Ministry in today’s world means leading change. It’s always been true that institutions that don’t evolve devolve and eventually die. We also live in a rapidly changing context, which requires flexibility and creativity.
At the same time, many churches and church people find change difficult and painful. We’re not light on our feet. Some churches have been around for a century or more. The traditions go deep.
Here’s what I’ve noticed in church after church: Leaders who want to move forward can make one of two opposing mistakes that can undercut the very change process they want to have succeed. They move too fast, or they go too slow.
1. Moving too fast.
It’s easy to move too fast when implementing change, especially in the church, where the pace of change can be excruciatingly slow. Many pastors come out of seminary, read the latest book or attend an exciting conference, and immediately start to implement what they know will be best. Often they fail to assess the readiness of the congregation for change. Resistance inevitably emerges, and they charge forward regardless. There’s a perfect storm between reactive lay people and the pastor, who gets reactive in return. Worst case: Conflict spirals upward, and the pastor leaves (and sometimes leaves ministry altogether).
It’s easy to get impatient. The stakes seem high—you see the possibilities for ministry, and it seems that few understand the opportunity. Or the financial situation is urgent, and no one else seems to see it. Conversely, the money people want to pinch pennies when it’s not even necessary, inhibiting real ministry.
However, leaders have to remember that people need time on the calendar to adjust to change. You have to pace yourself and the process, recruit allies intentionally, and stay connected to those who are coming along, however slowly.
2. Moving too slowly.
On the other hand, even when you want to move forward, it’s easy to get caught up in the status quo. Sometimes pastors are so afraid of criticism that they are reluctant to step out with a new initiative, or back off immediately when the inevitable resistance emerges. Years go by with little change, and that can be deadly for a congregation in today’s environment. Attendance and giving both decline, and the congregation may disappear over time.
To move forward, you must be able to tolerate your own discomfort with people disagreeing and criticizing the process—and, more difficult, you. Take the chance to step out in leadership.
How do you know how fast to move? Well, there isn’t a formula. Every congregation is different. In general though, you can experiment with this process. It’s not simple, and it takes time, time on the clock and time on the calendar.
- Gain a good sense of the congregation’s strengths and challenges, now and historically.
- Get clear for yourself on a direction in which you would like to move.
- Define yourself to others, beginning with the leadership.
- Assess their response. This is critical. You must have allies to move forward.
- Together with the leadership, develop a plan to move forward. Candidly talk about the inevitable resistance and how you will respond.
- Get started.
- Don’t get reactive to the reactivity. Keep going. Normalize for yourself and others that this is part of the process. (Read, or re-read, Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.)
- Evaluate. Adjust as needed. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes, but don’t apologize for moving forward. Be willing to commit to improving.
Be patient: Nothing happens overnight, and most real change takes more than a year to happen. Substantive change efforts take more than that, years, literally. Remember, it’s not all up to you. If you take on the responsibility for changing your congregation, you are doomed to exhaustion and burnout. It’s a joint endeavor. Make sure you share the responsibility. And be discerning about what may be possible in your setting.
What are you noticing about the pace of change in your congregation?