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I' m nearing the two-year mark as pastor of a rural church. I came full of ideas and plans. But by now I've learned the wisdom of something I first heard Edith Bunker tell Archie: "Don't fix nothin' that don't need fixin'."
Three lessons brought me to this conclusion.
When people say, "Whatever you want to do is fine with us," they don't mean it.
My congregation is a progressive group of mature believers. They want me to have absolute freedom to do whatever I want-almost. While I've never heard those immortal words "We've never done that before," I have seen them written on a few faces. Somehow, psychologically, people don't like to tell their new pastor he cannot do something. So they tell the neophyte that "whatever you do is fine with us" and hope he won't make a radical change.
When I was a youth pastor, a business asked the youth group to take on the task of mailing Christmas books to every child in our community. It amounted to addressing several hundred envelopes-without compensation. A decision had to be made: Do we do it?
An elderly minister was helping me learn the ropes, so I sought his advice. He said, "Whatever you want to do is fine with me." So I elected to decline and gave several reasons why. Silence. Then he spoke again: "I really think you would be unwise to say no. Your young people need to learn to serve even when it's not in the limelight."
Bam! The lesson was nailed tight. Even when people say it's fine, they may not mean it. In the first year, people offer their new pastor great freedom, with the deep-seated hope it won't be used.
I had to force myself to heed the second lesson: Spend more time discovering where your people are than dreaming about where they ought to be.
Change comes hard. I like to keep the same car or lifestyle or circle of friends as long as I can. The person in the pew shares that conserving tendency. Therefore, I try to keep changes to a minimum and let people learn to trust me first. Later changes can be made by "our pastor, Bob" rather than by "that new guy, what's-his-name."
Eight months into the pastorate, I decided it was time to embark on a three-month study of the Sermon on the Mount-the perfect material for our discussion-oriented Wednesday night Bible study. Since I wanted them to take away from these studies more than just notes, I set as our goal memorization of the complete Sermon on the Mount-104 verses. "No problem," I assured the flock. "At eight verses a week, you can follow right along with the study."
Even though a small handful of the faithful persevered to the end, I realize now I had seen only what I wanted to see rather than what was really there. My people weren't ready for such a big project. I should have started small and led them in a minor victory, instead of a large defeat. Maybe then even their pastor would have succeeded in accomplishing "our" goal.
"But," you must be asking, "haven't you initiated any change? If the status quo was fine, why do they need you in the first place?"
That brings us to lesson number three: Initiate change carefully, with research and the backing of the board. The key in the first year is to avoid being the Lone Ranger. People don't trust you enough to let you get away with it yet. The moving truck that brought you is still too vivid in their minds' eye.
I've learned to make sure the change is not three sizes too big for the problem. If my church parking lot has a few chuckholes, we need to get them patched. It's not the time to start a campaign to repave the whole lot and strap the church with a big debt.
A Baptist district superintendent I know loves to tell the story of the young minister who went into a healthy church and within a year had rewritten the church constitution. My friend adds, rather dryly, "He's gone now, and so's his constitution."
The old maxim warns, "If you have a revolutionary war your first year, you'll have civil war your second, and you'll be church hunting your third."
So I'm learning to slow down. When the annals of my ministry in Saegertown are written, perhaps the people will remember me as the pastor who "didn't fix nothin' that didn't need fixin'."
-Robert W. Wido
Pleasantview Alliance Church
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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