In my 10 years of Student Ministry I have started in new positions or churches 5 times. Many of these new beginnings came in an intern or associate role, where I was to more-or-less just fall in line, but others came in more official capacities. Over the course of my time in ministry I have come to the conclusion that first impressions matter, and starting well will cure many headaches before they happen.
As a framework for the discussion, the following 5 principles for starting well are organized underneath the headings of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is defined as authorized or generally accepted theory, doctrine, or practice. Othopraxy is correct conduct. In other words, orthodoxy is sound doctrine and orthopraxy is sound practice.
Orthodoxy – sound doctrine
1. You are not God
As a pastor, this one is easy to acknowledge yet can be difficult to remember. We are often asked to be problem solvers. Add to this the pervasive feeling of wanting to be liked by everyone and we can quickly spiral into the quicksand of thinking we are God when we are not.
The reality is we can do nothing on our own without the power of the Holy Spirit. For us to think we can is simply foolish. Yet so often we end up operating in such a way that we seem to forget that God is God and we are not. A.W. Tozer had a sobering thought that applies to this conversation:
“If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”
As the new person on staff at a church, do not run so fast that the Lord allows you to run past what He work. Truth is, any work you do outside of His will is not His work at all. Start each day, initiative, meeting, and training by honestly and earnestly crying out for God to give you all wisdom and insight. Then, trust Him to be God. Which leads us to the next principle.
2. You are not here to save or fix anything.
People will (sinfully) worship you. They will treat you like a savior. If you let your savior complex run wild, you will fall into the trap of believing you are a big deal. Fight this error with all your might throughout your ministry, let alone when you are new on the scene.
The reality is there is one Savior of the Church. He has already claimed his bride and you will not interfere with His plans for her. Jesus is the head of the Church. Consequently, the Student Ministry is not your student ministry. You are God’s chosen leader for this moment in time, which is here today and will be gone tomorrow.
Truth is, you will need to help diagnose and fix issues along the way – this comes with the territory of being in leadership. However, it is imperative to not buy the lie that you are the savior of your new church. Furthermore, do not believe the lie that you are there to fix it all on your own. Trust Jesus and lead your people well.
Orthopraxy – sound practice
1. Be a detective
A friend and Student Ministry mentor of mine changed my ministry trajectory more than anyone else on the planet with three simple words: be a detective.
Being a detective requires us to intentionally listen and learn. It requires that we put our pride aside. Simply put, being a detective is an active discipline of decreasing self and propping up others.
In the beginning of your time with a new church, knowing your people is more important than growing your people. How do you go about the business of getting to know your people? Ask a ton a of questions, ask the right questions, and listen to the answers carefully. A helpful practice I first heard from Craig Groeschel in his leadership podcast applies:
“Ask 10 times as many questions as you give answers.”
Asking questions and listening intently with the purpose of understanding will help you diagnose issues correctly over time, while also building trust with your people.
2. Be deliberate
Once you have some issues diagnosed, be deliberate in how you address them. There are things that you can change quickly and will need to do so. However, you must fight the urge to overhaul things too quickly.
What does this mean for us practically? In terms of starting well, isolation is the enemy and cooperation is key. Lean on others around you to help mold and shape the future of the ministry. At the same time, remember that in order to fix any existing issues you are going to be fully reliant on those who are already in the trenches.
Another way to describe your role is that of influencer and not dictator. Dictators can lead rapid yet unsustainable change; influencers can lead deliberate, sustainable, and healthy changes. One helpful definition of leadership is “disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” (Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002)).
To lead others in long-lasting, healthy, sustainable ministry you must be willing to disappoint your people at a rate they can absorb. You must also be willing to put in the time and effort to know your people before they will truly follow you. Building trust is an exercise of investing in relational capital. As frustrating as it can be, relational capital is a currency that is only built over long periods of time. As Jim Osterhaus says it,
“Trust is gained like a thermostat and lost like a light switch.”
As you push vision and direction remember that trust, and relational capital, is accrued at a snail’s pace and can be lost at a moment’s notice. Be intentional and deliberate in diagnosing issues and forming solutions by getting to know your people first and foremost.
3. Love your people well
Finally, in your role you must be willing to love your people well. This is a principle that you will have to work hard at because people are different and difficult, regardless of what city, state, or region you are serving. However, the one thing all humans have in common is the desire and need for community. In the truest of senses, your presence is your ministry.
Attending middle school sporting events can be a beating – if the goal is to the enjoy the game in it’s purest form. If I wanted to see football executed at the highest level I would take a trip an NFL stadium, not the local middle school stands. That said, if I am going to middle school football games in order to connect with parents and support students, there is absolute joy to be found there! Presence communicates care that pushes beyond the realm of middle school bleachers on a hot and steamy September evening.
As you consistently go out of your way you will earn the right to go deeper with the families under your care. Get to know their souls, and your ministry excellence and impact will exponentially grow.
Starting well is crucial for building relationships that will last. It takes the right mindset and a ton of effort, but it is worth it! If you find yourself in a new season of life, know that you are not alone. Trust Jesus and keep moving forward in the work He has given you!