by Matt Norman
A few months ago, I started serving at a different church. For this church, I am the first ever full time children’s minister. Many people have advice for how to start a new position and make the transition successful. One thing that nearly all of them say is to not make changes in the beginning. Some will even say to not change ANYTHING for the first year. This is great advice except for one detail: the people who hired you are expecting you to make changes. So, how do we balance these two truths?
The people that hired you want things to change. As I mentioned, I am the first children’s minister for this church. For this reason, they were very eager to see what I was made of. They created this position to help them go to the next level—to change things. If they had wanted to continue as they were, then they wouldn’t need me. However, if you are replacing a previous person in your same position, then they may not be as ready to see things change. Even in that situation, the thing they do want to see is that their money is being well spent. This often means changing some things.
For me, I started off with the idea that I shouldn’t make any changes right away. I quickly found that the people of my church wanted to see some things change. They wanted to see the ministry move forward. They understood that some transition time would be required. They understood that not everything could be done in a day or week or month, but they wanted to see that things were beginning to move forward.
Look for quick, early wins. These sorts of wins don’t have to be big changes, but they do have to be things that can show what YOU bring to the team. For me, it started within the first few weeks. Our church does a big, family picnic the Sunday before July 4th. Previously, there had never been any activities specifically planned for the children or preschoolers during this event. So, I planned some games/activities for both age groups. It was a huge success and showed them early on that I had value.
Talk with your senior leader(s). These are people who have been in this church and this community longer than you. They have a better feel for what the people will respond to. They also know what the current needs are. One of the first things I did, even before I actually started work, was to email the pastor and ask him what sort of quick wins he thought could be accomplished. Making some of these small changes happen early on helped me to gain some credibility among the people of the church.
Small, early changes are okay. If you are anything like me, then you like to do things BIG. I am so bad about this that I’m sometimes unable to get anything started because I want everything to be right. When you’re in a new position and people are looking to see what you have to offer, making smaller changes can be the way to satisfy this need while still not upsetting the apple cart, so to speak.
Continual improvement is key. As I mentioned above, I like to do things BIG, but sometimes you just have to do something. You have to start somewhere. So, do what you can to get ready then get started. From there, aim for steady improvement. This can be difficult to balance as some will be confused if there are changes every week. For this reason, be sure to communicate with those that will be effected, then make your changes. For me, the goal is for everything I do this week to be a little better next week.
Better isn’t always bigger and bigger isn’t always better. As we strive for continuing improvement, there are times when we will need to go big. However, we need to keep in mind that bigger is not always better. Like the tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hair,” sometimes slow and steady wins the race. When I talk about being better next week than I was this week, it can mean being bigger, but it really just means being better. Bigger is not always better, but better IS always better. What that looks like for you will depend on what area you are looking to improve.
Take care. Yes your church will be looking to see that you were worth the investment they have made in you. This does not, however, mean that the advice to change nothing for the first year is without merit. Maybe you’re not a big VBS person, but your new church LOVES VBS. Don’t kill it the first summer you’re there. Maybe the midweek program is not working, but the people love it. It may be obvious that this program needs to change, but you have to be careful with how you handle the change. These are the sorts of things that need to be handled with great care. This is also where talking with your senior leaders can help. They can help you navigate changes that the people may need, but not want.
At the end of the day, change has to happen. The church is expecting it, even if they don’t want it. They knew when you came on that things were going to be different. Even if you are replacing someone that had been in your position, you are not that person and you will do things differently. When you are new, make changes that will show what you are capable of, but take care in how you do it, and what changes you choose to make early on.