Change is hard.
Most people don’t like it.
Many church members resist it.
And it’s tough to lead the way.
But if you want to lead your church to healthy growth, you’re going to have to lead them through change. After all, churches that are stuck in the past can’t impact the present culture or make a difference for future generations.
William Vanderbloemen said it well in this article: “Living in the past keeps you from looking to God’s future for your church.”
But what do you do when you know change is necessary but your church doesn’t agree? How can you lead a church to change when the people want to stay rooted and grounded and stuck in the past?
[clickToTweet tweet=”How can you lead a church to change when the people want to stay rooted and grounded and stuck in the past?” quote=”How can you lead a church to change when the people want to stay rooted and grounded and stuck in the past?”]
Here are seven practical suggestions.
1. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Before we talk about what to do and what to say, let’s talk about the mindset you must have.
Miss this and every single action you take will be misinterpreted.
Church people, who like things the way they are, are NOT the enemy.
They just have their preferences.
They may be outdated. They may even be irrational. But they are their preferences and change is hard.
Most people don’t want to give up their preferences and aren’t at all interested in changing what they like. You and I don’t want to do it either. It’s human nature.
So let’s give people the benefit of the doubt.
- The old approach you want to change was once a new approach people fought to implement. The outdated thing that needs to be changed was once a new approach that came with a cost. There are likely people that fought hard to implement what you want to change.
- It’s easy to step into a situation and suggest changes to what other people started. But isn’t it a lot harder to throw YOUR ideas out the window? That’s a good perspective.
- People who like their church the way it is aren’t necessarily opposed to reaching people. They just like things the way they are. We all do.
- Older people struggling to adapt to a changing culture do not need a lecture, they need a pastor.
Yes, your church needs to change. But lead change with a shepherd’s heart, not an iron fist.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Lead change with a shepherd’s heart, not an iron fist.” quote=”Lead change with a shepherd’s heart, not an iron fist.”]
2. Publicly and continually acknowledge the sacrifices made in the past.
When Joshua assumed leadership from Moses and led the people into the Promised Land, he didn’t throw Moses under the chariot.
He assumed leadership and ushered in a new era for God’s people, but He did it in a way that honored the past. In fact, Joshua 1:7 tells us how the people of Israel connected Joshua’s leadership to what Moses began.
“As we followed Moses, we’ll follow you,” they said.
In order to lead your church to where God wants it to be, you don’t need to exclusively focus on the future.
[clickToTweet tweet=”In order to lead your church to where God wants it to be, you don’t need to exclusively focus on the future.” quote=”In order to lead your church to where God wants it to be, you don’t need to exclusively focus on the future.”]
You might need to remember the past.
This might mean recognizing people who served in previous years. This might mean publicly thanking previous pastors. This might mean creating physical memorials or displays around the campus.
The Bible is full of memorials and markers. In order to lead your church to the future, it’s not always necessary to abandon the past.
3. Find common ground.
Some people say “choose your battles wisely.”
But we’re not really fans of having battles and wars in church leadership. Instead, I want to encourage you to find common ground.
Set aside the battleground mentality and focus on creating unity of purpose.
For example, if a new pastor wants to lead a church to transition from a traditional worship style to a more modern approach, music and worship style is not the place to start.
That’s choosing a battle.
Instead, what that pastor decided to focus on a way to reach the community that everyone, young and old, could support?
- Serving people in the community doesn’t depend on style or service times.
- Raising money for world, US or local missions is something most people will support.
- Partnering with a local school can involve existing ministries within the church.
- Putting together a team of people to identify the #1 need in your neighborhood can get the church thinking in the right direction.
Find programs and initiatives that can have cross-generational, style-free appeal.
There are attachments to programs, ministries, and styles that might be too much to change at first. A fresh worship style might be the RESULT of a new focus, not a forced adoption and unwelcomed change.
Besides, changing programs without changing the culture will not result in lasting change.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Changing programs without changing the culture will not result in lasting change.” quote=”Changing programs without changing the culture will not result in lasting change.”]
Those are three things you can do to encourage progress in a church that wants to stay grounded in the past or rooted in the current preferences. Once you’ve identified some changes to make, here are more suggestions on how to lead.
4. Create a communication timeline.
When you’ve decided to change and area ready to lead, one of the smartest things you can do is develop a communication timeline. Decide how you’re going to communicate, then build your plan. You don’t have to wait until questions and complaints start coming in to formulate a response; think through everything in advance.
And here’s the thing…the bigger the change, the more time you need to communicate.
It’s called the principle of the runway.
A single-engine plane can land in a small field. But a 747 loaded to capacity needs a runway that’s 7,500 to 10,000 feet long. Anything shorter could be a disaster.
Decide in advance how to communicate and sketch out a roadmap that utilizes all of the resources at your disposal. Some things on your plan might be…
- You might need to spend three weeks meeting with people individually to get them on board.
- You could widen the circle with an informational meeting explaining the change.
- You might want to spend two weeks announcing what’s coming and explaining the heart behind it.
- You might need to create a FAQ page on your website with real answers to real questions.
- You might want to capture stories and testimonials from people who have been through similar changes.
- You might want to allow key people to honestly share their story about their reluctance to change but their willingness to embrace it for the greater good.
- You want to send a snail mail letter to the congregation or a select group of people.
Think through all of this in advance and build a timeline that feels like it’s too long. You won’t regret being patient or over-communicating.
5. Appeal to emotion not just logic.
The reason stories work so well in communication is because stories are connected to emotions.
Facts may inform, but stories inspire.
So when you’re talking about change or trying to get people to buy into a fresh direction, make sure you fill your stories with emotion.
Let’s say you’re struggling to get an older congregation used to a more modern worship style. You’re sitting with an older member at the coffee shop and he says, “Pastor, I just miss some of the older songs we used to sing. These new songs just fel repetitive and fluffy.”
There are two ways you could respond.
Option one is based on logic.
“Billy, I hear what you’re saying, but times are changing. Ecclesiastes 2:10 says “don’t long for the good old days…this is not wise.” The Bible says we have to change.
Option two is based on emotion.
“Billy, I hear what you’re saying, but the music isn’t for you; it’s for your grandkids. We want Asher to love the church, not leave it.”
Option 1 is a valid response. It’s true. And it’s Biblical.
But Option 2 is going to make a bigger impact because it’s emotional and heartfelt, not just intellectual and reasonable.
As you build your communication timeline, be careful not to fill it with facts, stats and reasons.
Tell stories and engage the heart.
6. Once you make a decision, commit to it.
If you’ve prayerfully reached a decision and communicated the change properly, then it’s time for resolve.
Don’t waver. Be strong.
Remember, people are naturally inclined to resist change. It doesn’t mean they don’t believe in the vision of the church; it just means they are human beings. Pushback is normal, so be firm in your commitment to the future.
In some cases, there are people who are openly or vocally opposed to the vision. You should handle those cases with grace, but remember a shepherd’s job sometimes involves the hard end of the stick.
Caring for people and shepherding them doesn’t mean wavering from a firm commitment to the church.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Caring for people and shepherding them doesn’t mean wavering from a firm commitment to the church.” quote=”Caring for people and shepherding them doesn’t mean wavering from a firm commitment to the church.”]
If you don’t have a firm commitment to the direction your church is going, you’ll end up compromising. And too many compromises lead to a ministry where nobody is happy.
I can take you to many churches with blended worship styles where nothing is good and nobody is happy.
Clarify what you’re trying to do and then commit to it.
If you need help creating a one year plan and direction for your church, our “Creating an Annual Plan” course will give you a roadmap (plus three powerful templates). The course comes with three coaching videos suitable to watch on your own or with your leaders.
You’ll create a one-page ministry plan for your entire church. This results in incredible unity. Then, each ministry in your church will create their own version of the plan…one that SUPPORTS the church not fights against it. Finally, we’ll walk you through putting this on a big picture calendar so the most important things in your church get the proper communication and focus.
Learn more about the course here.
7. As you talk about why things are changing, remind people what is NOT changing.
As you patiently lead your church, remember that change is hard. People like their preferences.
So in the midst of your vision casting and forward motion, remind people what isn’t changing. Make sure you tell people what will always stay the same.
The Church has been around for more than 2,000 years and has gone through many cultural changes. But through all of that, the Great Commission and the Great Commandant have remained the north star.
No matter what kind of change is needed in your church, remind people that the most traditional part of the Gospel will never change.
[clickToTweet tweet=”As you lead your churc through change remind them that the most traditional part of the Gospel will never change.” quote=”As you lead your churc through change remind them that the most traditional part of the Gospel will never change.”]
Your tactics will come and go, but your purpose will stay the same.
Your programs may change with the times, but your mission takes precedence.
Reminding people what will never change will comfort those who are worried about “losing their church.”
The church has already gone through many, many changes. Life is about change. Leading is about change. It can be a good thing.
So What's Next?
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