Making Changes in a Church
No one likes change. Change frequently becomes a platform for anxiety in an individual's life. We all like routine. Knowing what to expect makes us feel safe and offers us the comfort of seeming stability. Yet, change is inevitable. We are changing creatures in a changing world. Things are either changing for the worst or for the better. Nothing remains static. Growth and progress necessitate change. This is no less true with regard to the growth and progress of a local church as it is with regard to an individual's life. Change in the church is one of the most necessary but also one of the most unwelcomed guests. So, given the fact that change can be stressful and steal away an individual's sense of comfort, how should pastors approach this subject in theory and practice?
1. Plan for strategic change. Make sure the the session (the board of elders) are collectively agreed on what changes need to be made for the health and growth of the church. This is essential. Spend sufficient time discussing, analyzing and deliberating on what changes need to be made. Don't rush to make changes that are not well thought through. Doing so will only hurt the church. Try to envision what pitfalls you will face or what dynamics may be created among the congregants if and when this change is made. Listening to the thoughts of congregants on a particular idea will also be crucial in making wise decisions. Often, congregants will have thoughtful feedback on a particular dynamic in the church. Listening to what those in the body have to say on a matter can be a great help to the elders of a church as they seek to lead the congregation in a unified way that will serve to benefit the congregation as a whole. Of course, the converse can be true as well. Giving too much credence to what congregants think about a particular issue can be detrimental to the process of bringing about necessary change. After all, we must remember that when people do not want change, they will conjure up every reason to oppose change--no matter how irrational or fabricated the reasons they produce may be. All of this must be integrated into the decision making process on a sessional level of leadership. Thinking through the dynamics of the benefits and potential downsides of change among a congregation is crucial to the health and well-being of the congregation.
2. Inform the congregation of forthcoming changes. After changes have been planned and decided on among the members of the session, there must be a plan to inform the congregation of those changes. Sessions must lead the congregation forward by means of informational newsletters, meetings and/or personal conversations. Some congregants will need more informing than others. Speaking to the church as a whole during an informational meeting is usually the best course of action. This keeps factions and discontented members at bay. One of my mentors used to always tell me, "You want to be far enough out in front of the congregation to lead them forward, but not out in front of them too much so that they do not know where they are going." Knowing what the best way(s) in which to inform the congregation of upcoming changes takes great wisdom. Here again, the session must be on the same page regarding the best course of action.
3. Don't make too many changes at once. Now, to be fair, even in the session of a church makes one change, it will feel like one too many to some congregants. Even if you only make a few minor changes to scheduling or structure, you will most certainly hear the following from congregants: "Why are we doing this again?" or "We don't know what's going on anymore." Don't let this be a hinderance to making what you believe to be necessary changes to church events or procedure. However, we slow to make many changes at once.
Wise and seasoned pastors and seminary professors often tell young men who are preparing to enter their first pastorate: “Don’t make any changes for at least 5 years into a new pastorate.” The sentiment is meant to intimate that too many changes made too quickly can be extremely harmful to the life of the congregation. How many churches have learned this the hard way!
Make sure (to the best of your ability) that the the changes you make are necessary changes. Every change that you will want to make will feel necessary, but only some of them will be necessary. Remember that you don't have to make a change every time things feel as though they are getting dry or stagnant. Sometimes, it is merely a season in the congregation's life that the elders can pray the congregation through. I have a tendancy to take the bull by the horns every time I perceive that something is not going as well as I would like for it to be going in the life of our congregation. We have to be at peace about making only necessary changes when the session believes that they are just that...necessary to the life and health of the congregation!
4. Stand by the changes made. Pastors who are eager to see the church grow can sometimes lead the church forward in making changes that they perceive were necessary only to find out that they were unnecessary or that they were not as helpful as the previous practices. When a session makes a change that does not seem to be bearing as much fruit as was hoped for or expected, stay with the changes you have made for at least some extended period of time. Many churches have been ruined by leaders making a change which they then regretted and, on account of which, they made another change. This process is sometimes repeated several times over. When this happened the congregation loses confidence in the leadership. The elders begin to look as though they lack the necessary leadership gifts to carry the congregation forward. It is very easy to start things and very hard to see them through. Sometimes, when we stay with a new plan that doesn't seem to be working quite as well as we would have hoped at the beginning, we will see it begin to work well for a congregation over the long haul. It takes patience with the process of change. This too takes much wisdom.
So many of the reflections above has been born out of personal failure and frustration with seeking to plant and pastor a highly transitional church in a military town. Because of the nature of the transition of our church, we have essentially had 5 or 6 different congregations at New Covenant in 8 years. Not a day goes by that I--and our elders--do not feel inadequate and lacking on so many levels. What we need more than anything is wisdom from the unchanging God to enable us to bring about good and necessary changes for the life of the congregation on a month to month basis. We have, no doubt, made many mistakes (and will, I am sure, make more), but hopefully we are growing in our ability to lead a changing and developing congregation forward in a God-honoring way as we seek to bring glory to the Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.