I arrived at First Church 15 years ago this month to begin my service as Senior Pastor. In the months prior to my arrival the church had experienced a great many changes, most especially the unexpected loss of its Senior Pastor followed closely by a couple of Associate Pastors and a Parish Associate. A beautiful new sanctuary had recently been completed and dedicated, but a mortgage debt of over $3 million remained to be paid. Several parts of the facility (including the previous sanctuary and McClure Hall) were badly in need of renovations which had been neglected while all the funds and energies available were poured into the sanctuary. This was a church with phenomenal potential but with a lot of immediate needs and problems. Members and regular attendees had enjoyed the preaching ministry of Interim Pastor Bob Smith and were uncertain about what to expect from me, the new preacher from Pennsylvania.

Conventional wisdom for professional clergy maintains that a pastor should make few if any changes in the first year, but I didn’t follow that wisdom. I was convinced that the people of First Church were eager for leadership and were willing to follow. Here are the changes that I prioritized very early in my ministry.

(1) Missions. When I asked to see the church budget, I was puzzled by what seemed to be an omission. I saw no listing of missionaries or amounts provided for their support. When I asked the treasurer if the mission budget was maintained separately, he assured me that it was included in what I’d been given. He pointed to a single line item: “Peace River Presbytery, $50,000.” Those funds were sent annually to the Presbytery to be forwarded to the denominational mission agency with absolutely no designation and no accountability. The first change I asked Session to make, in my very first meeting with them, was that they agree that going forward our mission giving would be designated to individuals and projects. The benefit of this would allow us to know and form relationships with those we supported. This would open the door to visits from them and let us evaluate how well they were doing. The result was that the congregation’s passion for mission support exploded from $50,000 a year to over $500,000—all because we can now see where our gifts go and what they accomplish.

(2) Books. As someone who loves to read and share good books with others, I resolved from the beginning to promote reading Christian literature within our congregation. In 2004 we selected Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (which was a current bestseller), ordered a lot of copies and sold them at a discount on Sunday mornings. The hunger to read grew. Eventually we created the BookCenter, providing great Christian resources at discounted prices to our church and community. My deeply-held conviction is that a reading Christian is a growing Christian!

(3) Worship Enhancements.When the new sanctuary was built, the architects had wisely provided for the use of large video screens in their design. From the beginning of my preaching ministry I decided to use those screens for all aspects of worship, from words of the hymns, to Scripture
readings, to images that would illustrate and enhance the messages. I also decided to de-emphasize the large pulpit in the center of the chancel which distanced the pastor from the congregation and blocked the view of the choir; before long the pulpit was removed completely. I brought with me from my previous pastorate the tradition of printing the manuscripts of my messages so that people could take them home to read or share with others.

(4) The Role of the Pastors. Some large congregations practice extreme specialization on the pastoral staff, but I believed that it would be healthier for First Church if all its pastors saw themselves, first and foremost, as generalists. All of us are equally available to the congregation and are involved in preaching, teaching and pastoral care. While each pastor has areas of primary focus, we are not isolated in silos of individual ministry. I believe this makes for a more harmonious staff and congregation, reducing personal and professional rivalries. It also allows us to cover for one another effectively.

“Dr. Doug Pratt is a rare combination of an experienced pastor and head of staff with a stellar track record, outstanding pulpit skills, deep personal commitment and empathy for people. He seems particularly well prepared to lead this congregation to new heights for the glory of God.”
– Ira Hawk (1926-2018)
Member of the Search Committee for Pastor Doug

One of the most important tasks of a Senior Pastor is to build, lead and support a gifted and dedicated staff. The key members of the team that I “inherited” and with whom I found a wonderful compatibility were Dan Oedy, then the lay Director of Christian Education who had not yet begun seminary studies; Elsie Nesbitt, in the newly-created position of Church Administrator; and Rita J. Flower-Opdycke, the first professional writer/editor I have ever had on my staff. My first hire was my own Executive Assistant from Pittsburgh, Donabeth Urick, who helped immensely in supporting me and “translating” me to the congregation. The second key hire a few months later was that of Dr. Paul Fahnestock who answered the call to become an Associate Pastor; Paul and I had worked together nearly 15 years earlier in Wichita. It is so valuable for a new leader to have team members he can trust, and who share a common vision and common faith!

by Pastor Doug Pratt