What is the best way to begin a new ministry? With 24 years of experience as I began my fourth pastorate I resolved that this time things would be different. For the first time we took full advantage of the unique opportunities for outreach which the commencement of a ministry offers.
In most traditions a pastorate begins with some form of Induction, Installation or Commissioning service, followed by a delicious Tea. These are marvellous occasions for fellowship between the new church and the previous or sending church, and also for affirming the minister as representatives tell each other how wonderful the minister is. Links are also strengthened with the wider denominational family and local ecumenical contacts. Such events are very important, but a decade of responsibility in Churches Together attending two or three each year has convinced me that the services themselves are designed exclusively for believers. It appears to be rare for Inductions or Installations even to attract the majority of the new church congregation. So few of them are planned with young people or children in mind and even fewer are the kind of events to which one ought to invite not yet Christians.
It may be that the outreach angle simply slips through the cracks. The church is waiting for the new minister to be in post before they reach out, and the Induction is the only thing on the minister’s mind apart from moving house and getting to know a huge number of people in a very short time. Whatever the reason, many churches miss out on the outreach opportunities inherent in the start of a pastorate. All the attention is on the Induction service and few churches capitalise on the Minister’s first Sundays.
The commencement of a ministry offers opportunities which will only occur once in five or ten years. There are enormous benefits in arranging and publicising events to celebrate the arrival of the new minister for folk beyond the core of the church, and who are not yet believers. At very least, there are the people on the fringe of the church, who may themselves attend or send their children to midweek activities but are rarely present on Sundays. Surely we can offer them something more exciting than a traditional Induction Service. There are the folk who may have belonged to the church in the past but are no longer worshipping anywhere. Then the arrival of a new minister is the perfect opportunity to remind the wider community that the church exists and tell them about everything that we have to offer them.
Traditionally on the first Sunday (often deliberately arranged to be a communion service) the minister will preach a “manifesto” sermon launching into a series “laying out his or her stall” of a vision for the church for the months ahead. But this can wait. Surely it would be better to use that first Sunday for a “come and meet our new minister” outreach service. That is something you could invite the whole community to come to – followed by generous refreshments. As well as word of mouth invitations and widespread leafleting you might have specific leaflets for fringe folk and even individual letters from the minister to lapsed members, at the same time offering them a home visit. The arrival of a new minister is also one of the very few events in the life of a church which local press and radio might see as sufficiently newsworthy to report. If all that publicity has been effective, you might hope to see new faces in the following few weeks too. So those services will not be the start of a series aimed at church members but again services oriented at outreach for folk new to, or coming back to, church. Churches could create other opportunities to welcome the new minister: a special Youth or Family Service; special occasions with the Women’s Meeting or the Toddler Club introducing them to their new minister. Events with food are surprisingly popular. It is easy to make a video of the “First Sunday” service and you could show that video (not the video of the Induction) to these other groups, and make it available on DVD for anybody who wants to watch it at home. A simple direct to camera message, “Hello, I am your new minister and I am looking forward to getting to know you,” will also fit very nicely as an introduction on such a DVD.
To mark the beginning of the new ministry the church will want to revamp its website and its Facebook page. (Of course every church needs a website – how else can we expect people under 40 to know we exist!) So the publicity which goes out to the community for the minister’s first Sunday will also encourage folk to visit the church website or Facebook page. It will list the other activities the church offers and invite people to make contact by email, phone or text. (Since so many people, again under 40, prefer sending texts to actually speaking to a person the church will need a mobile phone capable of receiving texts and voicemail messages. Coincidentally pay-as-you-go mobiles are inexpensive and some providers make no charge for listening to voicemails.) To encourage new folk to stay in touch, we decided to give them each a pen carrying the web address and mobile number, which worked out not that much more expensive than a posh business card: other gimmicks are available, and memorable.
A church and minister who want to take every opportunity to generate and follow up new contacts in this way will need to do so within the window for events to welcome the new minister which only lasts a few weeks. In that period a minister is traditionally kept busy making home visits to his key leaders and church workers. But church members will keep on coming whether they are visited this week or next month. Whether a new contact or a lapsed member will ever be seen again could well depend on the minister offering and accepting the opportunity of a visit in those precious weeks. In this and many other ways, the church members need to be encouraged to put the needs of the stranger above themselves.
They say “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” I am grateful that my new church enthusiastically caught the vision of using the commencement the pastorate to reach out. In the first few months alone, families who had drifted away from the church returned to regular worship. Several new Christian families and other singles have came along to the church and decided to make their home with us, bringing toddlers into our worship for the first time for years. Attendance at both services increased and several years on we still see new faces in our services almost every week. Our Toddler Group doubled in size and there have been many other signs that from that beginning the church is now “on the radar” for many more people in the community. Long-standing members of the church have been very encouraged. Looking back, we were definitely off to a good start.