Avoiding common pitfalls during pastoral transition

Four common pitfalls that pastors should avoid when embarking on a new pastoral assignment.

Ainsworth E. Joseph , DMin, is ministerial secretary, Northeastern conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Jamaica, New York, United States. 

After pastoring for 26 years, I have come to the conclusion that ministry success, to a large degree, depends upon the relationship the pastor builds and nurtures with his or her congregation. Unequivocally, to achieve this suc­cess, the pastor needs to show some intentional flexibility and adaptability while working with his or her church members.

There are various common pitfalls to be avoided when embarking upon a new pastoral assignment. We will look at four:

  1. Failure to meet the people where they are.
  2. Failure to seek first to understand rather than to be understood.
  3. Failure to adapt to the local church’s custom.
  4. Failure to lead necessary change from an established common-ground platform.

Rightly understood, these comprise a simple road map or navigational device to help the pastor avert pit­falls that create tension with the congregation.

Failure to meet the people where they are

A successful pastorate requires sur­rendering any personal prejudice and agendas. The pastor needs opportunity and time to observe, investigate, and analyze what works and what does not in his or her new setting. Because something worked well in a previous assignment does not guarantee it will in the new. Frequently things that have been working effectively in a church for years are changed to mark the arrival of a new pastor. The new pastor, driven by enthusiasm, imposes the change to incorporate something(s) that may have worked well in a previ­ous assignment(s). Some may even introduce initiatives that did not work well previously, that merely signal a personal preference or style. Sadly, this is often done with little or no consider­ation, conversation, and collaboration with the local congregation.

Because the pastor is new, the local congregation tends to readily accept some changes the new pastor desires. The results can be disequilibrium, chaos, and tension. Stereotypically, the congregation gets branded as being resistant to change or set in its ways. Conversely, the same may be said of some pastors who are very inflex­ible to change to which they are not accustomed.

I have served 19 congregations. Each was unique in particular ways of operations and responses to my ministry. In retrospect, I encountered no significant relationship challenges with any simply because I met them in their varied contexts. In my last two assignments, prior to the arrival, rumor had it that I was sent to change the church into a type of the one I was leaving. Upon arrival, I could feel the tension. Some had the courage to approach me about what they had heard. In a few weeks, the atmosphere was relaxed as the people experienced me participating in their ways of doing things without attempting any change. Eventually, both congregations experi­enced significant change. However, the change did not occur as they initially believed; otherwise, it would have been met with great resistance.

Failure to seek first to understand rather than to be understood

There is no telling what positive experiences might be gained should the new pastor set out to understand the congregation’s ways as opposed to immediately changing those ways. It’s a travesty when pastors desire their congregations to understand them, while they show no willingness to understand their congregations. That will not work. Instead, the new pastor needs to win the confidence of the church. When confidence is won, the congregation will empower the pastor to lead change.

The Greek word for authority, exou­sia, denotes “freedom of action” or “right to act.” As pastors, we received the “freedom to act” or “right to act” from the “call” and empowering of God. However, the disposal of the pastoral authority is delegated through organi­zational credentials and assignments. Apart from organizational delegation, the real delegated authority to lead comes from the congregation. The unity that takes place between a con­gregation and pastor puts into proper perspective divine, organizational or positional, and moral authority to lead. Jesus demonstrated a genuine desire for the good of people and won their confidence.

A major contributory factor to the success I have experienced resulted from my quest to understand each congregation. This was done through participation, observation, question­naires, and town hall meetings. Through these means, the members were able to express personal opinions about their church. They indicated things they wanted to keep as well as those they desired to change. As I acquired understanding of the people being led, I would demonstrate understanding through adaptation.

Failure to adapt to the local church’s custom

After having acquired understand­ing of the congregation’s customs, the new pastor should endeavor to adapt to the same. This will be the litmus test of how the people will gauge and relate to their new pastor. Therefore, the adaptation must be sincere and demonstrate a high level of comfort as opposed to a mere uncomfortable tolerance. Avoid the Peter syndrome that was a suspect and questionable adaptation (see Gal. 2:11, 12). While becoming self-vulnerable to the new congregation’s customs, the pastor must not merely appear to be genu­ine. The pastor must be genuine! Our congregations know whether we are authentic or not.

Adaptability builds relationship and earns credibility—two essential needed to lead change. The apostle Peter’s pseudo and pretentious adaptation was exposed when his ministry colleague and other Jewish Christians suddenly showed up (v. 14). Peter immediately switched sides from fellowshiping with the Gentile converts and changed his behavior into conformity with Jewish Christianity. What hypocrisy! As pastors, it would be well to remember that One greater than any human authority figure is always present with us. Therefore, we would do well to act in character at all times because we cannot deceive God.

While serving in a congregation, I declined to eat a particular dish from the dominant cultural group of the church because that dish had a derogatory name from my culture. However, people from the dominant group were observing my constant avoidance to eat one of their cultural dishes. After two years of this, a small delegation from the dominant cultural group approached me at an annual international program of the church. They wanted an honest answer as to my abstinence from eating the particular dish. I decided to be vulnerable and give the true reason. They were hilarious in laughter. Afterwards, they encouraged me to take a taste, and I did. Being truthful, coupled with effort to try the dish, further strengthened the bonds with that group. It has been many years since leaving that congregation. However, we still have a good laugh each time we come into contact regard­ing our particular cultural difference (that dish) that had the same name. Had I not eaten of the dish, a great opportunity for bonding and relation­ship building would have been gone.

Failure to lead necessary change from an established common-ground platform

Once the new pastor establishes credibility and receives the congrega­tion’s stamp of authority to lead, he or she can now lead the members from the known to the unknown; from where they are to where they did not even faintly imagine they could be or have been. There are two examples in the New Testament that undergird the principles here: The first, Jesus and the woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:4–30). The second, the apostle Paul and the Athenians (Acts 17:16–34).

In the narratives cited, both Jesus and the apostle Paul met their targeted congregations in their sociocultural and spiritual contexts. Similar to a new ministry assignment, they were coming to join the people in their expe­rience. Notice how both launched their ministries with attitudes of openness to understand their congregations as opposed to merely being understood by them. The irony, however, is that both Jesus and Paul knew and under­stood their congregations. And yet, they engaged them with a learning attitude that connected their experience with the people they served.

Jesus and Paul demonstrated flex­ibility and adaptability to the local custom of the people. Jesus was quite comfortable resting by Jacob’s well. Moreover, by requesting the woman to give Him water to drink (John 4:7), Jesus showed His great level of adap­tation and comfort. Jesus was willing to first enter into the woman’s experi­ence of Jacob’s well before inviting her into His.

The apostle Paul likewise was flexible and adaptable to worshiping in the Jewish-Gentile Christians’ syna­gogue as well as their marketplaces. In the Areopagus, the famous meeting place of the Athenian council, Paul adaptably ministered to the people. Every place was surrounded by idols, which Paul desired to change by changing the people’s belief. However, he had to first connect with the people. What if Paul had approached ministry in Athens by commands to break down and remove the idols? What if Jesus had approached the woman at Jacob’s well by offering her the better “living water” He had, as opposed to requesting of her water from her experience?

Yet, these are similar and often-repeated mistakes in pastoral transition. Jesus and Paul made them­selves vulnerable in efforts to build their common-ground platforms. We would do well to learn from Jesus, the Master Teacher, and the classic example of the apostle Paul.

By meeting the people in their context, seeking first to understand them rather than being immediately understood by them, and adapting to their experience, both Jesus and Paul were able to engage in conversations related to the people’s experience. Thus, they created within them an insatiable thirst for something better, which they were prepared to offer. They led them from the known to the unknown!

Conclusion

In the end, all new church pastor­ates come with many challenges. This article sums up what has worked for me based on my understanding of these biblical stories and how they can help us avoid many common pitfalls. You may want to reevaluate and apply these principles in a cur­rent assignment that is not going too well. In such a case, be vulnerable to the congregation. This will require genuinely admitting mistakes and expressing willingness to regroup and begin again.


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Ainsworth E. Joseph , DMin, is ministerial secretary, Northeastern conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Jamaica, New York, United States. 

July 2014

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