People want the results of change without the pain of change.
Most churches want to reach more people and make more disciples.
The frustrating reality is that at least 65% of churches in America are not growing. They aren’t reaching more people. They rarely baptize an unbeliever. Families are leaving their church in droves—or left years ago.
What most pastors know, and what most congregations suspect, is that massive change is needed in order to see different results. But most churches are simply unable to make the necessary changes.
Note the word “unable.” This is different than unwilling.
My consulting experience informs me that the majority of struggling churches have no serious qualms with theoretical change. It’s actual change that they struggle with. It’s taking the step from admitting the need for change to committing to change where congregations stumble.
As leaders, we have to stop assuming that churches don’t want to change and start assuming that they do. Because then our focus shifts from criticizing to building the bridge for implementing strategic change.
So how can you manage change in a change averse congregation?
1) Win support of some key players.
Pastors often believe that to implement major change that they have to get the buy-in of the whole church. This is false. You couldn’t get your whole church to agree on what flavor ice cream is best; why would you think you could get them all to agree on a change process that will be undeniably painful for a season?
Instead, target a handful of people in the church who have influence with others. Very often, the support of ten to fifteen people is all that is necessary to navigate change. Select positive people who not only desire change but are willing to “go the distance” with you in pushing through the pain of change. Over the course of three to five years, leverage their influence to advocate for the change you are implementing.
2) Have the courage to make tough decisions.
If you want to fail at implementing change, take the middle road on every key decision. That’s some tough love, but that’s the truth. When you want to eat healthy, you cannot just add lean meat, fruits, and vegetables to your diet. You also have to stop eating too much pizza, fried food, and sugar. Too often, churches try to navigate change by adding new things without removing the things that made the church unhealthy in the first place.
I promise you: if you are not willing to make tough decisions on when to cut something, you’ll only prove the naysayers right. You cannot do everything well. To do the new thing, you’ll have to stop doing some old things. At the end of the day, most people will respect this. They’ll be more likely to embrace the change if you fully commit. Those that don’t appreciate your commitment to change will leave. The good news for them is that 65% of churches in America are willing to maintain the status quo.
Get focused on the lost people in your community; let these thousands of people motivate you—not the three people who complain about allowing coffee in the sanctuary.
3) Know when to compromise.
Didn’t I just say not to compromise? Kind of. I said not to take the middle road on every key decision. This doesn’t mean you can’t take the middle road on some key decisions. Many diets have a cheat day. Sometimes compromising on something that does not detract from the major change you’re wanting to make can build some goodwill to make a tough decision. It takes discernment to know where you can compromise without compromising the vision.
This is where it is beneficial to have a good team of influencers in your church that are on your team. They can help you to see clearly what is worth a compromise and what isn’t. Get feedback from them. But once you make a decision, stick with it.
4) Confront problem people when they can’t be coached.
In most instances, people can be coached into change. Change is painful. But good leaders can coach people through the pain of change by constantly revisiting the vision for a better future. The vast majority of people in your church will eventually buy-in, so long as you commit to the change, keep the vision in front of people, and do not lose heart. However, some people will simply sow discord and disunity despite your attempts to coach them into change.
If “problem people” cannot be coached, then it is time to confront. Remember: not everyone with a complaint is a problem person! A true “problem person” is someone who is unwilling to submit to the spiritual leadership of the church, and is rallying people in meetings, after church, and in the parking lot to push back against change in formal and informal ways.
This cannot stand. Confront a problem person in private, when possible. However, do not be afraid to confront them (speaking the truth in love) in public, if necessary. Pastors that “let the tail wag the dog” will not be able to implement strategic change.
5) Be patient.
Significant strategic change will take up to five years. The average tenure of a pastor is less than three years. See the problem? A pastor’s first year is usually spent just getting to know the church, its systems, and its people. Then, it can take up to a year just to create a plan for change. Implementing that change will take at least three years and up to five years. Farmers do not plant apple trees and expect a crop within the first year. It can take a decade for an apple tree to reach its peak fruitfulness. Why would we expect that our churches can be revitalized within one year and bear much fruit?
The Lord plays the long game. Our culture wants everything quickly. Jesus said he is coming back soon. It’s been two thousand years. Clearly, our definitions of “soon” are mismatched. God is not a liar, but our expectations are not the same as his. We should find great hope in this! We want to sanctification to happen overnight, but it actually happens over a lifetime. We want to see revitalization today, but it will take time.
How do you manage change in a change averse congregation?
To sum it up:
It starts by assuming that most people want the results of change, and therefore desire change. This change in assumptions from negative to positive is where it begins.
From there, win the support of key players. You cannot implement change alone. You don’t need everyone, but you need some.
Make the tough decisions. To get healthy, you’ll have to cut out the unhealthy systems, behaviors, and patterns that have made your church ineffective.
Be wise about where to compromise with “preserving” the past. Don’t allow unhealthy or vision-detrimental things to remain, but compromise where necessary to build a good base of support.
Don’t tolerate sinful behavior from problem people. Assume that most people just need coaching into the vision. Be willing to hear a necessary critique. But when people are acting sinfully and rebelliously, confront the behavior.
Be patient for results. Plant the seed. Let have time to germinate and sprout. Water it. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Don’t get discouraged. In time, your church will bear the fruit of the hard change.
Here’s a sad truth: most churches will not do this. Change is just too painful. The process is too long. The results feel too elusive.
But for those who will persevere, your church can change. You want to reach more people? You can. Want to send out more missionaries? You can. Want to baptize more unbelievers? You can. Want to see more families grow? You can.
You absolutely can. You need only be willing to push through the pain.
How do I know this?
Because if Jesus says the Gates of Hell cannot prevail against His Church on the move, the darkness in your community stands no chance against your church when it is fully on mission.
Want to know if your church is healthy and ready for change? Take the Church Check-up.
Answer 20 simple questions and receive a free one-page PDF report directly from Scott that will reveal your church’s health in ten critical areas.