-3 years getting to know the congregation and community
      2. Be up front and open, bringing the congregation with him on his journey with Jesus.

      He’ll discover things about himself as he goes, and things might change. If he does these two, he and the church will be stronger.

  • I will say that I have pastored in Georgia and, more recently, in Florida for about 30 years and have been active in each association; I have reached out to people in the state convention and, at times, to NAMB. I don’t always use whatever comes out of the denomination, and I don’t always get the answer I might want, but in those 30 years I have never had a denominational leader at any level not respond with concern and with at least a desire to help or point me in the right direction. (I also expect someone at the national level to take a little longer to respond.)

  • Mark Smith says on

    By the restaurant analogy, why would you take your “best sellers” off the menu so you can reach new customers with different tastes… at least when they first started to come?

    Too many churches try to reach new people by first cutting off too much of what reaches the present members. Why do that? It is begging for trouble.

    • “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. “But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. “And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’ ”” (Luke 5:36–39, NASB95)

    • Solano. says on


  • Stephen Gifford says on

    And the solution is: settle in; be a pastor, earn their trust, become an expert on this congregation. Learn to love them and help grow in Christ. Invest at least 3-4 years in the process of going from a chaplain to a pastor to a leader. Your most productive years are likely beyond 5 years. Stay.

    • Stay indeed. If possible.

    • Too few earn their congregation’s trust first. Cardinal Borgoglio (now Pope Francis) told some seminarians and newly ordained priests once that they would learn a lot from their congregations before anyone learned anything from them.

    • Judith Gotwald says on

      Glad to see your comment. It is helpful to identify these problems but more helpful to dig a little deeper and look for reasons. The reasons are often rooted in congregational experience. They may have been burned before.

      Start with the assumption that everyone wants to succeed and what the combined vision of success is. Getting everyone to blindly follow is not the goal. If it were, there is no reason for lay leaders!

      The first job of a new pastor is to gain trust. Take it easy. From the lay leadership point of view, a new pastor can be pig in a poke—gung ho for change but gone when a “better” call comes along—leaving congregants back where they started and their investment in the call down the drain. Congregants want to know you love them the way they are—and only then will healthy change be possible. Take a year at least to listen and nurture, so the attempted change is grounded in their reality and not just part of a wider trend for which measurable results will not be available for years. Promising trends often go nowhere. Remember, lay leaders have to live with whatever change happens, good or bad, long after pastors move on.

    • Add me to the list of “been-there-done-thats.” After experiencing them, and then being out of pastoral ministry for a few years, I reflected on what I learned and wrote an article about it (just recently). It was difficult for me to write because I wanted to be very open (hard for an introvert like me). Many of the things I learned echo what many have said here, so it seems God did show me these lessons because others have also learned them. Will I end up in pastoral ministry again? I don’t think so, but I won’t close that door on God.

      • Kevin Rettig says on

        John, I have met far too many ‘former’ pastors in my 17 years of pastoral ministry, many of whom were seminary classmates. I understand the pain that too many churches inflict on their pastors — I’m also a recipient — but while time away from the ministry can be healing, you are wise to still allow God to lead you, should He entrust you to another church. Do you have a pastoral prayer partner in your area? This is something I worked to develop early in my current pastorate, and my prayer partner and I both agree we would have moved on long ago were it not for the prayer-based relationship we have. We have both endured major challenges, yet together we saw God work in wonderful ways, keeping us both in our respective ministries.

  • Don Harris says on

    I faced each of these in the one and only church I pastored. To be honest, I had my own issues I had to face, but each of these six items above I faced in spades. It was a very dark time for me spiritually. Thankfully, a colleague in ministry offered to help me. Although I resigned from that church after almost 5 years, his mentorship helped me to deal with my own shortcomings and the hurt inflicted on me and my family by the church. I have continued on with a very effective lay ministry in the local churches I have attended, serving as a board member in our current church. My experiences have allowed me to be very supportive of our pastor and , I trust, helping the rest of our board, and our congregation, avoid the pitfalls mentioned in your article. God is indeed faithful.

  • Dave Strittmatter says on

    Most folks naturally like it when their church is somewhat molded to their preferences. Who goes to a restaurant, no matter how good it is if their preferences aren’t on the menu. The hard question is this: Is our church more of a club where we are the focus or an outpost to reach the lost and make disciples?

  • ERIC A. SWENSON says on

    More common than one may think. When, they don’t happen, it’s an exception.

  • Jim Whaley, Jr. says on

    Sadly, these are spot on.

    • Yes. Sad indeed.

      • Rene Melendez says on

        Pastor Ranier, I can relate very well to your article. I was a board member and deacon for many years. I believe there are responsibilities for the searching pastor and responsibilities for the searching committee. I’ll mention the ones both are responsible for first. They must be prayerful: that is they must be people intimately connected to God through prayer. They must consequently know God’s voice. This is both the starting and the stopping place for a pastor and a congregation. How can we function as the Body of Christ in prayerlessness? A praying pastor hears God’s voice and is guided during the process of moving to a new church. It happens over time, not over night. Same for the congregation and search committee. Are the prayerfully seeking God during the process. Do they have an intimate relationship with Christ. Do they know the Shepherd’s voice? This is where the process proceeds if all have been in prayer and where it stops if not. The rest of the details can then be worked out. About the search committee/congregation. A congregation must be considerate of the needs of the pastor, his wife and children. They must be loving and kind to the pastor, wife and family. Remember that Scripture tells us to not muzzle the ox that treadeth the corn. The pastor needs a salary, a place to stay and a warm church family to come to. This is where the search committee must shine. The church must lovingly welcome a new pastor. A pastor should look closely at the search committee and ask them important questions. The search committee represents the congregation so it makes sense that the interested pastor be informed of all concerns. He has a right to know everything about the church he might pastor; the finances….all of it debts, ongoing expenses, mortgages and required salary. Also who the trouble makers are….the ones currently being disciplined as well as the ones who refuse to be. The incoming pastor must get things in writing so to speak. That comes from the person keeping the minutes of all search committee gatherings. So these are some things that go a long way towards avoiding misunderstandings down the road. It is a contract and nobody has to agree to anything not specified in it and that must be made very clear to both parties in the beggining.

      • I can tell you hav never pastored a church bro,,

      • Lived everyone of them, to the man who said he could not relate to this article, go pastor a church and trust me you will!

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