I’m about three weeks away from completing my first year as the new Senior Pastor of our church. In many ways, it has been a fantastic year. I’m privileged to be leading and pastoring in such a great church filled with great people.
As I came into this new role I had one goal in this first year, listen and learn. In doing so, I’ve learned three important lessons about leading through listening, especially in your first year of leadership.
1. Listening is how you learn the story. Our church has been around for a little over twenty-five years. That means our story spans a little over a quarter of a century. In this first year, I have heard quite a bit of that story. I’ve heard about how the church started at a nearby park building, met in a YMCA for a while, and then, in at least two schools before we started to hold services in our current building. I’ve heard about the legacy of the sending church that helped to start, not only our church but roughly ten other churches in our city. I’ve even been able to meet some of the founding members who have since moved on to other churches for a variety of reasons. I’ve also heard many stories of how people have been impacted by our church and have come to know Jesus here long before I was around.
Our church has a wonderful legacy and it has been important to understand, learn, and honor that legacy. When taking the time to listen and learn about an organization’s history, whether church, business, or nonprofit, it’s humbling to realize that many good people have put in lots of blood, sweat, and tears before you ever showed up.
2. Listening is how you build trust. What people knew of me before I got here wasn’t much. Those who interviewed and vetted me knew more than others, but the only real way you get to know someone is through spending time with them.
Leading, especially in a church setting, is all about navigating relationships. On any given day, I’m navigating through relationships with our elder team, staff members, volunteer leaders, congregation members, partnering organizations, and the neighborhood/community. Whether they realize it or not, when they all first meet me, one of the first things they want to know is, “Can I trust him? Is he here to serve the church and community or himself?”
One of the best ways to build trust is to listen and learn. To hear people out and seek to understand their stories, fears, and concerns about the future. There is a really good chance that they have way more invested in the church/organization than you do. They care deeply about its future and want to know that you are someone they can trust and follow.
3. Listening is how to move forward. With the change of leadership in any organization comes a new season/chapter for the organization. These new seasons and chapters are good and necessary. Without change, innovation, and evolution, an organization will at best get stuck, and at worst begin to die. However, leading in a new context with a longstanding history is tough. People are often more comfortable with where they are or where they’ve been. For many people, moving into uncharted territory is uncertain and scary.
As the new leader, the best way to begin that new chapter is through listening and learning. It’s only after getting to know the story of the organization, the people, and establishing yourself as someone who can be trusted, will you have the credibility to lead people to a place they’ve never been before.
This sort of leadership is slower than most leaders prefer. The reason most leaders lead is that they want to see change and progress. And they often want to see it sooner rather than later. But in the end, the patience pays off.
So don’t rush. Take your time. Keep your ear to the ground and become a learner before you become a leader.