the shape of leadership

Moving Forward at the Right Speed

Three factors that influence the pace of change in a church

Every church will go through seasons of change. Some of these seasons are minor shifts that are seemingly insignificant. Others are massive changes that point your church in an entirely new direction. Some changes are programmatic, while others are transitions with people or staff members who have served for years, even decades.

Change is inevitable. Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” The question is, are you welcoming or resistant to the seasons of change? Your response usually determines the pace of change in your church.

So, what impacts the pace of change? How can you predict whether a change will be successful? While there are many factors to consider, I’ve noticed three major factors that usually influence the pace of change.

Organizational Culture

Some organizations change quickly, while others move at a snail’s pace. In my observation, you’ll lose people at both extremes. If you move too slowly, people who are hungry for vision and growth will get impatient and eventually leave. By moving too fast, you can lose people because the change was too sudden, too big, or too drastic.

What’s the solution? Create a culture that is acclimated to ongoing change. I’m not suggesting you change for the sake of change. After all, there should be purpose and meaning behind everything you do. Instead, I’m encouraging you to make changes frequently enough that it becomes a part of your culture.

If people are used to small changes, you’ll likely experience less resistance when making bigger changes. But if you rarely make changes, even the slightest transition can create major disruption.

Consider worship music, for example. The churches struggling to modernize their music are the ones that simply stopped introducing new worship songs. By introducing one or two new, modern worship songs every month to appeal to younger attendees, you’ll stay current. People will adjust with you because the change is continual but not drastic.

On the other hand, should you wait years before introducing anything that has a new sound to it, you’ll face immediate resistance. The leap from where you are to where you want to be is gigantic. And yes, you will lose people. Again, the culture created will determine your pace of change.

If you do not have a culture acclimated to change, begin with four simple steps. First, make a list of every change you’d like to make. Be sure the list includes lots of small changes, not just the big ones.

Start building a culture of change now so you can leverage opportunity and make your greatest impact.

Second, prioritize your list from easiest to hardest (or smallest to biggest). Easy, small changes may not even be visible to everyone. Harder or bigger changes are usually much more public.

Next, begin making the smallest, easiest changes. Easy changes will produce quick wins. The more wins you experience, the more open to change people will become. If it’s worth drawing attention to, be sure to celebrate the win with the congregation.

Finally, as you move toward bigger changes, create buy-in with key influencers and stakeholders. Point to all the other wins, and give your influencers an opportunity to weigh in on the change.

Unexpected Chaos

Your church’s pace of change is always impacted by the level of chaos it experiences. For example, if a church is financially stable, it may resist change because it’s doesn’t have to change. Simply put, the situation isn’t desperate enough. But if the bank account is drained and the bills are stacking up, suddenly the urgency of change increases sharply.

The same principle applies when there is chaos in society. COVID-19 forced many churches to move online. Before the pandemic, some were resistant to digital ministry, or it simply wasn’t a priority. But when chaos entered the picture, the willingness to change lunged forward and priorities quickly shifted.

Imagine how much more effective these churches could have been had they started streaming services before it became a necessity. Unfortunately, too often we wait to make changes until unexpected chaos descends. In those moments, it’s amazing how quickly we’re willing to change — usually because our survival depends on it.

Don’t wait for the chaos. Start building a culture of change now so you can leverage opportunity and make your greatest impact.

Leadership Capacity

The final contributor to the pace of change is the leader’s capacity to facilitate adjustments. Change management is a skill. Some leaders excel at it, while others have killed churches because they recklessly tried to initiate change, or they unwisely tried to resist it.

The question you have to answer is this: Am I willing and able to lead successful change? Willingness is a posture of the heart; ability is a proficiency of the head. You need both.

If you don’t have the leadership capacity, but have a willingness to make necessary changes, the good news is you can cultivate this important skill. Read classic books like John Kotter’s Leading Change. Seek out a pastor who has skillfully and successfully transitioned his or her church to a greater place of health and growth.

Surround yourself with coaches or mentors who can help you develop in this area. God will honor your willingness to learn and grow, but God will not force your heart to change. It’s your choice.

What next step do you need to take to improve your pace of change? Be deliberate in evaluating each change factor. Make adjustments now so you can maximize the change you’re experiencing and prepare yourself for the change that lies ahead.

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