7 common pitfalls every pastor should avoid in a new church role

November 26, 2019

A quaint story circulated among Methodists describes a young pastor fresh out of seminary who had just begun his first pastorate. As he drove up to the small church he noticed an old tree blocking the side doors into the building. In his exuberance he cut the tree down to show the congregation his decisive leadership. Unfortunately, no one told him that they believed that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had planted it hundreds of years earlier. He had one of the shortest pastorates on record after that.[1]

Even if this story is somewhat dubious, it captures what often happens in a new ministry when a new pastor is blind to potential pitfalls. Here are seven common pitfalls a pastor to a new church should seek to avoid.

Pitfall #1 – Cookie cutter: Thinking what worked before will work now.

“It’s a mistake to believe that you will be successful in your new job by continuing to do what you did in your previous job, only more so.”[2] This pitfall reflects a “one-size-fits-all” approach to ministry. Such thinking not only could be a mismatch for the church, but could stifle learning new ways to do ministry crucial to your continued growth.

Sometimes this pitfall shows up when we realize we’re talking too much about our previous ministry and our successes there. An occasional reference to your former ministry is fine. But when it becomes commonplace, your staff, volunteers, and people in the church may hear you imply that your prior ministry was better than your current one.

Pitfall #2 – Smartie-pants: Assuming you know all the answers.

I still remember an embarrassing conversation with a leader in my first church where I was lead pastor. We disagreed on an issue, and I recall saying, “I’m usually right on most things.” When I think back on that statement I cringe at the egotism I conveyed with that comment. I had failed to remember that Proverbs 16:18 warns that pride comes before a fall.

While not throwing caution to the wind, great leaders and churches must take bold steps of faith.

If those around you sense that you have all the answers, you’ll alienate them. Liz Wiseman, author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, calls these leaders “accidental diminishers,” leaders who in giving all the answers actually squelch ideas in others.[3] When that happens, others may withhold important information you need to know in your new leadership role. Getting correct feedback is crucial to successful onboarding, even if it’s not what you want to hear. A know-it-all attitude can stifle opposing perspectives you need to hear as a new leader. And failing to seek input from others can also convey a smartie-pants attitude. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you will never know it unless you intentionally seek out hidden information. 

Pitfall #3 – Failure to recognize the former leader’s lingering influence.

Often people will fondly remember the former pastor whose place you just filled, if he was well-liked. Failure to realize the former leader’s influence is a potential pitfall you want to avoid. Seek out insight from members about the former pastor’s strengths, weaknesses, and leadership style. However, avoid giving the perception that you want this information to boost how others view you or that you are criticizing what he did. Rather, communicate to those you ask that such insight can help you serve the church better.

Pitfall #4 – Blindsided: Failure to clarify expectations or prepare for surprises.

Here I use “expectations” to refer to what [those you report to] expect from you. If you aren’t clear on their expectations, even if you think you are performing well in the early days, you may be in for a surprise disappointment. 

In the pre-hiring phase, the better you understand your job description and unwritten expectations, the less unmet expectations will blindside you. Get answers to your questions for anything unclear. Talk to [those you report to] to further clarify what they want. And after you begin, continue dialoguing with them to make sure you continue to understand and meet what they expect. Prioritize healthy communication with them.

Another way to avoid surprises is to avoid setting expectations too high. Guard against making lofty promises you can’t keep. It’s better to under promise and over perform. Yet, don’t set expectations too low because you may lose the support of some of your high-performing people if they sense you are playing it safe by setting them low. 

You will face surprises in those first few months. Clarify expectations early to minimize them. When they come, don’t panic. And when your enthusiasm and the church’s enthusiasm wanes after a few months, which is inevitable when the “new’’wears off, don’t be thrown by that dip. Manage your response with God’s power. 

Pitfall #5 – Fire, ready, aim: Overemphasizing quick results.

Sometimes a new leader feels both a compulsion to do something quickly to prove his worth or takes too much responsibility for the ministry’s success. It’s natural to both want your church to believe they made the right choice and to put your stamp on the ministry. But trying to make a mark too soon without adequate information and buy-in may turn what seems like early wins into losses. Unless you have clearly defined reality and are listening well, acting too soon in big ways may send you down the wrong path. If you act too soon by focusing on tactics or move in multiple directions at once simply to create movement, you can confuse others about what’s truly important. Should this happen, you may be saying yes to good ideas at the expense of the best ideas. I recommend that new leaders prioritize spending time with key influencers just to listen. 

You’ll want to show visible movement during your first six months without wrecking things or losing support. And you’ll want to balance being with others with doing ministry tasks. As Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, said in his inaugural address as the U.S. was sharply divided over slavery, “Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.”[4]

Pitfall #6 – Scaredy-cat: Risk aversion 

Minimizing risk and maximizing safety can become an unhealthy trait for leaders. J. Oswald Sanders, who authored the book Spiritual Leadership, quoted a Christian leader who noted, “The frontiers of the kingdom of God were never advanced by men and women of caution.”[5] Great churches can’t play it safe, huddle and cuddle, strive for safety and security, nor guarantee comfort and convenience. While not throwing caution to the wind, great leaders and churches must take bold steps of faith.

Pitfall #7 – People pleaser: Saying Yes to too many things. 

Bad stuff happens to leaders who say Yes to too many things. You can lose control of your calendar. You can work too many hours. Your family can suffer. Stress can become toxic. And ultimately, your walk with Christ and your leadership can suffer.

Saying Yes is easy, and saying No is hard because when we say, No, we almost always disappoint somebody else. And when we disappoint another, at least for a few moments, his or her disapproving comments or facial expressions can make us feel rejected. And rejection actually hurts because social pain registers in our brain in the same place where physical pain registers.[6] Sensing another’s disappointment in us actually feels bad. That’s why we try to avoid it.

During your first six months it’s important to avoid adding unnecessary commitments to your already full schedule. Remind yourself that you don’t have to say Yes to every invitation or new ministry idea even though each request may initially sound good. Learn how to say No gracefully. This self leadership skill is perhaps one of the most important ones to help you manage your margins early on.

You may want to add other pitfalls to this list, but these seven cover some of the biggest pitfalls to avoid in a new church role.

Adapted from “Every Pastor’s First 180 Days: How to Start and Stay Strong in a New Church Job” by Dr. Charles Stone, Lead Pastor at WestPark Church, London, Ontario, Canada. 


  1. ^ Angie Best-Boss, Surviving Your First Year as Pastor: What Seminary Couldn’t Teach You (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999), pp xi-xii.
  2. ^  Ibid, Kindle e-book loc. 353.
  3. ^ “ARE YOU AN ACCIDENTAL DIMINISHER? |,” accessed April 29, 2016, http://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/are-you-an-accidental-diminisher/.
  4. ^ “Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States : from George Washington 1789 to George Bush 1989,” Text, accessed April 18, 2016, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.
  5. ^ J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence For Every Believer, New edition (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), Kindle ebook loc 2820.
  6. ^ Naomi I. Eisenberger, “Social Pain and the Brain: Controversies, Questions, and Where to Go from Here,” Annual Review of Psychology 66 (January 3, 2015): 601–29, doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115146.

Charles Stone

Charles Stone has been a pastor for 40 years in both the U.S. and Canada,and has authored six books and blogs at www.charlesstone.com. A lifelong learner, he has earned four degrees and pursued postgraduate study in the intersection of biblical truth with neuroscience insight. He’s been married to the love of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24