Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What does it cost to bring change to the local church?

In recent years there has been much talk about the need for churches to change if they want to enjoy a more effective ministry in the 21st century.  Many excellent reasons have been given why such change is necessary, and churches have been warned that if they do not change they can expect to see their congregations shrink in size and influence until one day their doors are closed.  Despite such dire warnings, little change still occurs in many smaller churches.  One has to wonder if these churches are more willing to die than change, and if so, why?  John Maxwell has well said that organizations are not willing to change until the cost of not changing is greater than the cost of changing.  It appears that many of our churches see the cost of change as simply too great, and they are hoping that somehow positive things will begin to happen in their churches without any changes being made.  That hope will probably not become a reality, but they are correct in that there is likely to be a price to be paid to bring any significant change into the life of their church.

One of those costs involves the pastor.  In his book Turnaround Churches: How to Overcome Barriers to Growth and Bring New Life to an Established Church George Barna writes that one of the things required for a declining church to turn around was a change in pastoral leadership.  When I first read those words the church I pastored was going through a rough time.  Things were not going well, I had been there for some time, and I had ran out of ideas.  I was reading this book hoping to find something I could use to help our church, and the first thing that jumped out at me was that the church needed a new pastor!  Yet, I did not feel God was leading me from that congregation.  In the days that followed I decided that if the church was to turn around it did need a new pastor, and if God was not leading me to leave that church then I needed to become that new pastor.  A couple of weeks later I shared with our congregation Barna's words and how I intended to become a new pastor with God's help.  Gandhi has said that we must become the change we seek, and I sought to do that.  As I began to change so did our church.

Several years later, after I had been at that church for twenty years, I determined the church did need a new person to serve as pastor.  It was painful for me to make the changes in my approach to ministry that I made earlier, and it was even more painful for me to leave the church I loved, but both were essential for the good of the church.  Some pastors are unwilling or unable to change themselves and their churches suffer as a result.  Others refuse to leave their church even thought they are unable to provide the ministry it needs, and these churches suffer as well.  We often want to blame the congregation when a church is unable to make needed changes, but sometimes the pastor realizes such changes will be costly to him or her, and they become the stumblingblock that keeps those changes from occurring.

Sometimes the cost to the church is a change in lay leadership.  Many smaller churches do not have a rotation schedule for their lay leadership positions and such persons continue to serve in the same capacities throughout their lives.  When these persons are controllers it can be problematic.  They will oppose any change that seems to them to be a threat to their power or position in the church.  I have seen such people hold an entire church hostage.  Rarely will the congregation or others in leadership challenge their control.  Because relationships are so important in the smaller church their actions are excused and accepted so as not to do damage to relationships.  Challenging the controllers in a church is a major cost to a congregation, but it is one that must be accepted if the church sincerely wants to experience change.

A third cost to a church is conflict.  You can mark this down as an absolute: there will be no significant change in a church without conflict.  The conflict may be major or relatively minor, but it will occur.  When proposed changes are being considered it is essential that the leadership anticipate possible areas of conflict and attempt to address them proactively.  If the change is presented and managed well the conflict can be minimized.

Jesus warned that it is important to count the cost before beginning something new.  If the cost will be major it may be a sign that it is not yet time to introduce the change.  Some preliminary groundwork may be needed to prepare the congregation for the proposed change.  New people may need to be brought into leadership positions before moving forward.  I've seen too many pastors feel that they had to force change on a congregation before it was ready, and that has never turned out well.  Usually, after a few months of conflict they contact me asking for help in finding a new place of service.  Perhaps even worse, the church becomes more change-resistant as a result.  Calculate the potential costs.  Anticipate the obstacles you will face before proposing your recommended changes and remove as many of them as possible.  When the cost of change is lowered the people will be more willing to consider it.  You can read more about the cost of change and how to address that in my latest book The Healthy Community: Moving Your Church Beyond Tunnel Vision.

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