Factors in Leading Change in the Church


Dennis McCallum



Most of our material on creating change can be found in the papers on MotivationLearning, and Vision. However, we should consider a number of special factors when our leadership is taking people from an established way of doing things to a new way.

1. Does our new direction seem to contradict theological positions taken earlier?

If we persuaded people that a certain direction was either biblical or more in harmony with biblical teaching earlier, and now we are calling on them to go a different direction, we can anticipate some strong resistance, and such resistance is certainly reasonable. Leaders should anticipate this, and be ready:

Since nothing has changed in the Bible, why would our understanding change? Was it that conditions in our ministry field changed? Was it that we now feel we were mistaken in our earlier understanding? Have we come to appreciate a broader understanding of key passages? Is it that both the old way and the new way can be harmonized with the biblical material?

Whichever may be the case, prepare to take your people through the same thought processes that you have gone through as leaders. Be prepared for a loss of credibility initially, especially if you admit your were wrong, but anticipate that by being honest and open, you will gain credibility in the end.

2. Who has the most to lose?

When the rules change, everyone goes back to 0. This is why old timers often have the biggest stake in the status quo. Begin with the old guard, and show them why the risks are manageable and the potential benefits for them are great.

In some cases, we may fail to win the support of the old guard, and yet we are convinced the change is important enough to go ahead with anyway. In cases like this, be aware that a struggle is inevitable, and it could be costly. Be prepared to withstand the punishment disgruntled members may dish out, in the knowledge that many will come around in the end, if the change is as helpful as you predict.

Of course we never have a guarantee that our calls for change will work out, or, even if they do, that people will recognize the value. We have to be prepared at times to pay a heavy price, including loss of members, in order to bring about change we feel is vital.

3. Have you taught a theology of the church that anticipates regular change?

Long before actual change is needed, we should seek to regularly press for an ethos of adaptability and change. Stress the carnality of those who hold to control over change, and point out their inability to follow the Holy Spirit. Use illustrations like the tabernacle vs. the temple, and the book of Acts, were God had trouble getting the early Christians to change. When change comes, well-led churches can refer to this body of teaching, which has already become part of the consensus of the church.

4. Are you moving too fast in implementing change?

Take your time. I am continually amazed at how slowly people come to understand the need for change and how slowly they come to understand what changes we are proposing. You will have to repeat yourself much more often than you would guess.

5. Action steps

Author Bruce Powers describes the process of implementing change as follows:   
1) Thaw the current situation. In other words, show people why change is needed. This could involve showing people problems with the status quo, as well as benefits in change.   
2) Pursue change to the appropriate level of tension. Too little tension results in no change. Too much tension leads to people avoiding each other, failure to communicate, rabbit trails, and disengagement. Here are some practical steps:

a) Begin with your inner circle, or leadership colleagues. Take the time to see them fully embrace the need for change (not just acquiescing to change you want). They will have to help you struggle with the church for change, and they, too, will have to pay a price for change, so you need them fully onboard.

b) Together with your colleagues, collect a list of benefits connected with the change. And a list of dangers if you fail to change. These dangers are very important, as people fear change, and must be shown that failure to change deserves fear as well.

c) Next go to your other committed workers. Do this in concert with your fellow leaders. Again, allow time for open debate and slow movement from one paradigm to another. People change their minds slowly, and not without inner conflict, so don't be thin-skinned if people resist your direction. They may even take this opportunity to launch accusations or doubts about your leadership. Such dissent becomes a real test of the stability and strength of your leadership. The leadership team should be prepared to defend one another, and to redirect the topic back to the issue at hand.

d) Take on-going dissenters aside for personal counseling on the issue. Try to understand their worries or reservations. Be prepared to negotiate on any points that won't impair the change. In the end, we have to be prepared to go ahead with, or without the support of such dissenters, but we will clearly have fewer problems if we can win them over to at least giving change a chance.

e) Develop a written outline of the changes you are proposing and the reasons for it, and make copies for all. This will hopefully cut down on distortions and confusion (assuming the outline is succinct and well-written).

f) Finally, in most cases, schedule a time to discuss the change with the whole church if the change is major. Alternatively, if the change is not expected to be very controversial, you may decide to have various leaders take it separately to their own cell groups. Have your facts ready, and announce the change as something the leadership thinks is a good idea, and would like everyone to support. This is in contrast to a democratic approach ("Do you guys agree we should do this?" or "What does everyone think?"). Only if the change is considered very unimportant to the health of the church should you leave the decision up to the whole group. God has set leaders in the church to lead, and a democratic approach empowers the least mature Christians more than the most mature. If you do elect to approach the issue democratically, you are obligated to honor the vote taken.

g) Return to the issue some weeks or months later, and review what the results of the change have been. This is especially important when the results have been good. Use this as an opportunity to remind them how worried we were, but how this worked out really well, and we should remember this in the future.

If your group is accustomed to periodic change, and if they understand the need for change, you will have a more leadable and adaptable group. If your group becomes too conservative, you will live in a straight-jacket that will choke out growth and lead you on the high road to being just like the institutional church.