A few years ago a preacher searching for a ministry position called an elder at a church that had recently lost their pulpit minister. Before inquiring about the nature of the search process that would soon begin, the preacher offered sympathies, knowing that the recent loss of a very talented and accomplished speaker must have been a blow to the church and the leadership team. The elder responded, “Well, we will miss his sermons, but he was a stranger to us.”
Of all the skills and preparations involved in coming to serve with a church, how much attention, intention, and importance is given to the practice of first joining the church and becoming a vibrant part of a specific body of Christ? Ministers come to serve in churches with dreams, varied skill sets, and often with degrees. Sometimes both the minister and the church can view this arrangement as a negotiation, a job description where the minister enlists his or her training, skills, and passions in play to change the church.
Paul Stevens and Phil Collins talk about the importance of a minister first “joining” the church, becoming a genuine part of the church system, before he or she can conspire with the church to bring about any change. They emphasize that joining a church is a process that involves much more than working out a job description, moving to town, and beginning to exercise ministerial gifts. It is a purposed effort of belonging, of coming to know the system so that the people perceive that the minister is genuinely a caring and knowing part of their community. This is a process that, when done well, can actually take between two and three years. Unfortunately, it can also be a process that churches and ministers fail to complete.
I love this quote from Stevens on what is necessary for a minister to partner with a church in experiencing transformative change: “It requires taking the risk of joining the church and taking the risk of being changed by this particular church.” 
I’ve heard ministers lament the fact that they struggle with enlisting and persuading the church to change or to follow their daring leadership. I wonder though, if sometimes what is needed is for the minister to show greater courage and boldness in giving his or her own life in covenantal commitment to the church he or she serves. Joining any system is difficult and scary, because to truly join means that I have to change.
Have we, as ministers in our congregations, opened up our lives in vulnerable ways so that God can change and mature us through his presence in our faith communities? Is the lack of involvement in our ministries tied to our failure to invest our own lives in loving participation in the breadth of the church’s life? Jesus understood that a good shepherd can only lead and serve a flock when the flock knows his voice and shares a common identity and belonging with that shepherd. They have become “his” sheep (John 10).
Joining a church requires paying attention to three areas:
- Attending to the whole of the church, not just individual members. Churches have their own personalities, practices, symbols, and traditions. Joining a church requires an understanding of the unique life of the church we come to serve, and bending our own preferences and wills toward that life.
- Participating widely in the “one another” life of the church. The importance of interacting and being present in congregational activities and assemblies, of greeting and blessing people as they enter and leave, of fully giving oneself at potlucks, of understanding the needs of the different groups that make up the church, of sitting in classes as a learner and not just attending classes for teaching—these all become important ways of joining the harmony of the church’s song.
- Understanding the goals, worldviews, and ways the church has related to others in the community. Ministers must come holding their own agendas very lightly, in humility, and first be willing to join with the people of God and help them discover together God’s agenda for this people at this time and place.
As ministers we come to join a body, a living organism, a system that already has a head—Christ Jesus. We hopefully come with the understanding that we are called to join this body and that we can only have influence when we have renounced the desire to be the head and become a part of the system that together strives to grow up into Christ.