6 Lessons From My First 2 Years as a Senior Minister

Starting at a church well is so important, especially in the role of the senior leader. Two years ago Dave Keun took over the role of senior minister of Kellyville Anglican Church in Sydney’s northwest. Here are the lessons he’s learned in his starting years, in no particular order:

1. Listen, Listen, Listen

I think it was the Manager Tools podcast that taught me that when you start in a new role, you only need to do three things: 1. Listen, 2. Listen, 3. Listen. As you come into a new role there are so many undercurrents and history you need to be aware of. So I spent the first three months doing this: listening. This is a lot harder than it looks because when you start, you are ready to go. But taking the patience to stop and listen builds an important foundation for the rest of your work. 

I started with a list of key leaders, the people who shape the culture of the church, and asked to catch up with them. There were three important questions I asked each of them:

  1. How did you become a Christian?
  2. What do you love about this church?
  3. If you could change two things what would they be? 

It was pretty hard just to listen to the answers and not make comments, but that is what I did. I also kept a bunch of notes to make sure I could go back over the answers.

I also spent time in the first six months of starting, having people over to my place in small groups for dessert and asked them questions as well. I asked them:

  1. What would make you look back in 5 years and say ‘that was a great 5 years’?
  2. What specific things would you like to see happen? 
  3. What do you want me to not change?

People appreciated that I respected their past and it gave me a clear picture of the past and their desire for the future. 

2. Clarity Around Vision Really Helps

As you come into the church, you are introducing change to a system. During that time clarity is important for direction and for bringing a sense of calm to the system, even for the person who disagrees with you: I may not agree with where this is going, but at least I know where it is going.

Having a vision that not only rallies, but helps you repel, will bear fruit. I remember someone once telling me that you either fight for clarity for a season or you fight confusion forever. So fight for clarity around your vision for a season!

It was important for me to work hard at figuring out the vision of the church. There are lots of good resources to do this well. I was especially helped in things I learnt through the Reach Australia Development Program and the chance during those times to have conversations with seasoned pastors.

3. Making Mistakes Is Inevitable: The Antidote Is Having My Identity In Jesus

When you start a new role there are a lot of people watching to see how you go. They want to know if they can trust you. As a result, you feel the pressure to show them that you can do the job, that you are competent and trustworthy. Of course this is just extending an existing problem. We are all crushed by our mistakes. No matter how much time we spend communicating and clarifying, we make missteps. No matter how much encouragement we might get, one negative comment can send us into a spiritual spiral and we get lost in our negative thoughts.

But the inevitable truth is that you are going to make mistakes. You are not perfect and you live in an imperfect human state.

The solution to this is to remember our identity in Christ. Jesus gives us that grace to face these mistakes and alleviate having to work to please others, ourselves or our peers. 

Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but I feel like sometimes I re-learn this every few weeks as I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the past two years.

4. Change Is Slower Than You Think

Like any new person into a role there are things that you will be keen to change.

As a new person you are seeing things that need to change that others have just got used to. This is a good thing. But change done quickly can be done badly or inadvertently upset the wrong people at the wrong time. 

That being said, change is inevitable. Some changes can be done quickly. Others that involve cultural change take time and consistent effort. When I arrived we wanted to do a better job of being a welcoming church. It took six months of concerted effort to see some traction. As a result all of our planned timelines went out the window. I had to learn to be more patient.

5. Investing In Staff Will Pay Long Term Dividends

If you are beginning work in a medium to large church you may well find yourself working with an established staff team. As the senior leader, the simple mantra that ‘your staff are your work’ is a helpful way to think. You will need to establish early patterns of meeting with them one to one and investing into their growth as a pastor and a leader in the church. Set goals together and champion the fruit on their tree. This will pay off in the long run.

And don’t forget that great teams focus on not just results but relationships as well. Spend time getting to know them: what they think, how they work, how they communicate, etc. Find time to hang out together. We make Monday lunch, after staff meeting, a time when we all eat together and chat about life, ministry, movies, sport and any other topic that arises.

Investing into both the results and the relationships will hopefully mean retaining staff in the long term and build stability in your staffing.

People love it when they know that their pastoral team is in it for the long-haul with them, but it’s up to you as the senior leader to set the culture that this is where they want to stay.

6. You Will Be Tempted To Work Without Stopping And Do It All Alone

One of the big temptations when you start somewhere is to work and work and work. Perhaps this is driven by either a desire to prove yourself, to show that the church has made the right decision, to show your staff team you work hard, or show that you can actually get stuff done. As a senior leader you will feel the burden to do it all alone. Yes, there is a lot of listening to be done. Yes, there are a lot of things to learn and put in place. But this is a dangerous road and you will need to fight this temptation. It’s the path to burnout, nor is it a biblical model of leadership.

I would strongly encourage you to engage a coach, an outside voice, who you can be vulnerable with and invite them to speak not just into your ministry goals but into your life to keep you in check with reasonable expectations of yourself.

I remember during one coaching session confessing to my coach that I’d had over 20 nights out in a particular month. We were able to work together on managing my diary and putting some stronger boundaries in place and knowing that he was going to ask me in our next session helped keep me accountable.

Starting well in a new position can have its challenges and joys. All in all I would say, be intentional and take it slow.

Dave Keun started as the senior minister of Kellyville Anglican Church in March 2022.

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