Skip to main content

As the expression goes, “Most new pastors think they’re going to change the world but almost get fired for changing the bulletin.”

How do you shepherd a flock to healthier pastures when the sheep aren’t yet convinced that the grass is greener on the other side? Some answers are obvious: we must walk faithfully with the Lord and patiently love the flock. Okay, but what else? Here are some practices and principles that pastors in the midst of revitalization should implement on day one.

1. Practice Expositional Preaching

God transforms hearts through the Bible. If enough of the congregation is willing to submit themselves to God’s Word, there is cause for optimism. Expository preaching will create a well-rounded church over time, as everyone will be forced to grapple with biblical doctrines and confront sinful patterns they may have tolerated for decades. It will require faith to preach through books of the Bible when it might seem more relevant to topically address problems that are staring you in the face.

2. Pray for and Invest in Would-be Elders

One man cannot do the work alone, nor is it scriptural to do so. On day one, begin praying for God to raise up elders to serve alongside you, and be intentional about investing in men who could in the future. If you’re pastoring an unhealthy church and working toward faithfulness to the Bible, there is a good chance that an attempt will be made to fire you or force your resignation. You need a team of elders who can defend you from those efforts. You can’t be of any long-term help to a church if they run you off.

3. Start Interviewing Prospective Members

You likely won’t be able to practice church discipline right off the bat, but you’ll have an easier time guarding the front door through a new member process. This process should include, at a minimum, a membership interview. One of the major ways you can stop the bleeding is by doing your best to make sure new members are Christians, to the best of your fallible human ability to discern credible professions of faith. Additionally, if your church has a prospective member class, leverage that as an opportunity to make sure new people have clear expectations of what’s coming down the pike. If the church has a practice of receiving new members at the conclusion of a church service by vote without getting to know them in any real way, look for ways to more meaningfully introduce prospective members, such as sharing aspects of their testimony.

4. Become a Missionary in Your Community

You are called to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Recruit a few of the heavenly-minded members to go door-to-door with you in the neighborhood. Set up a booth at local events or go on walks around the church building with the aim of striking up conversations with passersby. If you don’t take the lead evangelistically, who will?

5. Resist the Temptation to Change Anything Cosmetically the First Year

Declining churches tend to have glaring aesthetic issues: orange pews from the 1960s, green carpet, or memorial plaques prominently placed on countless items. Such churches also, ironically, tend to have a preoccupation with the facility, and trying to make alterations is a good way to upset people. While you’ll have to beautify the facility at some point, focus on spiritual matters for the first year.

6. Hold off on Changing the Governing Documents until You Have New Practices in Place

Odds are there’s nothing in the constitution and bylaws preventing you from doing what you need to revitalize the church. For example, there’s nothing in the governing documents at my church that forbids us from having lay elders or instituting a membership process. Besides, your constitution likely has a clear statement that the church operates under the authority of Scripture—so do that! When the time is right, make the changes in practice first, and then encourage the congregation to adopt governing documents that reflect current practices.

7. Don’t Prop up Existing Committees

When I arrived, our church had twelve committees ranging from a personnel committee to a flower committee. A nominating committee would find members to populate all the other committees. I discovered that no one wanted to serve on the nominating committee because it was like pulling teeth to get people to serve. The nominating committee was self-perpetuating and found their own replacements, which also proved nearly impossible. To fix this problem, we let the nominating committee positions sit vacant until, one at a time, people’s terms expired on all the committees. Finally, one day, poof! No more committees.

8. Don’t Prop up Existing Ministries That Fall Outside the Focused Mission of the Church

If there’s a ministry that either doesn’t fall within the mission of the church or is something the church can’t do well at the current time, then you as a pastor shouldn’t exert energy to keep it going “just because.” Be content to let all ministries fail except for the preaching of the Word and the proclamation of the gospel.

9. Be Okay with Some People Leaving—and, Generally Speaking, Don’t Try to Chase Them

Pastor Mark Clifton has often said that the death wheeze of a dying church is when they make decisions based on keeping the people they have, rather than focusing on people they need to reach. The hard reality is that some people will leave, and they need to leave. Simply let them know you’re praying for them and that you wish them all the best as they find a new church.

Even in the face of fierce opposition, I challenge you to keep showing up at the church office to joyfully do your work. As a pastor, there’s nothing in your job description about defending your character or being liked. Given enough time, consistency, love, Christ-centered optimism, and grace from God, people in your church will begin to understand where you’re leading them and will soon enjoy what they never thought possible: a healthy church.

While this is not an exhaustive list, and some may disagree with certain aspects, I can testify to the positive effect of embracing these practices and principles in my first few years as a pastor. I pray they help you too.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on 9Marks on May 1st, 2024. Used with permission.

Jake Wright is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church Carthage in Carthage, MO.

Skip to content