As I speak with pastors, one topic that comes up again and again concerns the difficulties faced when leading change in the church. Whether it entails the adjustment of a service time, the elimination of a beloved program, or changing a curriculum, or any other deeply-entrenched facet in the church, change is hard. So I want to offer 4 steps to leading change in the church. But first, allow me to offer one caveat:
If you’re within the first year—especially if you’re in the first six months at this particular church, stop. Don’t make any sudden changes.
I’m not kidding.
Unless someone is in sin or the building is going to fall down, you need to take the slow approach. If you’re new to the church, there’s a reality at play that you might not be aware of—they may have voted for you to serve as their pastor, but they don’t trust you yet. You haven’t earned it.
They want to; don’t get me wrong. But you haven’t walked through life alongside them enough just yet. Which means that as soon as your change runs into the slightest amount of friction, because “you” haven’t become part of who they would identify as “us,” it’s going to be perceived as “your” fault. As soon as the families they’ve sat beside in the pew for years begin to leave, they’re not going to be impressed with your pastoral experience in other churches or your seminary degree. And you and your idea will be the object of their frustration.
Don’t do it. Take the first 6–12 months in your new church to learn not just what the church is doing, but why they’re doing it.
Pastors often share their frustration that the church entrusts more authority to the deacon body than the Bible calls for. But, many times, the deacon body serves as the steady hand of leadership in the church while a litany of pastors move in, change things up, and move on to another church. Perhaps we ought to take into consideration that this isn’t the biblical pattern either.
Love your flock enough to slow down, be deliberate, and make changes after you’ve spent enough time among the flock to know why they do what they do in the manner in which they’re doing it. Once you’ve done that and you sense the need to make a change, then you’re ready to take the first step.
Communicate the Need
Take the time to express to the congregation why change is necessary. Perhaps it has been the case that the current slate of programs isn’t making disciples. Or maybe you’ve determined that people in the church aren’t connecting with other believers and Christian fellowship seems to be lacking. Maybe you’ve outgrown your worship space and need to move to two services to provide room for more visitors. It may be that you have been short on children’s educational space for months.
Whatever the reason you believe makes the change necessary—share that. I’ll let you in on a secret: your people can buy into a change that fixes a problem. But they don’t want to change for the sake of change.
Several years ago, a godly layman helped me see the importance of this aspect of leadership. In his previous church, they had faced difficulty raising enough money to begin construction of a new children’s building. They were out of space for the kids. But because the children were already out of sight (in their own space), the congregation wasn’t reminded of the need regularly enough. So, this layman contacted a construction company and had them go to the church property and dig a giant hole where the new building was to be. That way, every time someone drove past the church, they saw the need. Each time to drove up to attend worship, they were faced with the reality that they needed to give in order to build the children’s building to fill that hole.He understood the importance of communicating the need.
Share the Vision
Once you’ve communicated the need and “dug the hole” as it were, you get to cast the vision of how to meet that need. This is where the change you hope to make comes in to play. Because the church hasn’t been effectively reaching the lost, you think an evangelistic emphasis is necessary. Because the church hasn’t been effectively making disciples, you think a new program that emphasizes one-on-one discipleship, or a new Sunday School curriculum is needed. Because families have begun to feel disconnected, you want to ramp up the number of fellowship activities. Because you’re out of seats in the worship space, a new service is needed.
Whatever change it is that you’re hoping to make, share the vision of how it is that the change you want to implement meets that need.
Get people on board. Talk it through in one-on-one conversations. Discuss it with trusted advisors. Go speak with the people that you think are the least likely to get on board. (If you can win them over, even for a trial period, you’ve already laid the groundwork for a successful transition). And the manner in which you do this could take time. And this blends into the third step.
Lead the Change
Leading the change means that you should help your church get a running start toward the new initiative. Take the time to preach a sermon series devoted to the issue at hand. When I led a church to change their small groups from being individual Bible Study based to being sermon-based (meaning that rather than small groups purchasing a Bible Study curriculum, the church offered small group material that coincided with the Sunday morning sermon), I did so after a 6-week sermon series on small-group discipleship. Ironically, during that sermon series, we put all of our small groups on pause. When I had finished the series, I had explained why small groups were so important, why we believed our church needed to move to a community-based rather than age-based model, and why we wanted all groups to be on the same page content-wise. Ultimately, by the time the series was finished, the entire congregation was chomping at the bit, ready to try the new model.
But that would not have happened had I just announced the change and proceeded without helping our church see the need, see the change as meeting that need, and sense that this was a joint-effort on the part of the entire congregation.
But leading the change doesn’t stop at implementation. It continues. It means that you are attentive to every detail. It means that you are receptive to feedback. It means that you offer every resource at hand to ensure that the change you hope to make succeeds.
Evaluate and Adjust
Early in youth ministry I came across a piece of leadership gold that I offer to almost everyone I talk to about ministry.
Call every change an experiment.
The Small Groups Experiment. The Second Service Experiment. The Never-Go-Alone Experiment.
Whatever it is, call it an experiment. By doing that, you communicate a level of humility to the congregation that they’re not used to seeing in a pastor. You’re acknowledging that you’re not wed to this (whatever “this” is) as a solution. You’re asking them to commit to this change for 6 months (or enough time to be able to determine its viability). After that time, you’re willing to sit down and consider the possibility that either the solution isn’t working, or needs adjustment.
You’ve communicated the need. The congregation sees what you see. Something is broken (or in disrepair) and needs to be fixed. It needs a solution.
You’ve cast the vision. The congregation can connect the dots from the need to this as the proposed solution. This program or change is the stuff that you believe will fill the hole.
You’ve led the change. You’ve walked them right up to the change and encouraged them to invest themselves into seeing it succeed.
Now, be open to the possibility that your solution needs a little adjustment. Be receptive to feedback. If you’ve taken these steps, most of the feedback will come from people who genuinely want this change to succeed.
They don’t like holes in the ground. They want it filled just as much as you do.
Do you have any suggestions? Drop them in a comment below.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
Runner. Cyclist. 2nd Dan.
Roast Master at caffeinatedtheology.com.