In my latest article for The Gospel Coalition, I aim to help pastors adjust well to their new church. In this article, I aim to address why it may be hard for a church to adjust to a new pastor. Pastors, after all, sometimes speak about having a rough start in their new role. This is not surprising. There are many factors at play that contribute to a difficult new pastorate, several of which are cited below.
Why It’s Hard for Churches to Adjust to a New Pastor
If you’re a pastor, and you’re having a rough go at your new gig, the following may be a few reasons why. I share this list because it’s strangely encouraging to realize the difficulty at your church may be out of your control.
1. Because people hate change. At least most people do, anyway. People love comfort. Rhythm and routines are valuable to most. We like to know what we’re going to get and what we’re going to expect. But people lose all of this when a new pastor comes to town. Will he be faithful? Will he try to change my ministry? Change creates a sense of anxiety in people.
2. Because they loved the previous pastor. Some of your congregants were emotionally attached to your predecessor. These congregants experienced trauma when he retired or moved on. Although this is a confession they’d likely never admit, perhaps they were unhealthily attached to him, and they’re taking their idolatrous effects out on you.
Or let’s say the admiration for the previous guy wasn’t idolatrous. They just loved him a whole lot. In this case, it’s simply going to take your people a while to adjust to you.
3. Because they despised the previous pastor. They didn’t like the other pastor. It could be that he was hypocritical or domineering. Your new congregants are jarred from their poor experience and need time to heal. Counselors often use the word “transference” to describe this kind of situation. If someone has a poor experience with a previous pastor, even if you did nothing wrong, they’ll tend to transfer those negative feelings toward you simply because you hold the same position.
4. Because some people are territorial. They faithfully give their money. They’ve been at the church for decades. They genuinely love Jesus and the church. But they also love their serving area — too much. They’re scared you’re going to try to change it in some way. They’re concerned about their influence and power and status in the church.
5. Because they feel exposed and vulnerable. Once I went to a car shop to get an oil change. I practically know nothing about those large pieces of metal we call motor vehicles, and my ignorance was painfully on display during this routine visit. The guy asked me to put my foot on the gas. I put my foot down, but on the brakes, thinking I followed his directions correctly. He looked at me and said, “No, your other gas.”
I feel vulnerable when I talk to a mechanic because (a) I don’t know anything about cars, and (b) I don’t want to get ripped off. Such is the same with your people. In most cases, they know your biblical and theological acumen is ten times more proficient than their’s will ever be. As a result, vulnerability abounds. Is he telling me the truth? Will he lead me astray?
6. Because you unnecessarily offended them. Okay, I’m not going to totally let you off the hook. You could have unknowingly erred. You may have unnecessarily offended someone in a sermon or made a change in the church too quickly. Or it might be that you give the cold shoulder more than you realize. Challenging others and sparking change is a good desire, but it’s usually best to build at least some level of trust before you do so.
When I first got to my church, I made a stupid comment about our office space. I honestly was just joking (honestly!), but I offended a staff member. It wasn’t my intention, but I came across as entitled. I apologized, and we moved on, but it taught me that not only should I not say what I said, but that it simply takes time before people can get a feel for your personality.
If you’re having a difficult start to your new pastorate, I want to urge you to press on in faithfulness despite the difficulty. Most of your church members mean well. This is simply just a hard and awkward process for everyone. Work hard, display godliness, and love your people as best as you can. Over time you’ll build relational equity and Lord willing, things will get better.
Resources for New Pastors:
1. Help for the New Pastor: Practical Advice for Your First Year of Ministry by Charles Malcolm Wingard
2.The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry by Jason Helopoulos