By Sam S. Rainer III
I am in the third year of serving as lead pastor at West Bradenton. Thankfully, my first two years were more joy than angst, defined by encouragement and not disillusion.
But even in a healthy church, the third year can bring frustration — for both pastor and congregation.
In the first year, the congregation tends to project certain qualities onto the pastor. “He kinda sounds like my pastor from my hometown. I liked him growing up, so maybe they will be similar.” Inevitably, people figure out the new pastor has little in common with their initial projections.
By the third year, the vast majority of the congregation is done projecting. People now know the pastor. A shuffling occurs. Some enter the church with excitement because they like the new direction. Others exit with disappointment because the new pastor does not meet their initial projections.
It’s important to note that projections are slightly different than expectations. Projections are the amalgamation of previous perceptions of other individuals cast onto a new person. For example, when you are the new pastor, people will think you look like a previous pastor, talk like another pastor, and lead like the pastor at the church down the road. It’s a common occurrence that is more unconscious than conscious. People in the church inevitably create a picture of you before they even know you.
Expectations tend to be more shared among the congregation. In fact, expectations might be explicitly stated to the church by whatever group is searching for the pastor. People can have different expectations of you; they are not as unique as the individual projections cast upon you.
You might think, What can I do to control someone’s projections of me? Clearly, you can’t get into everyone’s heads, but you can ask some questions to help mitigate the risk of collapsing projections, especially at the two-year mark.
- Have I spent enough personal time with people? The projections people have of you will inevitably go away. One way they fade rather than collapse is to spend time with people. Pastors who try to lead primarily from the pulpit — at a distance — will be the ones who tend to be jarred the most by shifting projections.
- Have I recognized my foibles out loud? Self-deprecating humor is a powerful tool for leaders. When you poke fun at yourself for your foibles, it disarms people and lessens the impact of misplaced projections.
- Have I listened to people who are leaving the church? There are good reasons to leave, and not every exit story is bad. But it’s hard. I cringe sometimes when I have to call someone who has decided to move to another church. When you completely ignore this group, however, you miss a grand opportunity to hear a narrative you otherwise might not hear. Don’t worry about the one-off, crazy stories. (“I’m leaving because the bathrooms smell!”) But pay attention to common themes.
- Do I know key leaders and their families? If you’re in year three and you don’t know the names of all your deacons, something is terribly wrong.
- Am I taking the initiative with people I don’t know? By the time pastors enter year three, they are beginning to create their own circles of leaders and friends. But you don’t know everyone yet! Make sure to reach out to those whom you don’t know. Ask your staff or other key leaders to point you to people whom you can contact.
The third year can be tough. But it can also be a fruitful year if you focus on relationships. Manage crumbling projections and you’ll likely have an easier path accomplishing your vision and strategy.
Sam S. Rainer III serves as president of Rainer Research, a firm dedicated to providing answers for better church health. He also is the senior pastor at Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN. He writes, speaks and consults on church health issues. You can connect with Sam at @samrainer or at his blog, samrainer.wordpress.com.