Lasting Changes Require this One Thing

If you want to make changes to your church, you need to ask yourself this question:

“Am I willing to give the rest of my life to this church?”

Making a significant change in your church is at least a five-year job, if not a 10-year commitment. If you’re not willing to stay for the necessary time, don’t make the changes.

A few years ago, I was talking with a pastor about some changes he wanted to make in his church. I asked him, “How long are you willing to stay?”

“Oh, I’m willing to make a commitment for at least six months.”

Do you know what my advice to this pastor was? If that’s all the time you’re willing to stay, don’t even get started with the changes. Nothing will happen in six months. It’s a waste of time and resources.

If you get in the middle of making significant changes in your congregation and then bail, it’s like leaving a patient on the operating table. A doctor would never quit in the middle of taking out someone’s appendix. He’d get sued. It’s not much better when you quit in the middle of making significant changes in your church.

In fact, you’re just messing up someone else’s ministry. It’s the next pastor who will suffer from your lack of commitment. I’ve seen too many hot-shot pastors come to new churches and make big changes. Then, when a bigger congregation calls him somewhere new, he bolts. At that point, the church has to deal with a big mess. When the next pastor comes along, the church won’t even consider making the changes needed to grow.

If you want to make lasting changes in your church, you need to:

Make a public commitment to stay through change

Any pastor looking to make big changes in a church needs to start with a public commitment to stay throughout the process. I did this at the first Saddleback service in 1980. I told everyone that I was going to give at least 40 years of my life to the church. I wanted people to know that the church wasn’t a fly-by-night operation. If people know you’re not leaving, they are much more likely to put some skin in the game themselves and to stick with you through the changes.

Having coached pastors for decades, I’ve noticed that when the pastor leaves, the problems stay, but if the pastor stays, the problems leave.

Be patient

If your church has plateaued in recent years, it’ll take even longer to make changes. A church that hasn’t grown in size for 10 years has a problem. If you’re patient as a leader, you can turn the church around. But it won’t happen overnight. The longer your church has plateaued, the more time it’ll take to implement important changes.

Any issues your church has didn’t develop overnight. You can’t fix them overnight, either. Since you’ve already publicly committed to being at the church for the long haul, take your time.

I once asked a pilot how he turns around a big plane in the air. He told me that it takes time to make a turn in a big plane. “You can make almost a 90-degree turn in the air, and the plane can handle it, but your passengers will go crazy.” He said even a 45-degree turn is rough on passengers, but they don’t usually notice a 30-degree turn.

That’s why it’s so important that you’re willing to stay at the church for an extended period. You can make a bunch of small yet significant changes over a long period of time. People won’t even notice. It’s when you try to make the changes quickly, in a herky-jerky motion, that people get upset and may not support your plans.

Slow the pace of change and be patient; success takes time.

Just ask Hank Aaron.

On baseball’s opening day in 1954, Milwaukee Braves rookie Hank Aaron didn’t get a single hit in five trips to the plate. He could have quit that day. But five outs didn’t define Hank Aaron. He batted another 12,359 times during his career, and he eventually broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. Your church won’t have the ministry fruitfulness you want unless you’re committed to staying the course to implement necessary changes and being patient in the process.

> Read more from Rick.


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Rick Warren

Rick Warren

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and most influential churches. Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. His book, The Purpose Driven Church, was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th century. He is also founder of, a global Internet community for pastors.

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4 Steps Toward Change All Leaders Take

I seldom address a gathering of pastors without “the” question being asked, in one form or another:

“How do you change a church?”

Whether moving from a traditional model to one that is more contemporary, a complex structure to one that is simpler, or an outdated outreach strategy to one more relevant and effective, knowing the target on the wall isn’t the problem.

It’s how to actually lead the change to hit it.

Here are the four steps to leading change in your church (I am going to assume you already know to pray.):

1. Establish a Sense of Urgency

The first step is to establish a sense of urgency. People will not even consider change unless they are impacted on an emotional level. If change is not considered necessary, leadership expert John Kotter of Harvard writes, they “will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation.”

There must be a perceived problem, or need, that is generating a certain amount of emotional energy. For the change agent, or agents, one of the keys to this is passion: if you do not seem to care, they will not bother to care.

Note that this is more than simply articulating the logic of a particular set of actions. People must be communicated with on an emotional level. There must be a sense of urgency. The Bible reminds us that we are transformed through the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2). So whatever the change may be, be sure to convey what the stakes are, and why the change is so important.

For example, why should anyone contemplate evaluating a weekend service in light of its effectiveness at communicating the truth of Christ to a lost person? If they do not perceive that lost people matter or that they are being reached quite well through current approaches, then any change that might be suggested will die at the starting gate.

Leaders who want change must communicate the importance of those who are apart from Christ and the exact state of the church’s current effectiveness in reaching them. It is up to the leader to say: “We will stand before God one day and give an account for our lives. And this generation of Christians is responsible for this generation of non-Christians. And God will ask, ‘Did you do all that you could? Did you match the intensity and fervor I brought to the cross?'”

People must be brought to the point where they view the lack of change as a tragedy; where they don’t simply embrace change but cry out for it.

2. Develop and Cast a Compelling Vision

The second step has to do with developing and casting a compelling vision. Where is this change going to take us? What will it mean for us? What difference will it make? Paint the picture for people of what the change will actually do.

Vision is nothing less than the language of leadership. It points the way, it motivates people to take the steps needed to get there, and it coordinates the actions of all involved. At its best, it paints a simple but compelling picture of a better tomorrow in ways that appeal to everyone’s interests. This has to be more than a single motivational talk. In reality, not only does vision “leak,” but it gets lost in the competing noise for attention.

Consider a business example. I once read that the total amount of communication going to the typical employee in an American company in a three-month period is 2,300,000 words or numbers. The typical communication of a change vision over the same period has been calculated at 13,400 words or numbers (the equivalent of a single 30-minute speech, coupled with a one-hour long meeting, a 600-word article in the firm’s newspaper, and a 2,000-word memo). Thus the change vision only captures .58 percent of the communication competing for the average employee’s attention.

This is akin to a gallon of information dumped into a river of dialogue.

Vision must be repeated over and over again. When you are sick of hearing it, and the core change agents with you, then you might be approaching some degree of connecting with the group at large. The point is that one message, or even one cluster of messages, simply isn’t enough. People’s grasp of the vision fades fast, and it must be continually cast. And not simply to one group, but to all groups. And in all settings: to committees, boards, ministries; during weekend services; over lunches and breakfasts; through articles, stories, facts, statistics; and one-on-one sessions. Simple, to the point, tied to the values behind the change – but over and over again.

You cannot over-communicate.

3. Implement the Change

The third step, after the vision casting eventually pays off in consensus and approval with the various groups in the church, is to begin implementing the change.

4. Give Updates on the Change

The final step is to make sure you let everyone know how the change is going. Be sure to give progress reports. The war is not won simply with implementation. The question then becomes whether or not the change should be maintained. Rick Warren has written from many years of experience that, “Vision and purpose must be restated every 26 days to keep the church moving in the right direction.”

Whether monthly is too much or too little, it must certainly be ongoing. So let people know what is happening. Talk about successes and breakthroughs. Let people see, and feel, the benefits that are flowing from the change.

As you work through these four steps, keep in mind one of the most important principles related to change a leader can learn: change takes time. There’s a saying that when it comes to change, don’t overestimate what you can do in a year, but don’t underestimate what you can do in ten.

You may have heard the old analogy about turning a ship around in a harbor. The bigger it is, the further you have to go out to sea to bring it around in a different direction. This is important, because a lack of patience has caused many church leaders to get into trouble that was all too easy to avoid. As change agents, they get in a hurry and begin implementing changes that people simply weren’t signed on to, much less emotionally prepared to experience. This leads to resistance.

But if you carefully – and patiently – work the four steps, a remarkable thing will take place.


> Read more from James.

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James Emery White

James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. He is the founder of Serious Times and this blog was originally posted at his website

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The Single Most Important Factor of Leading Change in a Resistant Setting

I speak about change regularly. And you deal with change almost every week, if not every day.

The #1 question/conversation that comes up after one of my talks goes something like this:

Well, that’s great that you could lead change where you are. But you need to understand my context. My church is so (fill in the blanks here) old…traditional…resistant that I don’t know where to start. Sometimes I think it’s impossible. Is it?

I love that question.

One of the great consistencies in almost two decades of church leadership for me, is change.

We’ve changed everything, moving from three very traditional, dying mainline churches to a vibrant church that’s reaching unchurched people. And in between, everything has changed: our locations, our structure, our worship, our governance, our team and even our denominational affiliation.

So…is a church or organization ever too old, resistant or traditional to change?

My answer is that change is possible anywhere. That actually, it’s necessary. And at a bare minimum, change is worth the best shot you’ve got.

So is there a secret ingredient that can help you lead change in a traditional context far more effectively?

I think there is.

Before I share it, a few nuances for all of us.

First, Let’s Check Our Excuses

The grass is almost always greener on the other side of the leadership fence.

When it comes to change, most of us think it would be easier if we lead at another church or in another organization.

The reality is that ALL of us will struggle to lead change wherever we are.

As enthusiastic as we say we are about change, all of us resist it. That’s why you haven’t lost that final 10 pounds, haven’t cleaned out the hall closet nearly as often as you should, and haven’t started that blog you were going to launch/book you were going to write. All of that involves change, and we’re resistant.

Too many of us make too many excuses.

I wrote pretty directly about getting past your excuses in this post and again recently as one of the lessons from the collapse of Mars Hill Church.

So don’t think you’re ‘special’, that the ‘rules don’t apply’ to your church or that other people who successfully led change ‘had it easier’. They probably didn’t.

If you go in with an excuse mindset, you’ve set yourself up to fail.

So park your excuses if you want to lead change.

And For Sure, Leading Change Isn’t Just About Mastering “One Thing”

There isn’t just ‘one thing’ that will help you lead change. Leading change is complex.

In my book, Leading Change Without Losing It, I outline 5 strategies that can help you overcome the inevitable opposition you’ll face when you lead change (I also tell the story of how we changed in the book).

But it can be done. Ron Edmondson recently led a traditional, plateaued church from 1000 in attendance to over double that in less than two years. He outlines his approach here.

But there is one thing that has helped me more than anything else in almost 20 years of leading change. And by ‘helped me’ I don’t just mean helping me lead others, I mean it’s also helped me stay motivated myself.

What is it?

Focus On The Why

You likely know this already, but it’s so easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Or to think you’ve said it once and don’t need to say it again.

Here’s the one thing that’s helped me more than anything else I’ve done in leading change in what started out as a very traditional setting, and can help you lead change in the most stubborn, resistant and traditional settings:

Focus on the why. Not on the what and the how.

There are really only three issues that come up around any leadership table.

> What are going to do?

> How are we going to do it?

> Why are we doing it?

Most leaders intuitively focus on the what and the how, neglecting the why.

That’s the mistake. And here’s why that’s a bad idea.

What and how are inherently divisive.

Why unites people. 

People usually disagree on what. You like a certain style of music. Someone else likes another. You want to paint a room grey, someone else likes taupe. You prefer earlier services, someone else thinks evening is best. You think you should spend the money. Others disagree.

How is often just as divisive. As soon as the discuss starts, people start asking: So how are we going to pay for this? How are we going to get people on board? How are we sure this will work? How long will this take? 

That’s why effective leaders consistently refocus the conversation on why. Why are we proposing these changes?

> Because this isn’t about us.

> Because we imagine a church that our kids and grandkids want to come to.

> Because we want to be a church our friends love to attend.

> Because we want to be a place where people who don’t feel welcome today feel welcome tomorrow.

> Because we love Christ and the world for which he died.

> Because we have a passion for those who don’t yet know Christ.

> Because our current methods aren’t optimally helping us accomplish our mission. 

It’s hard to disagree with statements like these, isn’t it?

Why appeals to the best in people.

Consequently, when you focus on why, you bring out the best in people.

After all, most people are part of your church because at some point, they decided to give their lives to Christ and be part of a cause that’s bigger than themselves. Your job is to remind them (and yourself) of this daily.

Leaders who relentlessly refocus on the why are always the most effective leaders.

If the entire group gets focused on the why, the what and the how have a way of working themselves out far more easily because why motivates.

When people agree on the why, the conversation starts to sound more like this:

  • Well I might not like it personally, but it is the most sensible approach. Let’s go for it.
  • We’ll find the money somewhere.
  • Let’s give it a try. I’ll put my objections aside.
  • I feel like there’s a future again!

Will you get some opposition, you bet? But, as I outline in my book, likely no more than 10% of people will be opposed and you can leverage a strategy for handling that.

And if a few people leave…let them go. They can always find another church they can go to. The people you’ll reach will likely far outweigh the people you lose.

What’s the single best way to navigate change in a traditional, old or very resistant setting? Focus on why far more than you focus on what and how. 

What are you learning about leading change in a traditional or resistant context?

>> Read more from Carey.

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Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is lead pastor of Connexus Community Church and author of the best selling books, Leading Change Without Losing It and Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. Carey speaks to North American and global church leaders about change, leadership, and parenting.

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What say you? Leave a comment!

Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> Amen!!
— Scott Michael Whitley
comment_post_ID); ?> Thank you so Much for this great article. It has open my eyes on where we have faltered and the things we need to work on. God can never indeed be the problem. It's us.
— Bertille
comment_post_ID); ?> Thanks for this information. It helps me begin to look at the church in a different light.
— Faith Jackson

Clarity Process

Three effective ways to start moving toward clarity right now.