When I was teenager my brother, Gary, was in the Navy. He joined the military with a vision to see the world but ended up stationed in Pensacola, FL, just one hour from our home. Twice my parents and I had the privilege of going on his aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, for a dependents’ day cruise. I will never forget the jets being catapulted off of the deck, disappearing for a second, and then roaring off into the sky. We were warned about getting too close to the edge and falling off because, “you can’t turn an aircraft carrier around overnight!”
Good advice to churches also! You may have a clear vision of the necessary changes needed in your church to become healthy, but it’s like turning around an aircraft carrier; it takes time. The task of leading a church to where the members are living out biblical values every day is not an easy task. Leading a church to be healthy will require endless energy and an unrelenting determination to be the church God wants it to be! The journey is difficult and full of challenges but make no mistake about it, well worth it!
Here are five steps when trying to consider leading in healthy change in your church:
First, you must see the need to change! There has to be a reality check where hard questions are being asked. Are we maintaining the programs and machinery of the church or are we seeing people’s lives transformed? The pain of remaining the same must be greater than the perceived pain of changing. Some churches prefer the pain of a slow death over revitalizing their church to be what God intended. You must be willing to pay the price for the necessary change to occur! Winston Churchill said, “There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction!”
Second, we must know why we are changing! All churches at some point need a reassessment of who they are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. You need to realign your values with Christ’s values and make sure you are living out those values every single day. Because we live in a sinful world we tend to drift from God, not towards Him. Reassessment can lead to realignment and when churches do realign themselves to God’s mission and purpose for their existence, revival often comes. Change just for change’s sake is not the right motivation but when our desire is to please Christ He blesses that effort!
Third, begin by building trusting relationships! Change in churches begins with trust. Kevin Ford, a church health consultant, in Transforming Church says, “In church after church, I have seen leaders fail because their passion for change far exceeded the trust they had earned.” Some leaders introduce change too quickly and sacrifice trust while others wait for that magical moment of no resistance and move far too slowly. Trust is earned by fulfilling the expectations of the church that are realistic and biblical. It begins by loving them and then over time will allow a leader to move from meeting expectations to challenging them.
Fourth, change does not happen overnight! Remember, you are not guiding a jet ski and effective leaders understand that change is usually best introduced incrementally, one step at a time. You will never remove all stress and conflict but they can be greatly reduced by a careful and prayerful approach. Some think that all they have to do is come up with the coolest vision statement and core values and the ship will turn. The reality is that most “vision” statements do not bring about actual change. Most leaders overestimate what they can accomplish in one year and underestimate what God can do in five years.
Fifth, remember that no matter how hard you might try, you will not please everyone! My favorite story here is of a man going to his pastor and telling him that if Jesus ever saw those drums on the stage He would roll over in His grave. In an interview on effective leadership Ron Heifitz said, “Many people have a ‘smiley face’ view of what it means to lead. They get a rude awakening when they find themselves with a leadership opportunity. Exercising leadership generates resistance—and pain. People are afraid that they will lose something that’s worthwhile. They’re afraid that they’re going to have to give up something they’re comfortable with.”
There will always be some resistance to change and that is an indicator that biblical leadership is being exercised. Churches must make the necessary changes to align themselves with the mission of God!