The journey continues for a young pastor

Why learning the language of each individual church is crucial for a multichurch pastor to be successful.

Juleun A. Johnson, MDiv, pastors a two-church district in Greenwood and Panama City, Florida, United States.

As a new pastor, I discovered that there were more things to learn than what I had learned in college. The most challenging aspect of my learning curve was understanding local accents. I found myself agreeing to things I did not comprehend.

As it was initially difficult for me to understand the language of the people—through no fault of their own—so it is initially difficult to understand the language of a church. Learning the language of the church members helps to ease the tension between the pastor and the members. Understanding what they are saying and balancing it with what they need becomes critical to the success of the pastor.

The fervor that we as young pastors have for ministry may be apparent. However, the effectiveness of our ministry may be stymied by issues of communication—or miscommunication. Possibly we and our church members may speak the same language and things are running fine. But it can also be very easy for the speaker to send one message and the listeners to hear a different one. This issue often arises in the context of church leadership.

The journey to balancing church leadership and personal spirituality

The book Resonant Leadership describes three essential characteristics of cutting-edge leaders. The authors say, “Mindfulness, hope and compassion spark positive emotions and healthy relationships that enable us to be resilient and function effectively even in the face of challenges.”1 Remaining optimistic and encouraged when faced with constant obstacles and opposition is a difficulty many pastors face in a multichurch district.

Another issue plagues many multichurch districts: a lack of consistent leadership. However, an old saying states, “The solution to the problem is no farther than you are from the mirror.” I discovered that this was true of myself. And if you are like I am, you have found that from time to time your ministry has hit a rough spot. But don’t worry, for you are not the only one. Rough spots can serve to help us evaluate our effectiveness in ministry. At times, these questions even lead to wondering about your call to ministry. God calls people whom He can use. In the book Spiritual Leadership, J. Oswald Sanders describes what every pastor must strive to do. “All Christian [pastors] are called to develop God-given talents, to make the most of their lives, to develop to the fullest their God given powers and capacities.”2 For many multichurch pastors, a description of this would be a “baptism of fire.” Often you must cultivate and develop many capacities at once.

One area that needed development— especially early on in my ministry—was scheduling my time. During my first year of ministry in a three-church district, I led a quarterly Communion in every church. That totaled 12 Communion services a year. Indeed, Jesus said, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup” (1 Cor. 11:26),3 but I had about as much as I could take. The same was true for board meetings, funerals, and hospital visitations. For many multichurch pastors, a risk exists of becoming overly familiar with the things of God.

The spiritual connection, even for people in ministry, can fade very easily. However, we still must deliver God’s messages to His people. We may feel hopeless about our spiritual journey; yet, we must deliver a cheerful “Happy Sabbath.” Underneath that outer joy lies inner pain and frustration as the spiritual reservoir may have dried up. Going through the motions can be a regular course of action.

The journey to balancing ministry and family life

In ministry, there are times when family life takes second place to church. While trying to learn about the church district, we sometimes find it easy to slack off on duties at home. When we neglect our families by spending too much time at the church—planning, scheduling, and counseling—our spouses and kids often feel neglected. At other times, we may be at home speaking of how little we like the church.

These statements describe in a sense what happened to me. But after some reality checks from friends and family, I came back to life. In a conversation with my wife, she let me know she was not enjoying the Sabbath because I had stopped enjoying it. From that moment, I realized I was no longer just affecting myself but my wife and surely the people to whom I ministered.

I realized very early that I was not omnipresent and could only be in one place at a time. Therefore, I could only handle one set of problems at a time. This meant it was possible to emotionally involve myself in one church at a time. Yet, I still had to practice the ministry of presence. The pastor’s presence in visiting people is incalculable at critical times: births, hospital visits, deaths—not only of the members but of their nonchurch family members and friends. Every situation may not allow the pastor to be physically present, but we can send cards to say “I’m thinking about you.” People greatly appreciate a call on a birthday or anniversary.

The journey to learning the languages of my churches

One of the greatest barriers to effective ministry is poor communication. You can preach powerfully, you can pray mightily, but you still could be considered ineffective. Effectiveness is not measured by preparation, but how effectively the pastor reaches the hearts of the church members. But we must learn our church’s language.

One of the diffi cult aspects about pastoring more than one church is learning the internal language of each church—since every church speaks a different language. Ministry becomes effective only as we are able to speak the language of our parishioners. Some churches may only want to reflect on the past, others care about evangelism, and some just want to hear about health. I know whereof I speak, for in my previous district I had three churches with three different sets of needs—all legitimate; but different nevertheless.

One way to effectively learn the language of the church would be to find its hurts and core values. A good time to learn these is at prayer meeting. During the testimony time, I realized people kept conveying the same idea. As I continued to listen, I found the itch that needed scratching. It also let me know I could not preach the same sermon three times. The one-size-fits-all sermon did not fi t and that wasn’t because of its lack of preparation. The sermon just did not speak the language of each church.

The way I dealt with the issue of sermon writing was based on the language and needs of the church. While I preached the same concepts in each church, the approach to each sermon for each church differed. Some may think this could lead to burnout. However, it was effective for me because I was meeting the needs by speaking the language of that particular church. Preaching the same text does not mean using the same angle. For example, I would preach on the Beatitudes but use the perspective that fi t the language of each congregation. Instead of being burned out, I was invigorated because I was hitting the target for which I aimed.

I learned that the language of the church was affected by several factors. The first indicator of the language was the geographic location. I had an urban church, a suburban church, and a rural or country church.

The next indicator for me was that every church had different desires. I thought that I had to meet a list of things learned in school to be considered effective. But as I learned the desires, priorities, and passions, I felt encouraged. In one church, people basically testifi ed that they had regrets about many decisions in life; they wanted to make better choices. Another church’s members had a need for solutions to current issues, such as health and finance. In the other church, people wanted to know how to deal effectively with issues relating to family and communication.

A fi nal indicator of the language for me was addressing the spiritual needs. Some never had experienced the joy of salvation. But they could tell me every prophecy in detail. Others could recite scripture but had disdain for their own children. Eventually, as I learned the language, the areas of spiritual interest emerged. In hearing the language, I learned to speak the language that met their needs. In doing this, it gave me a sense that I was being effective.

When I learned these factors at play in each situation, I became more at peace and at ease with myself. I became confident in the use of my God-given gifts, and my spiritual life went to another level. I started to feel relieved and the burdens of life seemed a little less significant. I still was able to minister and be of service.

Possibly the greatest stress reliever for me was that I knew what to preach about. In the three prayer meetings per week, I already had topics. Learning the language of the church saved me time. It helped me to develop a series of sermons as well as a framework for envisioning the future. Even the once drab board meetings had renewed purpose and joy because I had learned the language of the church.

As I understood the language of the churches within my district, I restructured my priorities. I realized my greatest treasure was my family. Although I did not neglect any duty that I had, I placed them where they should be found. At an ordination service I once attended, I heard the speaker—who had been in ministry for more than 50 years—say the greatest testament to our ministry is not the baptisms, nor the number of churches built. Rather, that our families are with us. Understanding the language of a church helps to renew vigor and vitality to pastor and parishioner. It also helps pastors in multichurch settings realize that they can be effective without losing their spiritual lives or the spiritual life of their families.

1 Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, Resonant Leadership (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2005), 71, 72.

2 J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 15.

3 All Bible texts are taken from the King James



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Juleun A. Johnson, MDiv, pastors a two-church district in Greenwood and Panama City, Florida, United States.

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