Six Things You Inherit as a New Pastor at an Established Church

July 7, 2020

Welcome to your new church. Most everyone is excited to meet you. Few will remember your first sermon, but many will tell you it was great. If your church is going to vote on you, then the percentage of “yes” votes is likely to be high. The reason is simple. The vast majority of church members want to follow a good leader, and they want their church to thrive. But be careful. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking every day will be like the first.

You’re at an established church, which means there are a few things already in place. During the leadership honeymoon, you’ll begin to figure out exactly what you are inheriting. You will want to tweak something. Some of your church members may think you are moving too quickly. Some will put you on a pedestal. Most will go with the flow. The “new” label will drop from your title.

Considerate pastors understand what they are inheriting before people stop introducing them as the “new pastor.” Here a few examples of the things you inherit as a new pastor of an established church.

  1. You inherit people. Don’t miss this. You lead people, not processes. There will be plenty of established processes to discover, but you should know the people first. And if you don’t love the people where they are now, then you don’t deserve to lead them now or later.
  2. You inherit a culture. Some people will be new. Some will be long standing members. Others will show up your first day and stick with you. Others will leave your first day. The culture of your church, however, is likely deeply rooted. Culture is created by people, but it’s also bigger than any one person. No individual—including the pastor—will change the culture quickly.
  3. You inherit a staff. It’s important to understand the influence of the staff on people and culture. A newer, younger staff is often less influential than a long-tenured staff. And the culture of the staff may be quite different than the culture of the church.
  4. You inherit a schedule. At one church I pastored, the second service began at 10:55am. I asked a few people, “Why the extra five minutes?” Every answer was different. No one agreed on why, but everyone agreed on what. The service started at 10:55am.
  5. You inherit expectations. If your new church has 400 people, then you have 400 different sets of expectations about you. These expectations are an amalgamation of ideals, previous leaders at your church, personal preferences, and favorite pastors and church leaders in culture.
  6. You inherit traditions. Some things stick for generations because they are good for generations. Other traditions need to go. Figuring out which traditions are good, bad, and ugly can take time. Don’t assume your gut reactions to church traditions are correct. Take the time to learn why they exist.

Your new church will welcome you. The first day, first week, first month, and perhaps the first year will go well. Use the time to understand better what you are inheriting.

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25 Comments

  • Excellent article and relevant to the South African context!

  • GREAT ARTICLE, AND VERY ON POINT.

    ONE COMMENT: YOU MAY HAVE TO BEGIN THE SERVICE AT 10:55 AM… AND THAT’S A RULE, BUT IN MOST SOUTHERN BAPTIST CHURCHES…..

    IT’S NOT WHEN YOU BEGIN, BUT WHEN YOU END. THAT WOULD BE AT “HIGH NOON!” – – 12 O’CLOCK SHARP, AND NOT A MINUTE MORE. FOR SOME, UNFORTUNATELY, IF THERE IS AN INVITATION, IT ALSO STOPS AT NOON….SO, OF COURSE, THE SERMON, MUST BE SHORTER.

    IN TEXAS, YOU GET THROUGH AT NOON, OR SOME WILL JUST LEAVE…..DEPENDING ON WHEN THE COWBOYS START. WE CANNOT INTRUDE UPON THEIR FIRST QUARTER. I KNOW THIS IS A “PUN” – BUT IT’S NOT….. BEEN THERE AND DONE THAT! REGARDLESS OF WHAT THE HOLY SPIRT IS DOING IN LIVES….. WHEN IT’S OVER, IT’S OVER…. 12 NOON….. SO SAD!

    PERHAPS, THAT IS WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE SBC AND IT’S DECLINE…. HOLY SPIRIT AND THE WORK OF GOD HAS TAKEN SECOND PLACE TO THE CALL OF THE WORLD…. SO VERY SAD!

    DR. GLENN CLIFTON (RETIRED)…. ALTHOUGH STILL PREACHING AT 84, EXCEPT FOR THE POWER OF A LITTLE UNSEEN VIRUS…. MAY GOD BLESS AMERICA….AND GIVE THE CHURCHES OF THE SBC “SOULS” FOR THEIR WORK. PSALM 126:5,6

  • Sheila Beers says on

    Thank you for this article. In my opinion, a church board should have a clearly defined outline of the duties of the pastor and the duties and rights of the congregation. Far too many churches are being taken over by unsound, radical, and unqualified “ministers” who are looking to get control of church property they can use for their own benefit and/or eventually sell to acquire a down payment for a mega-church elsewhere that will make them rich and famous. As anyone who knows the Bible realizes, the Lord Himself did not have these goals and nowhere in the Bible does it say a pastor should have these goals.

  • Good article and points. It is for many of these reasons we went through a few year’s succession process that has served our church well so far. The “new” pastor knowing the “lay of the land” and the congregation knowing WHO they are getting ahead of time was a huge help. Recommend it to all churches if possible. (oh … I am the “former” pastor!) 🙂

  • Sam, I am a new pastor of an established church in 2020, during a time of crisis! I would love to see your updated list and compare it to mine.

  • Frederick Mundle says on

    Dear Sir: I have been reading you for the longest time and have always been fed to the fullest. As well, you have been mentoring us, my wife and me, for years in our own ministries. Your articles rise above being insightful. They are always anointed. May the Lord continue to fill your mouth with His wisdom, His words, His giftings, his wonders and His ways.. Thank you for being such an ongoing blessing.

  • I can’t agree less with you on this Sam. Many thanks for sharing.

  • Aaron Lavender says on

    Thanks so much for this. I’m transitioning out after 34 years. This comes in handy for the new interim/senior pastor

  • Sherman says on

    Sam,
    Excellent! I don’t think most pastors realize this when they go to a new church.

  • Excellent Article Sam!

  • I found it helpful to allow them to know clearly what they were inheriting. I laid out a list of non-negotiable things that I had for ministry. It was clear. It was concise. I asked everyone to read and sign the list before I agreed to come to the church. This was SUPER helpful because then we were both able to move forward with clear expectations rather than fighting assumptions and unknowns. It allowed me to love the staff, the church members, the church traditions better when I knew we were on mission together.

  • You also inherit the official power structure. These are whatever type of clergy or lay leaders your church has.
    You then inherit the unofficial power structure. These are the people who operate in the shadows but control the leadership with massive amounts of influence up to and including veto power. It may take you a long time to determine who they are. If you believe they do not exist, you do it at your own risk.
    You also inherit parishioners who are watching to see if you reach out to them or are only there for certain people.

    • Amen, Mark. This is an extension of the fact you inherit the people. And correctly exegeting the official and unoffical power structures is essential to not only succeeding, but more importantly, surviving!

      • Additionally, there may be a time when you have to explain why a decision was not made, modified, or even totally reversed without mentioning the unofficial power structure or just who modified or reversed the decision. This will put you in a bad position and someone will likely feel that they were “sold out.” Now those in the unofficial power structure may be known to some of the long-time congregants but cannot be mentioned publicly. Both the unofficial power structure and the official leadership will deny their existence, but this is not the truth. Don’t believe it.

    • So True, this is also an important facet of your ministry there.

      There are great insights as I come up on my 35 anniversary! I have had two tenures of 12 plus years and these are spot on!

    • Good additional thoughts, Mark.

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