Dear Libby,

When we had lunch a few weeks ago, we talked excitedly about your call as senior pastor by First Baptist Church in Martinsville, Virginia. Your first call as senior pastor! At some point during lunch, you asked, “What are the most critical things to do and to know in the first six months as a new, first-time pastor?” And I responded as any good executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry would. I put your question out there and asked our BWIM Facebook followers for their words of advice. So, dear Libby, here is the collective wisdom of your fellow pastors.

The most important thing you can do in your first few months is connect with your church members, spend time with as many as you can, eat meals with them, sit and listen to their stories, ask them good questions. Meriah VanderWeide, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, Tipton, Indiana, wrote: “Build trust, learn the history, visit people. Let them get to know you and you get to know them.”  Carol McEntyre, pastor of First Baptist Church, Columbia, Missouri, shared: “I had a sign up board out in the hall way for people to sign up to go to lunch with me. I did this three days a week for three months. It was a great way to get to know people.” Ellen Di Giosia, pastor of First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, Tennessee, shared: “One thing I wish I had done was to have lunch or dinner with small groups of congregants in the first few months. If you have deacon groups or life groups, that would be a natural fit. It ended up being on me to try and get to know lots and lots of individuals, and people fell through the cracks.” Molly Brummett Wudel, pastor of Emmaus Way Church, Durham, North Carolina, wrote that her church had something in place like what Ellen described when they called her, and “it really made a world of difference for me (and I think the congregation).” Brittany Caldwell, co-pastor of Nobles Chapel Baptist Church, Sims, North Carolina, wrote: “We did a coffee house at our house. Very informal, come and go. Lots of people came, we played a few ice breaker games, and it was great to get to know one another well. We did this every Sunday night for six weeks, and different people came every week.” Caroline Smith, pastor of Wilton Baptist Church, Wilton, Connecticut, shared: “I was told to sit down (formally) with each family in the church. I thought I could do this better informally (more my personality). But formally would have been better, and I have been backtracking on that.”

So what is that you want to learn about your congregants? What questions should you ask? What should you be listening for? Kyndall Rothaus, pastor of Lake Shore Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, shared: “Julie Merritt Lee told me to first find what I wanted to celebrate about the congregation, and I found that a really helpful place to start.” Merianna Harrelson, pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship Church, West Columbia, South Carolina, shared advice she received from Gail Coulter and Julie Merritt Lee, both who had pastored Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina: “Find their story.” Merianna noted, “This was the best advice because I took on a posture of discovery during those first six months. How had this group come together to become church? Where did they each come from? I asked a lot of questions and listened and listened and listened.” Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. wrote: “My mantra when arriving at a new church is Love, Love, Love the People. Put the brakes on all the “projects” running through my mind and just be with as many people as possible, preferably in their homes. Ask them to tell me their stories and the church’s story (it’s fascinating to hear people’s different interpretations of the church’s history).” Chris Turner, pastor of Neill’s Creek Baptist Church in Angier, North Carolina, wrote: “During my first fifteen months as pastor, I invited two families to meet with me each week and I asked the same three questions: (1) What is your story? (2) What are your hopes and dreams for this church? (3) What are your concerns and/or fears (or what have you tried to tell others and felt ignored/unheard?) This was hard work and required lots of listening.” 

Building relationships is critical, but a few others things to remember in this first week. Danny Chisholm, pastor of University Baptist Church, Springfield, Missouri, suggested: “Tell the church that you will spend the first week getting your family settled in the house and community.” Katrina Brooks, who pastored North Broad Baptist Church in Rome, Georgia and is now youth pastor at Madison Heights Baptist Church, Madison Heights, VIrginia, offered these brilliant words: “I wish someone had told me that not taking all my vacation and personal days and working long hard hours was not a sign of how qualified and strong I was. It was a sign of how weak I was. Next time I will be more mindful of creating a healthy calendar. Not only will I schedule a vacation within first six months (not necessarily take it, but have it on the church calendar), I will plan a continuing education experience and a retreat experience and will connect with a peer learning group. A pastor works out of her rest and re-creation.” Natalie Adams offered these words: “Honor your personal Sabbath. Find a healthy balance between pastoring and proclamation. Never stop reading.”

Speaking of reading, two books were suggested. Roy M. Oswald.’s New Beginnings: A Pastorate Start Up Workbook. This book was assigned in seminary to Meriah VanderWeide, and she has read it multiple times and learned that good change is also hard, be filled with grace in handling all situations, and churches may desire change but they don’t do too much at once so that they can grieve appropriately. Lia Scholl, pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, suggested Scott Daniels’ The First 100 Days: A Pastor’s Guide:

A final word of advice, Libby, and this one is from me. Do you see it? Do you see the circle of amazing Baptist pastors who now surround you and stand with you–ready to help, ready to share wisdom, ready to answer your questions. Remember in these first weeks that you are not alone. You have a huge, lovely cloud of witnesses who will show up for you and support you!

Peace and grace and lots of love to you in this first week of pastoring!



Pam Durso is the executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia. Libby Grammer is pastor of First Baptist Church, Martinsville, Virginia.