by Rev. Dr. Jack L. Daniel

A honeymoon is a time for newlyweds to celebrate and establish trust in a relaxed setting before beginning the hard work of building a life together. But honeymoons aren’t just for marriages. We apply the term “honeymoon” widely to describe that early period, say in a new job when relationships are hopeful, and judgment is suspended. Pastors and their churches have honeymoons, too. The honeymoon follows an accepted call. It’s a time for pastor and congregation to get to know each other and build mutual trust. Each party, open and hopeful, wants the relationship to work. A congregation is eager to extend this grace period to a pastor; they want the relationship to succeed. It is so important for a pastor to understand the honeymoon phenomenon and use it to establish trust. This trust will be much needed further along as the pastor leads the congregation forward through change.

A huge danger for pastors is to misunderstand the purpose and opportunity that a honeymoon represents for their ministry. As pastors, we are tempted to misinterpret the favorable climate of the honeymoon as acceptance of the agenda we are bringing. When a pastor’s new ideas are greeted with smiles and nods at a board meeting, the pastor may mistakenly assume the board is in agreement. But just because a call was extended does not mean there is a mandate for change.

After more than 40 years in church revitalization settings, I am convinced that the most common mistake that a new pastor makes—and it is often a disastrous one—is to try to introduce significant change before a foundation of trust and mutual affection has been built. If the pastor is patient in building this foundation, the process of leading necessary change later will be that much easier.

Conventional wisdom was that the honeymoon is a time to quickly “rip off the bandage.” In other words, if major change is needed, then do it soon and get it out of the way. This has often been the advice given to new pastors. I am guilty of trying this strategy myself. It may have worked in the past, but in our current church culture, there are too many hurting people and too much suspicion of organized religion to force change in this way. Rule number one is “Go Slow,” and rule number two is “Don’t Forget Rule Number One.”

To make major changes at the beginning of a pastor-church relationship is to take unfair advantage of the season of favor the congregation has extended. The better response is to learn to love the people God has called you to shepherd. There will be plenty of time to introduce and lead change down the road. The honeymoon is not that time. That said, the honeymoon is not an idle time either.

My observations, and my mistakes, have taught me a lot about beginning well in a new ministry. Here is my list of the “dos” and “don’ts” for the pastor-church honeymoon.

Think of Your Members as Family. Some of your members maybe twice or three times as old as you. Think of them like you would your parents or grandparents. How hard would it be for them to adjust to the changes you are hoping to introduce? The Apostle Paul gave this same counsel to Timothy and to us when he wrote, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your FATHER. Treat younger men as BROTHERS, older women as MOTHERS, and younger women as SISTERS, with absolute purity” (II Timothy 5:1-2). This is a profound truth that guides us in all our relationship with our people. Its wisdom is that even if we grew up in a very dysfunctional home, we automatically know how to relate in love to our family. If we can relate to our spiritual family, older or younger, as we would to our biological family, we will more likely treat them with gentleness, patience, and kindness.

Visit All Your Members in the First Year. Get to know your people and let them get to know you. Visit them at home, in their workplace, over coffee, or in your home. Make it a point to meet all your people one on one or in family groups on their terms. As you see them in their world, listen to their stories, ask them about their hopes and dreams for the church. Ask them for their advice on how you should be leading. Then, end your visit by praying for them. Going forward, you will likely visit only in times of crisis; the honeymoon is the time to visit them just because they are your flock.

Be Accessible to Your People. Maintain regular office hours. In this age of the virtual office, it’s important to have a convenient, confidential physical space that you call your office. Publish the hours when you will be there. Knowing when you are in your office makes it easier for them to reach you and signals that you are an accessible, approachable person. Preferably, your office hours should be at the church. Having your office in your home makes it difficult to have proper boundaries, not to mention confidential conversations. When people do not know the facts, they can assume the worst. If they cannot see you working, they may assume you are not working.

Conform to Their Culture and Customs. Remember, this church was their home long before it became yours. Many of the church’s traditions may seem odd, outmoded, or even exclusionary. However, these traditions are what give meaning and a sense of belonging to the people. This congregation has cared for and guided the church without you. Pastors have come and gone, but a core of lay leaders have done their best to steward the church, its property, its mission. So, before you jettison some seemingly outmoded program or tradition, take some time to understand where it came from and what its purpose was.

Early in my ministry, my church held an annual fall fair to raise money to help fund the budget. I had an ethical objection to the church selling goods: the congregation should support the ministry, not ask “the world” for support. I also had a pastoral concern that the fair took time and energy that should be spent on ministry. When I raised these concerns with the leaders, I received such strong pushback that I decided if I couldn’t fight them, I’d join them. So I pitched in and helped.

In the process, I learned the origin of the fair. It had been started years earlier by retired women, mostly mill workers, who were now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s and living on small fixed incomes. They used their skills in baking, sewing, knitting, and crafting to make items sold at the fair. To them, this was ministry. They made up through this effort what they lacked in money to donate. The Lord showed me that I was using my theological correctness to rob these dear saints of this ministry. Had I persisted, I would have acted ignorantly, and without love. I was glad I listened to them and the Holy Spirit and made the effort to understand this tradition. And of course, over time, the fair faded away.

Learn Your Church’s History. Was it planted with a noble, godly vision in mind? An evangelistic effort to reach a new part of the community? A group praying for revival? A mission enterprise? Into what covenant with God did those founding members enter? Sometimes, a church can reclaim that founding vision and recast it for a new generation. It may mean that in the future, as you seek to launch a new ministry, you can truthfully state, “We HAVE done it this way before,” a counter to those dreaded words, “We have NEVER done it this way before.” In my own church, I was able to leverage our 1846 founding on the issue of the abolition of slavery. We were able to recapture that noble vision to become a church that likewise cared for the least in our community and in the wider world. Over time, our church became involved in refugee resettlement, pregnancy care centers, homeless shelters, prison evangelism, and support for victims of human trafficking.

Familiarize Yourself with the Church’s Documents. Digest its bylaws, covenant, statement of faith. In time, those documents may change, but for now, accept them and become conversant with them. Those documents may be a tool that the Holy Spirit will use to help renew your church. They tell the story of who this church is. You can remind your people about who they (or their forebears) said they were. You can then lovingly challenge them to live up to their heritage.

Meet Your Neighbors and the “Town Fathers.” Get out into the community and meet the other clergy, the city and school officials, and the merchants. Depending on the size of your community, they will already know of your arrival. But meeting them on their turf will show your respect for them and your desire to be part of their community.

Preach the Simple Gospel. In the beginning days of your preaching ministry, it is vital to “keep the main thing the main thing.” As young pastors, we often come into our first church preaching the sermons we preached in Bible school or seminary, where we were preaching to our professors and fellow students. If your congregation has experienced a time of division or legalism or is just demoralized and tired, it needs the milk of the basic gospel message of God’s love and grace in Jesus. Stick with the basics, encourage your people, build up their biblical literacy, and their confidence in Christ.

Pray and Stay. I sometimes found it helpful to slip into the sanctuary on a Saturday night and, with the lights low, visualize my people seated in their pews. I would then simply pray for them, and for me, that I might be a faithful servant of the word in the service the next morning.

Assure your congregation that you plan to stay. No one knows the future, and God may call you to leave after a few years, but generally, longevity is needed to see a church thrive. One of the most important messages a pastor can convey to a congregation is his or her intention to stay. If previous pastoral tenures have been short, your congregation may assume your stay will be brief, and they will be reluctant to embrace any changes you envision. Believe that God will keep you there as long as needed. Remain at your post until He clearly leads you on.

The honeymoon is a time for waiting on God and listening to your people. It is a time for you to learn who they are and let them know who you are. It is not an idle time, but rather a very fertile time when bonds of love and trust are planted and take root, forming a strong foundation for your ministry.

—Excerpted and adapted from Patient Catalyst: Leading Church Revitalization, by Jack L. Daniel, Overseed Press, 2018.