Ed: What led you to write Every Pastor’s First 180 Days?
Charles: I had just taken a new lead pastor job in Canada at a multi-cultural church. Having spent all my 30-plus years in ministry in the U.S., I didn’t want to bring my U.S.-centric leadership style into a totally new cultural setting and potentially start on rocky footing.
I read every secular book I could find on business onboarding and adapted many of those principles. I believe that because I began well (with help from these secular books), I’ve experienced the most fruitful ministry I’ve ever had in my now 40 years in ministry (in 6 years, over 70 percent growth in attendance and giving).
I discovered, however, that little was written for pastors on how to onboard well. And seminary never taught me anything about onboarding. So, as I built and executed my onboarding plan, I recorded everything I did and turned it into a practical field guide to help pastors start and stay strong the first few months in a new church job. I also incorporated interesting neuroscience insight that applies to leadership and change management.
Ed: What is onboarding and why is it important for a pastor beginning a new church job?
Charles: Thriving in a new job or a new ministry setting challenges even the best pastor-leaders, especially in the first few months. Business statistics bear this out. One study of 20,000 executive searches revealed that 40 percent of executives hired at the senior levels are pushed out, fail, or quit within 18 months. So, at least in the business world, the early days present unique challenges. However, pastors also face similar challenges in a new role.
Onboarding is much more than an orientation program where a new pastor gets the manual on how to operate the copier, takes a facilities tour, and attends a meet-and-greet time with volunteers. Rather, it’s an intentional multi-month process of assimilation, alignment, and acquiring new tools that a new pastor must prioritize as they enter a new ministry role.
It begins before the first day on the job and lasts several months. It provides a trajectory that can largely determine the direction their ministry takes for the next several years, just as a rocket’s initial trajectory can determine the success of its mission. Setting a healthy trajectory will accelerate the process by which a pastor can earn social capital so that they can make long lasting changes with Kingdom impact.
Ed: What are some pitfalls pastors need to be aware of and avoid in a new church job?
Charles: There are seven common pitfalls pastors can fall into. The more we are aware of these, the better we can avoid and navigate them.
1. Cookie Cutter: Am I thinking that what worked before will work now?
2. Smartie-pants: Do I think I know all the answers and/or am I inadvertently communicating that to others?
3. Out of sight, out of mind: Am I failing to recognize the former leader’s lingering influence?
4. Blindsided: Am I setting expectations too high and not preparing myself for surprises (without becoming paranoid)?
5. Fire, ready, aim: Am I yielding to the temptation to force quick results?
6. Scaredy-cat: Is fear of failure or analysis paralysis making me risk averse and hindering me from stepping out in faith?
7. People pleaser: Am I saying Yes to too many things?
Ed: You suggest two acronyms in the book, PALM and SADDLE, that summarize key steps. What are those steps?
Charles: I use these two acronyms, PALM and SADDLE, as visual metaphors to help pastors retain and recall the key principles of onboarding. Since up to one-half of our brain is dedicated in some way toward visual processing, pictures stick better in our minds. The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” has a solid scientific basis.
Here’s what PALM means.
Prioritize self and family care
Listen and learn
Manage change wisely
Here’s what SADDLE means, with key components within each step.
Start early (pre-meetings)
Avoid pitfalls (see above)
Define Reality (create a listening and learning process, meet with key people, learn about the church and its culture, discover needs, find out what unprocessed emotional hurt is still in the church, learn how decisions are made, discover the existing church systems, find out how the church/leadership defines success)
Determine an initial 6-month agenda (create a clear document)
Lead the team (assess your team, build unity, create accountability systems, determine the best meeting schedules)
Establish Trust (get early wins, have healthy conversations, find specific ways to build trust)
Ed: Are these principles only for rookie pastors or seasoned ones as well?
Charles: Any pastor, whether a rookie or a seasoned pastor, will find these principles helpful to start well and stay strong in a new church job.