Going Back to Your Home Church: To Go or Not to Go?

Every now and then I get asked the question, “Should I go back and revitalize my home church?” This is a good question and one that has proponents on both sides. In an effort to answer the above question, let me outline the pros and potential drawbacks of going back to one’s home church.

Others, like my friend Elmer Towns, encourage pastors to go back to their hometown. (His ideas inspired this article.)

Some may point to the fact that Jesus commissioned the disciples to begin witnessing in Jerusalem, in their home region, and move outward toward the nations.

There are certainly reasons to consider on both sides.

Four reasons to return

There can be a hometown advantage.

By going to one’s home church, a church that knows and loves the pastor-to-be, one can potentially lead the church to embrace ideas they normally might not embrace. Don’t miss the importance of the words “loves you.”

If you are hated, there will not be much hometown advantage! But if they do love you, then there will be a lot of relational capital that can be spent on leadership decisions.

Relational capital is important in any leadership position, but it is especially important in revitalization. The more people know you, the more people trust you. Relational capital gives the pastor a home-field advantage. And if you are a sports fan you know teams love playing at their home stadium.

Contextual (or cultural) knowledge of the area and people

Those who go back to their hometown—unless they have been gone for a very long time—already have a contextual, or cultural, knowledge of the area. That knowledge can be very helpful for a church in need of revitalization. So, what kind of contextual, or cultural, knowledge does one have of their home church and town?

They know the types of people the church is trying to reach. By coming back, they will have fresh eyes in looking at the same people.

One returning to a home church may have many contacts and relationships in the community that has long existed. An outsider may not cultivate these relationships until years down the road.

They know the rhythms of the community. While some things may have changed since they last lived in the community, many things probably haven’t. Is high school football still the hottest ticket in town? Is the community part of “high society”? What is the center of business? Do most of the women work outside the home, and if so are they in profession or service industries? Are the schools good or struggling? Thus, they know where the hot spots are, the most attended community festivals, the big events, and some of the greatest needs in the community.

Institutional memory is an advantage to the returning pastor

Possessing an institutional memory can also be a strong benefit for someone who plans to go back to the home church. Institutional memory is similar to insider trading, except being legal!

An institutional memory provides the hometown pastor with some insider knowledge that serves as advantages a pastor coming in from the outside may otherwise not have. Such an advantage can lead to a more successful revitalization.

Someone coming back to a home church has personal knowledge (and experience) of the church’s history. Knowing that pastor Jess was a jerk, or that pastor Pat was pushed out, or pastor Matt made these mistakes, is very helpful.

Someone returning to a home church has a working knowledge of who the power brokers are. Understanding that Take-it-Easy Tom isn’t much for risk-taking, or that Negative Nancy says no to everything, or Know-it-All Kris knows what’s always best for the church, or that Bell-Cow Bob thinks he speaks for the church can be vital information for the pastor who strategically plans out the revitalization process.

Institutional memory also provides insight as to how a church is structured. Again, barring no major changes since the perspective pastor was last in the church, chances are it remains a very similar place. Knowing the inner workings and processes of the church can prove to be invaluable as the pastor navigates much-needed changes.

Returning home can be a catalyst for growth

God could potentially use going back to one’s home church and hometown as a catalyst for growth. It would be certainly dependent on one’s past circle of influence, depth of relationships, and reputation, but going back could create a buzz among the members as well as others. The created buzz could lead people to invite their friends and family to come back and see and hear so and so who has come back to pastor. Going back home could be just the thing to create some much-needed momentum in the church as it seeks to be revitalized.

Yet, it is not always a great idea.

Drawbacks to returning

The pastor’s past can be an issue.

A pastor’s past could hinder a homecoming.

If the pastor has a tainted past, one full of mistakes and scars, it may not be the most prudent decision to go back and pastor the home church. Obviously this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t forgive one’s past, He certainly does, but some people may have a hard time seeing the pastor with a tainted past leading and preaching to others. Sometimes when people know the height of our stupidity and our mistakes, it makes it harder for us to lead.

The perception others have of the pastor

The perception others have of the pastor could be an obstacle to leadership. If people remember him as “little Joey” his leadership will be in trouble. If this is the case, there will be a perception problem.

The perception problem is that people would still see Joey as a kid, someone who is young and immature, which will hinder his ability to effectively lead the church. If people have a difficult time seeing one in a position of authority overseeing them and the direction of the church, it may be best for Joe(y) to not making a homecoming.

A current staff member who wants the position

A returning pastor will be wise to wait until the church makes a clear decision.

If a current staff member expresses interest in the pastoral opening, or if a group in the church is lobbying for one of the current staff members to be the next pastor, it may be an indicator that a homecoming will be a bad move. Not only does the possibility exist for the returning pastor’s ministry to be stymied, but it can create a rift between the pastor and the staff member who wanted the position.

A returning pastor will be wise to wait until the church makes a clear decision on that staff member, or decline to pursue the opening.

My Thoughts

“To go or not to go,” that is the question! I’ve been asked it more than once.

First, let me say that you should do that the Lord calls. I’m simply trying to provide some thoughts to the process.

My view is that, as a whole, there is greater potential for one going back and revitalizing their home church, and it is a net positive.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles & books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Executive Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than one million individuals each week. Stetzer is also Executive Editor of Facts & Trends Magazine, a Christian leadership magazine with a circulation of more than 70,000 readers. In 2015, he began serving as the co-host of the BreakPoint This Week radio program with John Stonestreet. He also serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries.