I was called to University Baptist Church in 2009 as the Senior Pastor. As I prepared to move to East Lansing, MI a set of loving mentors pulled me to the side, one by one, and counseled me. Tony Shipley was one of those counselors and his words to me are rehearsed as best I can recall below:
When you enter an established church, your first years are not spent pastoring as much as deciding if you want to pastor this church. The same applies to the people. Their first years with you are not spent being led as much as they're spent in decision about whether you're really going to be their leader. You are interviewing and so are they.
Yes, the formal interviewing process may be over and you've signed a contract, received a name plate but most are still making up their minds about you. During these still tenuous times, it is very important that you learn how to spell. How do you spell Pastor? P-A-S-T-O-R, right? Well in learning to spell Pastor, you will learn a great deal on becoming a Pastor.
Each letter in the word represents approximately one year. Some letters may come more quickly and others more slowly but generally, it takes 2-4 years before you have any clarity on whether this is really going to work. As you earn each letter, you'll learn more about what pastoring the specific group of people you've been assigned is really all about. You'll also get to decide whether you want to pastor these people as you get to know them better.
By the time you get to your "T" or "O", you should be able to make an informed decision. They too will have formed opinions about you. Some will decide they don't like or want you. Some will decide they'll give you a chance. You'll know because they'll begin to let you into their lives. The telephone may start ringing a little more often. The invitations to milestone events (marriages, graduation open houses, days of births and deaths) may show a slight uptick. They may begin bringing their friends and family to meet you. Invitations to travel or gifts not previously received may flow. If you want to be more deeply involved in their lives, stay. If, as they begin drawing you deeper into their lives, you know you don't want to be bothered, move on.
There will be days you'll want to move on before you have the "P" or "A". Take the time to look at what has happened. Did you try to do something that the Pastor of the church ought to be able to do? Did you try something you feel the office gives you authority to do? If things didn't work out well, it might be because you're still becoming the Pastor. Never mind what they're whispering to you about already being their pastor. They're still making up their minds.
As they make up their minds, learn more about them. Seek first to understand the people before getting the people to understand you. Do you like what you're discovering? If so, tell them you like them. Build them up with the truths you're discovering about them. Tell the truth and remain in prayer to God who called you in the first place. The Lord has a plan for you and a plan for the people. Sometimes, it even works out that the Lord has a plan for you and the people together.
During the first few years in a church learn how to spell Pastor.