When pastors first start serving in a new church, they can quickly make observations on areas of ministry that can be improved. Perhaps the the church isn’t as welcoming as it could be or maybe he/she will notice that the children’s ministry has some areas that need to be addressed. It won’t be to long before relationship issues will be recognized and some past issues will need to be worked through. Those are all pretty common situations for most new pastors.
Sadly we often hear about new pastors making huge changes in churches quickly, whether it’s name changes, worship styles, or ministries. I don’t think it’s uncommon at all and I was, unfortunately, guilty of that very issue when I first started pastoring. I observed a lot of unhealthy areas within the church and wrongly assumed that I needed to make big changes immediately so that we could “honor God.”
Make no mistake, churches need to make changes. I don’t want to give the impression that we should have an “everything is fine” attitude when it comes to ministry because often, things are not fine. Relationships matter. Contextualization matters. Atmosphere matters. If those areas need to be addressed and changes need to be made for the glory of God and mission of the church, so be it! The problem is generally how we go about making those changes. So here’s an axiom to incorporate into your thinking:
Slow change is better than no change.
Seriously. What is the point of making an immediate change if you are going to lose everyone in your congregation and/or lose your opportunity to serve and lead? If everything is going to go back to the way it was because you are found without a pastorate or because you have an empty church building, what is it that compels you to stand your ground? If we’re honest, it’s often just pride. We make a decision and won’t acknowledge that our timing and methods weren’t as healthy as we’d like. And in case there are some doctrine police out there who are thinking I’m referring to compromising central theological issues, I’m not. Central issues that are hammered out in the Creeds are another topic altogether. But if you start pastoring and immediately shut down the Sunday School program because no one attends and there are better ways to have Bible studies and develop relational communities, you may be making a huge mistake! Obviously we’re talking generalizations. I’m sure certain cases call for immediate change, but by and large I find that change is often forced rather than smoothly transitioned into.
Assuming you are already praying (if you aren’t, don’t even consider making a change), here are four steps to help you slowly bring change into your local church:
(1) Communicate, communicate, communicate. There is no such thing as over-communication in church. If you are even entertaining the idea of making a change, you need to make sure that your fellow elders, leadership team, ministry board, executive board, or whatever-other-leadership-group-you-have is well aware of the issue. This takes time. Not everyone is going to understand why you think that the church needs a website because they’ve been perfectly fine without one for decades. Yet if you begin to communicate that a website can both serve prospective visitors and the local membership, you might find that those who were opposed to having an informative website become excited about it!
The biggest complain I hear from random people is that they are unaware of things. All this despite the fact that our church has a weekly bulletin, makes announcements, updates our website and Facebook page, and works hard at planning events well. This always confirms to me that we need to be extra focused on clearly communicating to everyone as much as possible.
So if you intend to make changes, don’t do it in a way that it’s going to be a surprise to anyone. You’ll be more effective if you take the time to allow people to understand both your intention and your heart behind that intention. If you plan on transition away from Sunday School into focusing on Small Groups, make sure that people understand that you are not opposed to Bible studies but believe there is a more effective way to go about it. You’ll need to communicate the details of the change. What’s are the differences between a 9am Sunday School class and a Wednesday night Small Group? How will it affect people? If you are a wise leader, I have no doubt that the changes you observe are probably needed… and many people will get on board with you if they just have a better understanding of why. So communicate, communicate, communicate!
Sadly, a lot of leaders will only see this point as a one way street. But you’d be a fool if you didn’t put your ear to the ground in order to get a pulse for how the church and your leadership team is feeling. That doesn’t mean that their concerns are accurate, but they can be helpful. If you are listening well, you can respond well.
People often are hesitant to embrace change simply because they are afraid. It’s pretty normal for people to fear the unknown. So when we come along, often with very little previous investment in the community we find ourselves leading, with all of these new ideas and recommended changes, it can be scary for the people that have been there for the long haul. It’s similar to how it’s easy to spend other people’s money. If you are listening to people’s concerns and questions, you’ll get a feel for what may be the underlying issues. Those issues aren’t always sinful rebellion, okay?
(2) Love people regardless of whether they embrace your recommendations. This can be hard for leaders because we often are extremely invested in the ministries we serve. Therefore, we have a hard time not taking church issues personally. But we need to remember that just because someone rejects our ideas does not mean they are rejecting us personally.
Often times, if you keep loving people, they will become increasingly more open to your recommendations. Why? Because it takes time to gain trust! So just stay committed to loving people regardless of whether they follow your recommendations or not. Even if they give you some negative feedback or seem less than enthused about the changes you are proposing doesn’t mean that you are not called to love them and serve them and pastor them.
(3) Don’t manipulate people. This should go without saying, but I think we need to be especially careful when we are trying to lead a church through some much needed change. We often have a clear understanding of how helpful and healthy those changes will be that we might be tempted to take shortcuts. What’s a better shortcut than manipulation? I’m not sure there is one.
Short cuts get taken when we start to pull the “God card.” You know what I mean… we start to say things like, “God told me to do this and he also told me that the enemy would fight against it.” Could that be true? Sure, it could be true but statements like that are often just spiritually abusive and passive aggressive ways of manipulating people. Who wants to be aligned with Satan or demons? Who wants to be counted among those who are rebelling against God? I certainly don’t want to!
We don’t want people to walk around in fear but to have the freedom of sharing their concerns and questions. The Spirit dwells in all followers of Jesus, not just pastors. We would be wise to avoid manipulating people and allowing for differences to exist and to have a high ethical standard. If you use your leadership role to manipulate and control people you are sinning against both those people and God. So don’t do it…
(4) Timing is everything. Being considerate of timing when it comes to making changes within a church can be difficult, but ever so important. It’s very hard to know when it’s time to introduce and time to implement. The Lord knows that much prayer and reflection has gone into figuring those things out!
The thing about “timing” is that it’s sometimes a little subjective. Yes, I think the kind of “timing” we are talking about is relative. Here’s what I mean…
Say you are convinced that the church needs to change it’s name. So you do your best to communicate this to the leadership and the church and you are all set to go. You think the timing’s right and since no one has expressed any reservations up to this point, it would seem that the “timing” has arrived! But then you hear a concern from one of your trusted leaders and receive a few phone calls shortly before the official decision is made. What should you do? Is the “timing” right? In this scenario, perhaps the “timing” is not as set as you may have thought. In this situation, I think you’d be wise to take a step back and probably realize that the “timing” isn’t right! Why? Because “timing,” when it comes to making changes in a church, is relative. Has there been enough communication? Are there key leaders in support? The answers to those types of questions can help you determine whether it’s a go. Every once in awhile you’ll actually find out that the “timing” is right a lot quicker than you thought. This tends to happen the longer that you’ve served and when you’ve been effective at communicating the vision.
These are just a few of the principles that have helped guide me the last few years. What would you add?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.