Pastors who walk into existing churches are quickly burdened by needed changes to improve the church. Where the challenge is for most of us is when and how those changes need to be brought. If you are wondering how to choose those battles wisely, first receive this most excellent counsel I received as I entered my first Senior Pastor position at a church clearly needing change and revitalization, “Preach the Word, sacrificially love those people, and do not change anything for a while.”
Now, having shared this invaluable counsel that should be applied first, here are 3 questions to ask yourself as you move to bring the change that is needed and how to do so with discernment and wisdom:
1) Is it biblical or preference? Whatever you wish to change, make sure you have a strong biblical argument to do so. If you desire to change the structure of your church to a plurality of elders/pastors or raise the commitment of all church members to gather regularly on Sundays together (Hebrews 10:25), those are appropriate biblical changes that should be pursued. If you want to change which translation of the Bible to preach, the style of music, or remove the giant picture of a white, American Jesus in your lobby, those do not possess as clear a biblical argument. Whether it is biblical or a preference matters in how you bring change, and in many cases, whether you should change it at all.
2) Is it the right time? Just because a biblical argument can be made for the change does not mean it is the right time to make the change. So many young pastors walk into an existing church, make quick, needed changes because, “It’s in the Bible” and think nothing of shepherding a congregation through those changes. Then they wonder why eighteen months into their pastorate, half the church remains, and there is a general lack of trust and suspicion towards the pastor. That’s because the new pastor was too busy figuring out what “had to change” instead of first loving and shepherding that congregation so they would later be receptive of the change.
3) Is it worth the possible consequences? Determine if the change can be taught as biblical, consider if the timing is right, then a pastor must weigh whether the consequences deem it wise and worth the risk. For example, I would not split the church over a plurality of elders/pastors or purging an inflated membership role in the first few years at a church. Those are changes that can come later with good teaching and patience. However, I would risk being fired over confronting a deacon found in open adultery or an attack on the deity of Christ, whether the church was ready for it or not. Choosing the right battles wisely involves whether you are willing to face the potential consequences of your decision as well as stand before God with a clear conscience.
This is a general template to follow as you determine the changes you desire to make and how they should be chosen and done. Whatever you do, choose battles wisely as if you will be at that church ten years or more. That will give you a different perspective and will help you be patient.
Oh, and one more thing. Listen to your wife. My wife kept me from getting fired a few times by her wise cautions about a few different things I was about to change. Your wife is your helpmate and will be a particular help to keep you from doing something you might regret. Listen to her.