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Change Your Church: Start in the Shallows, Then Work Your Way to the Deep

Change is hard.

Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

If I could only give one piece of advice to pastors struggling to turn a dying, unhealthy, static small church into a fresh, healthy, innovative one, this would be it.

Do the easy parts first.

It’s a basic principle of life that we sometimes forget in the church. You don’t start basic swim classes in the deep end of the pool. There’s too much unnecessary risk. Pools have shallow ends for a reason.

Your church has a shallow end, too.

No, I don’t know what it is, because I don’t know your church. But you know. Or you should.

If you don’t know, find out. The future of your church and your tenure as its pastor may depend on it.

How to Find the Shallow End

The shallow end is the place in a small church where things are easiest. Where everyone, including the pastor, feels like they have a solid footing beneath them. Where young and old, believers and seekers, innovators and traditionalists, stand on even ground and can still keep their head above water.

When a church is in crisis, it may be hard to believe such a place exists. But it does.

Start looking for it by asking this question. What do all these people, despite their differences, find in common that makes them want to call this church their home church?

That’s the shallow end. It’s the part of the church where everyone finds common ground. The reason you’re all there to begin with.

Love & Hate

Once you’ve identified your shallow end, divide what everyone holds in common into two categories: the stuff everyone loves and the stuff everyone hates.

Then strengthen the parts everyone loves and change the parts everyone hates.

The biggest mistake most pastors make when starting the turnaround process is to begin by changing the things they hate, even if everyone else loves them and wants to keep them.

Lay your opinions aside for now. You may be right about the change being needed, but even if you are, starting by getting your way at the expense of everyone else assures an us/them mentality. Usually with the pastor sitting alone on the “us” side.

Instead, start the process by doing things that reinforce the idea that “us” means “all of us.”

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Karl is the author of four books and has been in pastoral ministry for almost 40 years. He is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a healthy small church in Orange County, California, where he has ministered for over 27 years with his wife, Shelley. Karl’s heart is to help pastors of small churches find the resources to lead well and to capitalize on the unique advantages that come with pastoring a small church. Karl produces resources for Helping Small Churches Thrive at KarlVaters.com, and has created S.P.A.R.K. Online (Small-Church Pastors Adapt & Recover Kit), which is updated regularly with new resources to help small churches deal with issues related to the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath.