Seven things they didn’t tell me about pastoring a church

by | August 7, 2023 | Espresso

I never wanted to lead a church. I was happy for someone else to carry that responsibility.

The portfolios and roles I carried over the years have always been challenging, stimulating, and rewarding. My desire to steward the God-given gifts in my life has always been more important than seeking a role, position, or wage increase. While I was helpful, fruitful, and productive, I was content.

However, in late 2015, God clearly directed Nikki and I to return to Australia to lead a church. Since then, I’ve learnt scores of new lessons about leadership, church, and myself.

Unfortunately, these lessons are not taught in a classroom (or by reading a blog). No amount of theological training, book reading or attending conferences, totally prepares you for senior leadership.

During the last seven years I have learned seven significant lessons (well there are more, but these are the ones I think will be most helpful). Each lesson catalysed a new question that demanded our focused prayer, change, energy, creativity, and action.  

1.The revolving door will hit you in the head.

The ‘revolving door’ is a term to describe the cycle of Christians who visit your local church, then within a few visits, declare it is what they have been searching for. They may even say ‘’The Lord spoke to us about making this our spiritual home” (or something to that effect). They stay for several months or even for a couple of years. Then suddenly they move on to another church for whatever reason.

This can be disappointing, disheartening, and depressing for the pastor and their team. At least, it was for us. All our efforts and well-made plans to keep people, were dismissed and disregarded for any number of reasons. Often their reason was spiritualised by a quote from Isaiah or Jeremiah.  

Perhaps the way to stop the revolving door process is by asking a new question: Are we called to attract and keep Christians, or to reach the unchurched and extend the Kingdom of God?

2.There’s a season for everything.

I don’t like winter, I prefer summer. Maybe you are the opposite. I sometimes wish the whole year was the same season. Afterall it would be more predictable and cheaper. I know it’s wishful thinking and not reality. Our world has four seasons and I think church life is no different, it has seasons. The ancient sage Solomon told us God outworks His purposes in seasons (Eccl 3:1).

I believe the ability to navigate and set priorities in any given season, is an essential skill every Christian leader must develop. Let’s face it, a few poor decisions during a critical season can undo years of fruitful service.

Instead of seeking advice from another management solution, seminar, or by reading another book, we need to ask a new question of God Himself: Lord what do you want me to focus on in this season?

3. Running a church is expensive.

I dread every time we need to address another maintenance issue on our building. Perhaps you understand our dilemma? We are grateful for our denomination’s provision, but the elders and I still have the constant burden of financing the repair and renovation of our church building.

In one year alone, we could have employed an additional three part-time staff members with the amount of money we invested in building repairs and maintenance. I genuinely feel sorry for those who have to maintain majestic heritage-listed buildings or large modern campuses.

Our team became proactive. We treated the building as a blessing. We began to ask a new double-edged question; How can we make our building part of our mission, and how can we generate an income from it?

4. Some people won’t like your preaching.

Despite my visionary leadership, concerted prayers, diligent study, commitment to crafting sermons, and passion for communication, I have realised some people don’t want to hear my preaching. This is especially true if your preaching is confronting culture, demanding metanoia, advancing discipleship, and calling people to mission.

The question I ask myself regularly is this: ‘Am I preaching the gospel of the Kingdom and believing for disciples to be made, or am I preaching for popularity and to grow attendance?

5. More programs don’t produce more disciples.

If programs do not have discipleship as their primary aim, they simply keep people busy and produce consumers. Nikki and I have spent thousands of hours in meetings brainstorming, creating, designing, and planning programs. In fact, many leaders spend most of their week in meetings planning Sunday services and midweek programs. The majority are designed to attract Christians, grow attendance and make people more comfortable.

Nikki and I pivoted some years ago and realised the best use of our time was two-fold: equipping and mentoring leaders, because this leads to multiplication and fulfils our primary call according to Ephesians 4, and spending time with unchurched people, because this is the coalface of disciple making.

For this to happen we had to ask a simple question: “Considering our gifts and experience, what is the best use of our time?’’

6. You need a handful of highly committed people.

The Pareto Principle says 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. Gladwell declared the Tipping Point for bringing immense change in an organisation was just 16% of the people. When Jesus set out to transform the world, He chose 12 men not 1200. Gideon was told to reduce his army from 32,000 to 10,000 and finally to just 300 men.

I have committed 30 years of my life to mobilising and equipping the majority. I am passionate about getting people out of pews and into the public. I believe in the ‘amateurisation of mission’ and the ‘ordination of all vocations’. However, this is reality, I have discovered every senior pastor, organisational leader, or movement catalyst, needs a handful of highly committed, totally sold-out-for-the-cause, whatever-it-takes people.

So, in order to embrace this concept, you have to answer this question: “Who are the inner circle of people God has ordained to do ministry with me, and how can I resource them?”

7. Reaching unchurched people requires sacrifice, risk, and innovation.

The world is described as VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Simply stated, it is rapidly and constantly changing. Not surprisingly, amid a plethora of opinions and questions about the future, people’s belief and trust in God, Christianity, religion, church, and the gospel narrative has waned.

You may not agree with this statement, but here we go, “Reaching Christians is easier than reaching the unchurched, especially those who are generationally marginalised from Christianity”. There are methods, models, rituals, and routines when implemented, will successfully attract Christians from other churches and wandering pilgrims to the church you lead. The same methods will not attract the unchurched.

I have discovered, to expand God’s Kingdom – which requires we reach the genuinely unchurched (i.e. lost, unsaved, atheist, irreligious, religiously disaffiliated majority) – it requires unlearning our rehearsed methods and adapting new ways of sharing the gospel. It demands a change of focus, a resetting of ministry practices, a redeployment of resources, an appetite for risk, a passion for mission, and a desire for innovation.

It requires we move from the safe and rehearsed mode of church programs to the vulnerable and unpredictable rhythms of our neighborhoods. To make this shift, as a church leadership team we had to answer this question, “Where is God at work in our community and in what ways can we join Him on mission?”

So there you go, a brief outline of just seven things I wish I had known before assuming the leadership of a local church. Perhaps your experience has been different to mine? I would be keen to hear your thoughts, please contact me.

Gary Rucci has been serving in christian leadership since 1989. Together with his wife Nikki, also a credentialled minister, he has served in various portfolios in a few of Australia’s largest churches and alongside many influential pastors and not-for-profit leaders. Gary loves to network and collaborate with others across the Body of Christ. Gary and Nikki live in Brisbane and have three adult children.