Leading a church through change is hard. Even when it’s necessary.
In the 23-plus years I’ve been serving at Cornerstone, I’ve learned one principle that has helped keep everyone, including me, open to necessary changes without feeling overwhelmed by them.
Here’s how it goes: I try to imagine that there’s a bungee cord or rubber band connecting us.
If I’m not asking for enough change, the band stays limp and there’s nothing to pull people. This produces passivity and ineffectiveness.
But if I get out too far ahead of them, it can snap. This produces directionless churches and lonely, frustrated leaders.
They key is tension. Leaders need to keep just the right amount to pull people forward, without allowing the cord between them to break. Staying in the zone between too little and too much tension is one of the most challenging tasks a leader faces.
Especially over a long period of time.
Don’t Create Tension, But Learn to Leverage It Well
In my work with small church pastors, I’ve found that many of our complaints about a congregation not being open to necessary changes can often be traced back to either having too much or too little tension. Or bouncing wildly between the two.
As I’ve written before, people can handle change. What they can’t handle is surprise. And there’s nothing more surprising or discouraging than when a leader who hasn’t been challenging people at all suddenly demands too much change. This causes so much tension that the connection between leader and followers snaps. Suddenly, painfully and often permanently.
Leaders who guide people through big events, crises and changes have learned to leverage tension well. They’ve strengthened that cord and increased the congregation’s tolerance for tension, allowing for bigger change.
How to Strengthen the Cord
Leaders don’t need to create tension. There’s plenty in the world already. But we can leverage the existing tension to our, and the church’s advantage if we follow a few simple principles. And avoid some common mistakes.
First, some essential principles:
- Lead with integrity. Every other leadership strength is an extension of this – and every weakness denies it.
- Stay consistent over a long period of time
- Be a listener so you know what they can handle
- Keep regular tension, but allow for breaks from the tension (this is how muscles build strength, too)
- Admit your mistakes
- Thank people – a LOT
- Lead by example
- Show them a better future
- Give people time to understand the need for change – just like God gave you
What Will Weaken the Cord
Now, some common mistakes that will kill any hope for change and health:
- Betray people’s trust
- Ignore their feelings
- Ask for too much, too soon
- Complain when they can’t keep up
- Demand change without explaining why
- Keep changing your direction suddenly and without warning
- Complain about the congregation without leading them to a better alternative
- Gain a reputation for starting big, but finishing weak or not at all
- Ask them to change for you, but refuse to change for them
- Don’t change anything for a long time, then change a whole lot all at once
What Does the Right Amount of Tension Look Like?
The right amount of tension varies from church to church and from situation to situation.
Here’s one example that you can draw on.
If you’re in a traditional church and you want to introduce newer worship songs, don’t let months go by without introducing any new songs (not enough tension) and don’t do a whole set of new songs on one Sunday (too much tension).
Instead try this:
- Play a mix of new songs as background music before and after the service for a few weeks
- Introduce one of those songs in worship (It will feel familiar since they’ve heard it for a few weeks)
- Sing it for two out of three Sundays
- Add another new song from the background music mix two or three weeks later
- Repeat for one year and you’ll have up to 20 new songs that won’t feel strange to people
That’s just the right amount of tension.
No, I’m not going to call it the Goldilocks method of leading. I’m sticking with bungee cord.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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