The Underbelly of Change

Every leader knows this truth – change is inevitable. If our organizations don’t change, then they will become irrelevant and eventually die. I’ve watched too many churches in my city close their doors recently. I’ve talked to several pastors who know that because their board or church was unwilling to change that they now face insurmountable challenges resulting in people leaving and giving in decline. Healthy change is a necessity, not just for survival, but to actually thrive. 

The changes could be the need to move to a more community-based discipleship process or even just creating a discipleship process. It might mean changing the music style. It might mean changing the preaching style. It could be changing the types of meetings offered or the times they meet. The hardest kinds of change require changing leaders who refuse to move forward for the good of the church. 

Here’s what I’ve come to view as a classic formula regarding change. Change is inevitable. Change is necessary. Change is painful. A wise and thoughtful leader knows they can’t eliminate any part of that formula. So the question is – are you going to face the inevitable and necessary pain of change?

Part of the problem is that we allow our churches, our leaders, our congregation, our staff, and our stakeholders to focus on the change! I know the irony of that statement. But the focus shouldn’t actually be on the change(s), but on the reasons WHY we need to change. 

Change is not the point. It’s a huge mistake to verbally focus on the need to change and the change itself. We tend to start, focus on, harp on, and end with what is changing. So we focus on changing the music style, the meeting times, starting or stopping a beloved program. But that actually gets us off track. The why of the change almost always gets too little attention and time when we need to look at change. What’s the point of the change? Why is it inevitable and necessary? If you don’t remember anything else, remember this – If you need to make a change, focus on the why.

During the time I became the Lead Pastor at our church, our growth had stagnated, meaning that for every new person who came someone else left. There was lots of talk about “closing the back door.” The focus was that if we just the bucket from leaking, then the bucket would get full. It makes total logical sense. But I was convinced the issue was that our front door wasn’t wide enough or attractive enough. People will always leave (move, get distracted, fall away or get mad and leave). What we needed to do was to be more intentional about reaching more of the emerging generations who were not connected to God or a church community. That meant we had to change a lot of things including the worship style, preaching style, have a robust guest service system, add a distinct discipleship pathway and much more. Those are the “whats” that people see, experience, have personal preferences about and get invested in. People get upset and frustrated over changing the whats! So I focused early on the why of change.

I started preaching on the why – we have to do whatever we can do to reach people not connected to God or a faith community. I spoke to our leaders and had them read books about the why like Andy Stanely’s Deep and Wide. I met groups that I thought would struggle most with the changes and talked about the why and how it directly would address what they actually valued the most. For example, I met with our seniors’ group a couple of times a year and remind them that the changes we were making were not ones they would like personally, but were changes that would bring and keep their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. Over time, that was in fact the case and our wonderful seniors have been my greatest cheerleaders. 

So we can’t just focus on the what. We have to focus on the why…first, continually, always. But we can’t stop there either. We also have to focus on the process. 

The very nature of change is messy. We need to plan and prepare the best we can for change. But too many leaders get bogged down in trying to get it right and make it perfect so that they don’t actually make the necessary changes. You’ve heard of the paralysis of analysis. Change gets lost in board and committee approvals. Here’s the honest truth about change: We must approach change as responsibly as we can with good planning and communication, but in the end, I love the “philosophy” of Indiana Jones. As he was facing an unexpected crisis he declared:  “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” Bold, brave leaders often, in the midst of change, figure it out as he or she goes.

We live in a world that is accelerating change in every way. So it is foolish to think we can plan out the change in every detail. The fact is that most of us who innovate change do just like Indiana Jones, we make it up as we go! If we waited to figure out everything we need to know, plan every detail and get every single person on board, then we’ll be stuck and the lack of change will keep doing its damage. 

This actually drives us back to the One we need to go to. We start by praying because we don’t know. We seek wisdom and advice from others as we are trying to figure things out. But once we are clear and convicted on the changes that need to happen, we make sure we overcommunicate the why. You can’t overcommunicate the why. You’ll get tired of telling the why long before you have actually over-communicated it. Then you take the first reasonable steps and keep figuring it out as you go.

Next, remember that change is a work in progress. Celebrate the progress, not the change!

Finally, create a culture of change for the future. One of the greatest compliments I got was from a local pastor that I’m good friends with. When I started actually making the changes I mentioned earlier, a number of really good folks left our church to go to his church. He told me that one of the reasons they gave him for changing churches was that our church changes all the time. That was a compliment in my mind. That’s exactly what we want. You see, I want to create a culture that gets used to change and even learns to welcome change. That makes staying current, relevant and ahead of the change curve so much easier for everyone. 
By the way, I host a group called Pastors’ Edge. It’s a monthly group for lead pastors, senior pastors, solo pastors, church planters, co-pastors, and campus pastors (pastors who have responsibility for leading the whole church). We meet the first Thursday of the month from 11am-1pm with a free lunch at Journey Church in Tucson, AZ. On October 3rd our topic is Leading the Charge for Change with Bud Brown. Bud will be speaking about how the message of the Gospel never changes, yet every church must continually change and adapt, or it will stagnate and become irrelevant or ineffective. There are key understandings and skills that must be used to lead healthy necessary change. Change will always be hard and painful and there are ways to ensure that the change is worth the pain. If you are in the Tucson area, join us.

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