Change is a reality of life, and if you are a church leader then leading change in the church will be something you will be uniquely familiar with. Because the church is people, and people change, it is inevitable. Change really means transition – a move from one state to another. In that sense, there is always change occurring around us – or even within us!
Being a leader means being an agent of change. As John Maxwell says, “leadership is influence”. Influence seeks to lead someone to make a change, so change is part of the church leaders job description.
Change does bring about tension, especially when we consider apostolic and prophetic tension and desired change. There is no growth without change, so it is not only a fact of leadership but also a fact of life. Change is intrinsic to the Kingdom of God because of the reality we live in today. Apostolically, heaven and earth are not yet fully in alignment. Arguably, the church’s mission is to bring in more of that alignment. Prophetically, what we see today is not what we are ‘seeing’ tomorrow. Hence, we live in both vertical and horizontal tension.
Types of Change
There are four types of change most common in churches:
Firstly, there is a missional change. That is a change of purpose or re-examining of the ‘why’ that you exist to fulfil.
Secondly, there is a directional change. This is when there is a change of vision or the ‘where’ you are heading towards.
Thirdly, there is a cultural change. This is a change of values, priorities and ‘who’ you are.
Fourthly, there is a structural change. This is a change of people or activity or the ‘how’ that you do things.
Each has its own unique challenges. The question is – how do we lead change well? How do we do it wisely? How can we manage change to be effective and as painless as possible?
Whatever the changes that are being proposed, different people will have different opinions on it. Change will be viewed by some as:
- Alarming or a threat
- Wasteful – time or money
- Much needed
People view change suspiciously, ultimately, for one of two reasons. Perhaps it is connected to what they see. This is a question of vision – perhaps they don’t like where they think the change will lead them. Alternatively, it is more about what they feel. This is a question of values – they don’t like what it will mean to be a part of things post-change. Perhaps they have different values or a different understanding of what those values demonstrated look like. Either way, whether it is a question of vision or values, people need to be pastored through change. Some people will be won over – but some won’t! Some people will take time to win over, and others need no persuading. All this different people types need different care.
As leaders, how can we lead change in the church well? I have ten suggestions that I believe will guide us during these moments:
Have a Clear Vision
Jesus saw the big picture. He had a long term view and saw the endpoint of his journey – the wedding feast of the Lamb. Between His now and then, He knew He would walk through the Cross and Resurrection. His vision helped him navigate changes, and lead others through too.
Leading towards the vision means that when we propose or make changes, we are lead people with us in a direction that they can see the same thing! Envisioned people envision others. Any worthwhile change should help bring the organizational vision closer, otherwise, it will lead to frustration amongst the people.
Understand The ‘Why’ Of Change
We need to know what we are trying to change, and why we are doing it. Jesus knew what his focus of change was. He was coming to seek and save (therefore bring about change) the lost.
Does your proposed change actually serve your vision? Can people identify why change is necessary? There is a difference between having a vision for change and making change for your vision. The first is a reactive change away from something; changing something for changing sake, without any connection to your overall vision. The second is a healthier, proactive change towards something, strategically considered and thought out. When completed, what does the change make possible that wasn’t before? If the answer is nothing, then I’d propose it is an unnecessary change.
One of the worst things leaders can do is make pointless changes out of boredom or frustration. Don’t have a change for change’s sake just to ‘mix things up’. If you don’t know what you are trying to do, or why, why will the people you ask follow you?
Persuade the Leaders & Influencers
Pursue key people who themselves will influence others. After Peter fell, Jesus pursued him to win him back; he knew Peter’s gifting would be needed with what was to follow.
As church leaders, we lead primarily through people. You will have influencers in your organisation as well as yourself. Some of these influencers will be positive influencers, and others negative! Win over people, and influence your influencers, because they will influence others! This naturally includes your leadership teams! Honour your leaders and bring them in early in the process for input and feedback. They’ll save you many conversations if bought on board early enough. It also means it won’t seem like this is just ‘your agenda’ – if you have others enthused and vocal, it won’t feel like you are the only person leading change in the church.
Set Strategic Goals
Define a strategy with definite goals. Jesus set his face like flint towards Jerusalem; He knew the steps He needed to take along the way to see His vision fulfilled.
This will show people you’ve thought the proposed change through, and it’s not a reactive or whimsical fancy. Have a strategy because some people will want to know it! For some, this will be enough to win them over and create buy-in because they will see the change is considered and not just a fad.
Honour and Value What You Are Changing
Jesus knew the importance of the history and traditions of the people and places He was seeking to change. He knew the law and fulfilled it so He didn’t alienate or offend people unnecessarily. He understood that if He didn’t value what was important to the people, they wouldn’t listen to his message. It built trust and credibility, so when He did challenge or provoke, it came from a place of stronger relational connection.
We need to meet people where they are at! We might not be as passionate or protective over an area, and the change we’re wanting to make might seem obvious or clear as day to us. But to others, this area of change could be impacting their ministry baby! Show them that the changes are good, wise, beneficial, and won’t violate people’s values – or their interpretation of values!
Demonstrating that we are aware and properly know the impact and implication of the change on people, systems, structures and other aspects of their world. Take your time; do your research; know the landscape before you plan redevelopments. You might affect something that you haven’t considered, and cause yourself unnecessary relational conflict. Unless something is toxic or dysfunctional, slow and thoughtful is best.
Consistently communicate your ideas in ways that people can understand. Jesus knew the culture and views of the place he was seeking to change. He spoke to them in ways they would understand, such as Parables, so they knew just what it was He was saying.
So communicate regularly with passion. Speak their language, use different imagery, don’t rely on just emotion, or just reason. Use stories and illustrations. No one follows half a heart! People need to be convinced to be envisioned, and need to be envisioned to be impassioned! Leading change in the church means we need to over-communicate instead of under-communicating.
Listen & Embrace Questions
A great way to create shared ownership in a project is by engaging with objections or questions. Often after Jesus demonstrated miracles or shared His teachings, the disciples would come to ask him questions. Jesus used these times to overcome obstacles and objections.
It’s important that we take time, listen to what people want to know, answer questions, and consider valid points. Don’t dismiss them. Don’t interpret them as antagonism; people might just be scared! Lead relationally, because that creates trust. Don’t try to impose change without being face to face with people. We all need time and space when thinking through changes, so be prepared and willing to pastor and shepherd people as they think through what you’ve already had the opportunity to think through yourself.
Pace Yourself Wisely
Walking with people really does mean walking at their pace. If you are an entrepreneurial or task orientated person, that will be a challenge as you want to get on with things. But if you race ahead and leave people behind, don’t be surprised if you turn round and no-one is with you. So be wise with the pace of change. Take people along with you. Jesus included His disciples in His ministry. They walked with Him and saw Him up close, interacting and observing – not just watching from afar.
So don’t run so far or so fast that people are left behind. Be mindful of pace and people’s hearts. Some people haven’t had your time to think things through or make their mind up. Maybe they are more conservative or are settled with the present. It’s reckless to make renovations to the house and at the same time kill the family! Find, consult and listen to counsellors who will give you other angles and information.
Identify catalytic actions that create momentum. Jesus turned water into wine, which immediately increased his credibility and authority in the eyes of others. This meant that He was able to use this increased favour and influence others how He wanted to.
For us, identify quick-wins or low hanging fruit – things you can do quickly and painlessly but that will have a visible and measurable impact. These could be changes that will make other key steps easier or even unnecessary. These are the perfect things to prioritize and do first. You never know, you might convince some people you know what you’re doing, win people over, and silence critics, all at the same time!
Keep Focused Yet Patient
Jesus only did what he saw his Father doing, and only said what He heard the Father saying. In that sense, he was single-minded in his focus. He kept doing what He needed to do and trusted God that the fruit would reveal itself in time.
Most of the time, change doesn’t have an immediate impact. Many things need to take root before they actually bear fruit. This is definitely true if you are looking to make a change to an existing culture. Other people need time to become familiar with the ‘new thing’ and get to grips with it. Give things, and people, time!
Leading change in the church is more of a challenge than in the workplace, because of the high percentage of volunteers that we are impacting with any transitions we want to bring through. Ultimately, we can play the ‘boss card’ with employees or staff, but whilst that might be effective in the short-term, in the long-term it erodes trust and creates an unhealthy climate. Realistically, change is slow but building slowly also allows us to build wisely. Better to take our time and be thorough than race ahead, without thinking things through, and hurt people, our church or even our own reputation!
To find out how I help leaders like you navigate changes in churches, click here.