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9 Ideas for Leading a Church Through Change

Sometimes, leading a church through change is one of the most frustrating, difficult tasks a church leader can tackle. In fact, I think that’s one reason so many young leaders would prefer to plant a church and build it from the ground up. My goal in this post is to offer some strategies I’ve learned, and then to invite you to give our readers some other ideas.

1. Pray first. Moving people requires the work of the Spirit of God. When we try to change people first and then pray only when they won’t budge, we’ve reversed the proper order. Change should be covered in prayer before, during and after the transition takes place.

2. Celebrate the church’s heritage without idolizing it. Some folks struggle with change because they feel like they’re losing their history. If you help them to remember and rejoice over yesterday’s victories, they might be more open to tomorrow’s possibilities.

3. Read your context well. The pastor search team may have given you one description of the church, but what they see may not be what you see. Review the church’s history to see if any proposed change will evoke bad past memories. Have a good sense of what leaders you need on board for a change to be adopted. Do your homework!

4. Know the suggestions of others, but make the right choice for your church. Some writers say to make all necessary changes within the first year of your ministry; others argue not to do anything for the first year. Depending on your context, either (or neither) option could be best. The point is: Listen, but then make a decision based on your people and your church’s situation.

5. Help the church to be dissatisfied with the current state. Congregations often don’t change until they see that their current situation is not good—and too often, they’re uninformed about the current state. They genuinely don’t know that the church is reaching fewer people or that the bills are exceeding the income. In a gracious way, show them the need for the change.

6. Make sure you can describe and defend the “why’s” for the change. You know the reasons behind the change; communicate them well, and prayerfully work to convince your congregation. Don’t give skeptics any ammunition by ignoring their questions.

7. Plan a bunch of lunches. Determine which leaders must be on board, and spend time with them. Cast your vision, helping leaders to see (a) why the status quo is not sufficient and (b) why the suggested change will be better. A few strategic conversations can go a long way.

8. If necessary, take what you can get. You may want to move the church a mile, but they may be willing to go only half a mile. That half-mile, though, may be farther than they’ve ever gone. Take it—and keep watching for the right plan to go the rest of the way.

9.Say “thanks” when a church moves through a transition. Change is hard for many folks. When they do get on board, be sure to say “thank you” (to God first, and then to the church …).

Church leaders, help us. What suggestions would you add to this list?   

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Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on Twitter @Clawlessjr and on at facebook.com/CLawless.