Understanding the Change Process in Your Church

Ron Johnson is not off to a good beginning; the former Apple retail leader is now CEO of JC Penney and the most recent quarterly results are not encouraging. After making wide, sweeping changes, same store sales have dropped 26 percent and stock prices are at a three-year low.

Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, is attempting a turnaround at Hewlett-Packard. The challenge is daunting. Though she has a long-term strategy in place, many people believe she is moving too slowly.

A pastor of a large church recently resigned after leading the congregation in several major changes. Attendance at the church dropped precipitously as many members voted against the changes with their feet.

At another large church just twenty miles away, the pastor is moving so slowly that people are also moving out. They are waiting on this leader to provide visionary leadership, but he is simply too reticent to move forward.

Volumes have been written on change, the pace of change, and the consequences of change. In simplest terms, leaders move at a perfect pace, too slowly, or too rapidly. In this brief article, I address what fast-paced leaders should consider. I offer five basic issues these leaders should grasp.

Understand the Change Tolerance of Those Directly Impacted

Some fast-paced leaders look at the organization only from their perspective. They fail to put themselves in others’  shoes to consider what this change might feel like to those directly impacted. These aggressive leaders need to ask more questions and listen more carefully. They may be surprised to hear how those directly impacted will respond to the proposed changes.

Understand That Change Tolerance Is Contextually Driven

I have seen too many leaders move to a new area and assume that change tolerance would be very close to their previous place of leadership. If they came from an organization that dealt well with change, they might assume that the same leadership pace would work at the new organization. Unfortunately, many leaders have been burned when they discover their assumptions to be wrong. Many contextual factors affect the tolerance level of change. Again, it is incumbent upon leaders to know their contexts and how to lead in those contexts. Listening to the stories of those in the organization is vital to this process.

Understand That Most Change Resistance Is Emotional, Not Rational

Such is the reason that well-thought, calmly-presented, rationally-explained reasons for change might not be well received. The leader must understand the hearts of those impacted, not only the heads. Why are they so emotionally attached to the status quo? What stories can the leader share that would address the hearts of those feeling the changes?

Understand That Leaders Must Have Sufficient Tenure to Deal with the Change

Too many leaders initiate change but fail to see the obstacles before them. As a consequence, they often leave before the changes are fully implemented. The organization is thus left with frustrated people and a void of leadership. If a leader is seeking to lead change, he or she must be willing to stay at the organization a sufficient time to see the change accomplished, and to deal with any aftermath caused by the change.

Understand That Leaders Must Understand Themselves in Leading Change

Self-awareness is vital here. If you are a slow-change leader in a fast-paced organization, you will likely encounter frustration and impatience. If you are a fast-paced leader in a slowly-moving organization, you will likely encounter resistance and resentment. A good simple exercise is to rank yourself on your comfort with the pace of change on a scale of one to ten. Then do the same for the organization you lead. If you have a gap greater than two, you have major work to do before you even begin to lead change. Sometimes the work must be done on yourself. At other times, there is greater work to do in the organization. The gap must be closed or the leader will find himself in a position of frustration and, ultimately, failed leadership.

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Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources.  Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.  He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to speaking in hundreds of venues over the past 20 years, Rainer led Rainer Group, a church and denominational consulting firm, from 1990 to 2005. The firm provided church health insights to over 500 churches and other organizations over that period. Rainer and his wife, Nellie Jo, have three grown sons: Sam, Art and Jess, who are married to Erin, Sarah and Rachel respectively.  The Rainers have six grandchildren: Canon, Maggie, Nathaniel, Will (with the Lord), Harper, and Bren. He is the author of twenty-four books, including Breakout Churches, Simple Life, Simple Church, Raising Dad, The Millennials, and Essential Church.  His latest book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, was released in 2014 by B&H Publishing Group.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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