I spoke with a lady on the phone yesterday who just needed to vent. Her new pastor has come with change on his mind and many of those changes have brought anxiety to church members. Her issue wasn’t so much with the changes but in the way they have been “forced” into the life of the church. This is the epic struggle in many churches and frankly why many new pastors get off to a bad start. Let me be crystal clear, an overwhelming majority of churches need fundamental changes. When you walk into most SBC churches you feel as though you have gone through a time warp. It may be 2015 according to your smartphone, but inside that sanctuary it seems that you should be wearing a leisure suit and wing tips. Churches should be in constant state of fluidity. Never changing the message, but always evaluating the methods. Too many of our churches are putting new wine into old wine skins. (Matt 9:17). A friend of mine took a pastorate in rural Alabama a few years ago and within the first 2 months tried to change the worship style. He no longer is employed by that church and is no longer in the ministry. Even if change is needed and even if a leader can clearly justify the need, the mistake that is often made is the way the change is delivered to the members. Many church members are resistant to changes simply because they have reached a place in their life that consistency and steadiness are great sources of comfort. This is especially true in the slower paced life of someone of retired age. Part of the beauty of retirement is that the world becomes much more simple, predictable and planned. Your income becomes steady, your schedule becomes routine and your taste become simple. For many, their church life is one of those areas where they grow to expect and value a certain amount of consistency. Many people are not bothered by the fact that their church is declining, but they are extremely bothered when the pulpit is taken off the stage. Why is that? They likely don’t pay attention to statistical information, but they certainly pay attention to the location of the pulpit. Retired age members aren’t the only ones who can be resistant to change, younger members also have “sacred cows” that they embrace. It has been my experience as a pastor that more people will buy into change when the pastor and church leaders make intentional effort to do the following things:
1. Have a vision for the church that members understand and have affirmed. A shared vision gives way to clear direction and necessary changes. When a pastor has led the church to embrace a vision for the future, the vision should be supported by a comprehensive strategic plan that the church has constructed and affirmed. When Christian soldiers are marching in the same direction they will be more forgiving of change and will even expect certain change. No change should take place that is not first birthed out of a clearly shared vision and strategy.
2. Leaders should share the reasons for the change. In 2008 I led my church to begin a 2nd worship service in the morning. We made our 11:00 service contemporary and our early service traditional. God used this mightily in the coming years to grow the church and it was wildly successful. Before the decision was made public I spoke to our senior adult group about the coming changes and why I was making the change. I carefully explained how we were quickly outgrowing our sanctuary and how a new service format had the potential to reach many of the young families in our community that were not in church. They bought into it and it was a fairly easy transition. I didn’t get up and announce the change or put it in the bulletin. I felt they needed to know the heart behind it. Church members will be more forgiving of change if they can cognitively understand why the change is being made.
3. Make sure the change is carefully thought out and bathed in prayer. Leaders should never make changes simply because they prefer the new method over the old one. Before making a big change think through the following: What are the unintended consequences of the decision? Is this a battle worth fighting? Do I have staff and finances to support the change or will it exhaust resources? Can I biblically defend the change and do I have a clear direction from the Lord? Leaders can make it through critical comments if they definitively know that the change is the Lord’s will.
4. The staff should be clearly supportive of the change. The pastor should have many conversations with staff before implementation. Never should a staff member speak negatively of the change to a church member or use it for leverage against the pastor. The staff should sit down and discuss the impending changes exhaustively until they are on the same page and united. Once the decision has been made the staff should agree to stand together through negative reaction.
5. Have conversations with key lay leaders in the church before going public with the changes. You likely know the people in your church whose “buy in” will help to make this new course of direction successful. Sometimes a simple cup of coffee and a 30 minute conversation will go a long way in making this happen. While pastors shouldn’t feel inclined to ask the deacons for permission to make changes, they certainly should speak to them regarding the changes before announcements are made. A wise pastor will want his deacons as advocates of change rather than adversaries.
6. The culture of your church will determine how certain changes are accepted. For instance, in some churches if the choir comes out without their robes, it is World War 3, in other churches this would be no big deal. One pastor friend of mine was telling me how he got in trouble simply by the way he brought a person into the baptistry one Sunday. Come to find out, the long tenured pastor before him always came into the baptistry from the left side, never the right. While that example is extreme (and even ridiculous), a simple understanding of your church’s culture will determine how change is accepted. Certain changes that may seem minor in your mind may be large depending on the culture of the church. Change doesn’t have to wreck the church or usurp the pastors effectiveness.
When handled correctly those changes can be vehicles for success. If the church knows how much they are loved and valued by the pastor, they will give greater grace even if they don’t agree with change.