Be it worship style, organizational structure, methodology, or service times, the need for change or lack of change is—somewhere, some way—causing friction in your church right now. Not many of us understood this when we signed up for ministry, but we found out quickly enough that change is both our primary task and our most common source of conflict. Here are some realities about change that might help us all understand the change process better.
We are in the people-changing business.
This is a fundamental truth, yet sometimes we focus almost exclusively on organizational change. It helps when I consider that sanctification is a lifelong process of becoming like Jesus, and none of us really enjoys that painful process, even when we desire it deeply. It is then easier to understand why corporate change is so much more difficult and complex.
Before I begin hatching pastoral plans of massive organizational change, I’m learning to take a look at the hard evidence of how God is working (or not), first in me, and then in the lives of the people around me. If we’re not being continually formed into the image of Christ (Galatians 4:19), something is wrong.
When our people begin to grow in maturity and grace, the fear of change loses some of its bite. Paul understood that. Throughout his letters, he intermingles instruction for personal change with instruction and admonition for corporate change. In leading change, I’ve sometimes failed to remember that this glorious body of Christ is made up of dependent and sometimes weak members. I want to make sure everyone is shepherded as we move forward, even those who exhibit signs of spiritual immaturity or weakness.
Change is not our enemy, entropy is.
Some church staff and most of our members still suffer from the delusion that ministry is about maintaining the status quo, which I’ve heard is Latin for “the miserable mess we’re in!” But even a cursory look at examples like Moses, Joshua, David, Paul, and especially Jesus, shows that directing change is job one for anyone who serves God through a leadership role.
The laws of thermodynamics govern heat and energy, but they also give us a metaphor for organizations. Entropy is, in simple terms, the inevitable loss of energy leading to a state of “cooling off.” Just as a hot cup of coffee often seems to cool before we can drink it, so a church seems to cool before we move ahead. Jesus called such a church “lukewarm” (Rev. 3:16) and gave a vivid picture of how distasteful it was to God. Once we convince ourselves and our churches that the effects of not changing are of greater consequence than the effects of change, we’re on our way toward greater health.
An accurate cost/benefit analysis of the proposed change is our best ally.
I am the kind of guy who’s always trying to improve on what already is. But I’m married to a woman who thrives in an environment of consistency and predictability. She is in the majority, along with most of the people in our churches. I’ve come to see that leaders who long to see God’s preferable future come into being are in the minority. However, that’s why we are called to effect change.
“What’s it going to cost?” and “What’s in it for me?” are questions that everyone will be asking. We might as well surprise them and answer those questions on the front end of the discussion so they’ll know we have already wrestled with them and counted the cost.
We are currently exploring the possibility of a second site for our growing congregation. (We are debt-free, and just about out of room in three back-to-back Sunday morning services.) There will be a financial cost, and that is actually the easiest cost to calculate. There will be emotional costs, such as asking people who have fond memories of our current facility to start worshiping at an elementary school much nearer to their homes. There may also be a cost to our reputation as we expand and other churches mistakenly believe that we’re trying to “take over.” Then there will be the costs you just can’t plan for. Anyone who’s ever remodeled a room in their home knows, no matter how well you plan, it almost always ends up costing more in the end than you anticipated.
We frequently say to our folks, “Your willingness to be inconvenienced so that others may be impacted by the gospel is a measure of your spiritual maturity.” We acknowledge up front that obeying God always costs something. But we are asking our people to make a sacrifice of their own comfort so that they can be part of God’s great work in the redemption of our community.
Answering the “What’s in it for me?” question brings us back to the primary purpose of the church. This second site will help us reach people with the gospel. We operate from a decentralized strategy. Our gospel-centered, missional small groups (we call them Base Camps) are the tip of the spear in our desire to fulfill our vision: “To establish biblical community on every street in the Tri-Lakes region.”
There is no more powerful catalyst for personal spiritual growth, and no more fulfilling way to live than by being actively engaged in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It’s a losing battle to appeal to people’s more self-centered motives. In bringing about kingdom change, we appeal to the highest motives of God’s people if we want them to be changed in the greater process of change.
Don’t confuse inflicting change with leading change.
In my early years (when I had more energy than wisdom!), I couldn’t understand why people weren’t as enthusiastic as I was about any proposed change. I was unwilling to go through the long, slow, repetitive process of letting people work through their objections and discomfort. If it was in my power, I’d force the change, believing that soon everyone would see why it had been necessary. What happened instead was that people simply left, often hurt and angry.
I’ve learned that I can’t draft people into change. They must choose to enlist. Even my biggest fans will drag their heels when I say “Let’s go right now” without first saying why and where. My job is to create hope and anticipation with the future, while also helping others feel a dissatisfaction with the way things are presently.
Creating instability and fear in a congregation is not leadership, it is irresponsibility.
Those who oppose our plan for change are not heretics. Not everyone will catch a leader’s vision for that church’s future. That doesn’t make them evil, or stupid, or even wrong. Too often we start to regard the “holdouts” as enemies, not brothers and sisters. Once an “us and them” mentality develops, everything goes to a whole new level of complexity.
It’s worth finding out why people oppose this change. Is it the preferable future I am describing, or the means to that future that they oppose? It’s easy for me to say, “Well, they don’t want to see the church grow,” when maybe they do, they just don’t believe my proposal will make it happen. I can only find that out if I maintain a healthy relationship with those who oppose me. People have a way of acting like people. Am I mature enough as a leader and as a believer to handle that reality? Am I willing to simply listen, and demonstrate that I’ve heard their heart, before I launch into my rebuttal?
Forget consensus and expect polarity.
Waiting around for everyone to get on board is almost always a subconscious mechanism for avoiding conflict or for avoiding the change altogether. True consensus is a rare event in any group, especially a local church. In most of our American churches, the will of God is always at the mercy of public opinion. But if I can lead the influencers to hear God’s voice on this, and they then will state with confidence, “God is in this,” they can influence others, and most of us can move ahead in spite of the vocal minority.
I can’t change an organization without changing myself.
Any significant change will demand more of me than I have to offer right now. If the vision I’m casting is really of God, it exceeds all my natural gifts, abilities, insights, and even character. But if I’m seeking His face during it all, He will do more in me than I can ever imagine. And even if the organization doesn’t change, I will, to His glory.
Like a lot of pastors, I began my ministry in stagnant, dying churches. I remember an encounter with an older, wiser pastor while serving one of these churches. After I poured out my heart to him, he gave me a sad smile, put his arm across my shoulder and said, “Ed, I don’t know what, if anything, God will do with this church. But I know He loves you and wants to use this experience to make you a man after His own heart.” Suddenly, everything was a little clearer even though it was painful to hear.
Change creates change.
How many of us have heard the advice, “Now, don’t change anything for at least your first year.” While major changes may best be accomplished later when we’ve gained credibility, a year’s worth of maintenance sends a wrong signal. Instead, focus on easy-to-swallow, low risk, high return changes. It allows us to build momentum, which is our greatest ally.
One of the many benefits of long-term pastorates is the ability to create an environment where change is the rule, not the exception. Certainly, it is possible to lead too far, too fast. But as one success builds on another, credibility escalates, and the process and result of change loses its ability to inspire fear. People eventually realize that only God’s Word and those principles drawn from it are unchanging. Everything else is subject to remodeling if it will help us better accomplish our biblical purposes.
A change agent always lives in two worlds.
We must simultaneously be both where our church is, and where it is going. That’s hard for a leader to do, because the future is frequently a more compelling world than the one we’re standing in, and leaders want to get there as quickly as possible. But there are many, many others who prefer a predictable present to a possible future.
If I’m living too far out into the future, I leave everyone behind. Yet I cannot give all my energy to the here and now, or I won’t be able to lead. Somehow, I must find the strength, hope, and courage to be there and here at the same time.
Leaders who will most impact the kingdom of God are those who are consistently leading people toward God’s best rather than settling for man’s “good enough.”
Ed Rowell is the lead pastor at The Ascent Church in Monument, CO, previously known as Tri-Lakes Chapel. Ed believes his calling is to be a catalyst for change in the American church, abandoning those practices and habits that hinder us from fulfilling the original, simple intent for the church as taught by Jesus. He also a Leadership Coach, Strategist, Author, Journalist, and more.
This article originally ran in the Spring 2013 edition of Let’s Worship Magazine.