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.

I chose a pretty stark title for my blog. Really? Do we change or die? Is it that black and white, either/or? Yes…eventually. Now, before I go further, I don’t mean that the core spiritual truths of our Bible change. I’m not suggesting God changes his core character. But while the message of the Gospel doesn’t change at its core, the methods and ways we present the Gospel much change and adapt. So our churches, nonprofits and businesses have to adapt and that means our leadership style has to change as well.

You might be familiar the “Diffusion of Innovation” theory. It simply describes that about 2.5% of leaders are innovators. They come up with and launch truly new stuff. Then there are the early adopters of about 13.5% of leaders. Then there are the cautious early majority (34%) and skeptical late majority (34%). These are the folks that take what was once a new idea, method or product and take it to critical mass. Then of course there are the laggards (16%) who might come along eventually kicking and screaming.

I’m an early adopter. I see problems and I look for new and fresh solutions. Let me use a personal example. I ran for almost 40 years. I loved it. But my knees and back were paying the price. I didn’t want to enter my later years a cripple. So I made the very hard decision to stop running. What would I replace it with? The elliptical machines in the gym provided an excellent cardio workout without any stress on my joints. But I was stuck inside. I hated that part. So I discovered an elliptical bike called an Elliptigo. It’s an elliptical machine that I can ride outside. It’s a very hard workout with no impact and I get to enjoy the scenery, weather and smells of the outdoors.

Our culture and world is changing rapidly. You can’t stop that! To have a healthy, life-giving church, nonprofit or business, we have be an adopter of the new – new products and/or new methods. The earlier we adopt, the more healthy and effective our organization will be. And yes, those who lead churches will face some of the greatest resistance to change. But change or die…as I said as I started. Almost every month I encounter a church where a very few in the church will admit that they have not changed, they are aging out and have very little to offer younger people and families. That’s a strategy for dying. Being an early adopter or even a early majority kind of leader is costly. You will face challenge and resistance. But that is what leadership is all about. Leading is not for the faint of heart! Leading is not for those who seek an easy life.

And there are some reasons not to change. Change for the sake of change is just plain stupid. There has to be a clear and compelling “why!” that you can communicate with passion. And communicate you must. The change has to fix a real problem and move our organization forward.

We don’t allow change that is clear inconsistent or contrary to biblical truth and values. And we don’t bring about something new just to be trendy. That will fail in the long run. And don’t make change out of fear. Fear is a terrible motivator.

But being an innovator, early adopter or early majority leader will require some level of risk. And failure is always an options and sometimes happens. But even in failure, be sure you’re trying to address the right problem. If the failure is because you have the wrong problem, admit it, learn from it and reframe the problem.

Leadership requires leading your organization through change. Leadership is risky and messy. But without a leader willing to adopt the new and different, the real people we serve or hope to serve will in the end suffer…and our organizations will start the painful road of decline.

We just hosted our tenth Global Leadership Summit at our church (my fourteenth attending). It was outstanding again. We spent a couple years developing what we call Next Level Leadership – a leadership development system to help leaders grow to the next level. I am constantly reading and looking for what’s new out there in our culture, business, technology and the church world. Why? Great leaders must be lifelong learners.

Here’s why. Everything changes. And everything is changing faster than ever. The maps we used in the past to navigate have changed. The tools (it is called technology) we use change faster than ever. Any leader who gets stuck in the past will hurt his or her organization. And what breaks my heart is that there are so many unhealthy and dying churches and businesses because leadership refuses to learn or try new ways. The message of the Bible never changes. But our methods of sharing that message must change.

Leaders lead by setting the example. Leaders must create a culture of learning and change. Will you allow your team, ministry or church be open to appropriate change or will you be stuck and find it difficult to reach lost people or the “new” client in our changing culture? We must be lifelong learners. We don’t throw out our knowledge and experience of the past, but we hold it lightly knowing that in fact there may be better ways that we have not yet learned or tried.  

I’m not an alarmist, but the alternative to being a fanatical learner-leader is a slow march to irrelevance. If you are not actively learning, then you are stuck and will move toward decline both for you personally and for the group you lead. You have moved from being a pioneer (an idea the Bible uses) to being a settler. You have a fixed mindset when a flexible one is needed. Your focus is on maintaining comfort, ease and safety. You resist change and keep things heading toward a slow but steady death – including your own. You are or will become protective, defensive, reactive and backward looking. Leadership must be forward looking. That’s what leaders do. And to be forward looking we have to assume we don’t have the future all figured out. We look forward to see the future. As Craig Groeschel said at the 2018 Global Leadership Summit – “Change or die!”

A learning leader in humility wants to be a leader that gets better and better. What does a learner look like? Here are some of the things that help me continue to grow as a lifelong learner:

  • Keep your curiosity and the joy of discovery alive. Keep asking good questions.
  • Stay humble and even admit to what you don’t know.
  • Keep pushing yourself in areas of discomfort. Take risks. It is in the unknown that we learn the best and it forces us to learn.
  • Read and listen lots! Listen to podcasts and read books that you know you won’t fully agree with and challenge your thinking. Commit to attending the Global Leadership Summit in August 8-9, 2019.
  • Hang around with people of different backgrounds who think, act and believe differently.
  • Ask for feedback on how you can do better or become better.
  • Get a mentor. Go to counseling. Join an online mentoring group. Take an annual or regular retreat to reflect, think and explore new ideas and practices.

My personal commitment is to keep learning and growing right up until I quit breathing. And in case you didn’t realize it, if you are an authentic disciple of Jesus, then you are a lifelong student and learner – that’s what “disciple” means. We are not done until we live like Jesus and lead like Jesus!