Over the years pastors have asked me about my process for getting to know a new congregation which I first learned about from Dr. Jim Jackson when he served as the Senior Pastor of Chapelwood UMC in Houston, TX. I’ve used this process in two different churches and a modified version in my current context. I hope you find it helpful.
Upon entering a new congregation a great way to get to know your congregation is to hold neighborhood gatherings throughout your new community. Here is a quick step by step process you can use to do the same.
- Find the persons best able to organize these for you. For me it was the church secretary in all three churches. You need someone who knows the community and the congregation well enough to figure out how to best do this.
- Ask this person to group the congregation’s members/prospects into neighborhood segments. This will be most easily done using a good database program which I hope your new church has. Some churches have access to MissionInsite which has some ways of doing this pretty easily. The groups should be about 20-30. Some may be more, and some less.
- Once the groups have been put together have the person assisting you choose a good host/hostess for the gathering. You’ll need to find someone who has a large enough home to accommodate the number of people and preferably find someone with hospitality gifts. Have your assistant (or you might be even better) ask this person personally to host the gathering. Find a time that is convenient to them.
- Scheduling: This is the hardest part of doing this method. You need to find the best times that you can commit to doing this. In one church I held nine neighborhood gatherings, so scheduling wasn’t too hard. In another church I held 25 of them, so it was much more difficult to put these on my calendar and spread them out. I had to change this process at my current church because I would have had to hold over 150 of them to accommodate all the members. Typically I scheduled two every Sunday: one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Then I scheduled two others on evenings during the week. These gatherings typically lasted about two hours (I’ll describe the schedule below). At this rate I could hold about four per week. Once you’ve decided when you can hold them and find hosts to host them, you’re ready to start inviting neighbors!
- I began the neighborhood gatherings in August and continued them through October. This is a good time to start. This may mean that you will have to spend less time doing other things during this busy season of the church calendar. Hopefully your staff and members will recognize how vitally important these gatherings are in addition to the other church events on the calendar. I did not preempt any church programming for these gatherings, but I did lessen some of my responsibilities as I added this to my plate.
- The Gathering: The gatherings have three main purposes. First, it is a way for you to meet the members/prospects of your congregation in smaller, more informal settings. A secondary benefit is that members of your congregation meet one another in a smaller, more informal place. At one neighborhood gathering two members met for the first time. I discovered they had been sitting 12 feet from one another in worship for several decades. It took a neighborhood gathering for them to finally meet! A second goal is for you to get a chance to truly listen to the members of your congregation. During the meetings I asked the members to briefly (you have to emphasize this) describe what first brought them to the church and when. For this question I go around the room and allow each person to speak. The second question I typically ask openly to the group, “What dreams do you have for our church?” Listening to how the members of your congregation answer these questions will tell you a lot. You’ll hear of the great past of the church, and you’ll hear their attitudes about the future. The final goal of the meeting is for your new church members to hear from you. This is a time to talk briefly about your life history and then share with them about your core values for ministry. It is also a good time to invite them to lean into their vows of membership. In my tradition persons commit to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This is a good time to define what those commitments are and ask them to renew their commitment to them. I prepared a small handout that outlined the things I wanted to share so they could take it with them. Jim Ozier, in his book The Changeover Zone, describes a similar process and suggests some other similar questions. I recommend his book for any transitioning pastor!
- The gathering schedule: Typically I allow 20-30 minutes of informal visiting and refreshments. You’ll need to ask your host/hostess to prepare some appropriate refreshments for the gathering. This time of gathering is important so that you can meet people informally and it sets the atmosphere as friendly and welcoming. Gather the group together for formal introductions. This is when you ask the two questions above. This will take 45 minutes to an hour. Reserve the last 15-30 minutes for your remarks. Conclude with a time of prayer for the church and it’s future.
Over the course of however long it takes you to hold these meetings you will meet, listen to, and share with a majority of the members of the congregation. In the church where we held 25 gatherings I met with more than 450 persons. Once you’ve done this you will likely know more about the church and its members than just about anyone else in the congregation. Beyond the actual knowledge you will gain, the congregation will discover that their new pastor desires to know them and listen to them, and you will have a head start on casting vision and shaping the culture of the church as their new leader.
This is hard to do. There are hundreds of reasons why you “can’t” do this. I modified it for my current context to make it easier, but it wasn’t as effective. Learning your congregation is one of your main tasks as an incoming pastor, this may be some of the most valuable time you will spend in ministry. I encourage you to give it a shot.