In the past two weeks I've had conversations with two pastors of smaller churches regarding some leadership challenges they are facing. One was celebrating his first anniversary as the pastor of his church; the other had served nineteen months as the pastor. Each one was having their pastoral leadership challenged by controllers in the church. As usual, there were few people in the church willing to stand up against these controllers, and, as a result, it was becoming increasingly difficult to introduce any kind of change into the church's structure or ministry.
We discussed the problem of controllers in the church and some ways to address these people, but I spent much of my time with these pastors talking about the challenge of bringing change into a small church. I told each pastor the first thing they need to remember is that everything in a smaller church is dependent upon relationships. Relationship in the smaller church is so important that the first question many in the small church will ask when being challenged by change is how the change will impact the current relationships in their church. Small churches often claim they want to grow, but that claim quickly turns to dust if reaching new people might require changes that would cause established members to leave the church. The second question that church members ask regarding proposed change is how the change will impact their role in the church, and will they even have a role in the new system? Most members of small churches know their roles; in fact, these have often been their roles for years if not decades in that church. You can expect resistance if there is any danger that their roles will be changed under a new way of doing things. I suggested to these pastors that understanding these two common questions can help them answer these questions before they are even asked making it more likely to see any attempted changes succeed.
That then brought us to the leadership issue. At least one of the pastors was a little surprised when I told him that after only a year at the church he really had not earned the right to lead that congregation. He thought as the pastor that he was automatically the leader until I explained that he had not been there long enough to have earned the trust of the congregation, and until that happens he will not really have much leadership in the church. I encouraged him to lead through the existing leadership of the church, and he was certainly able to name these individuals. I told both pastors that their greatest success in their churches would come if they were able to work with their lay leadership to introduce any changes they wanted to see in their churches. If they get buy-in from those lay leaders it is much more likely the congregation will be in favor because they usually already have a trust relationship with these lay leaders.
Small churches are notoriously resistant to change, but I believe it has as much to do with how the change is presented than the actual change itself. Some changes will never be accepted by some churches, but if the change is presented in the right manner it is more likly to be accepted. Pastors in smaller churches lead best when they can anticipate the concerns people will have about any proposed change and present the answers to those concerns before they are even asked, learn how to neutralize the controllers in the church, and work through the current leadership while they are building their own trust relationship with the congregation.