Helping a Settled Congregation Move Ahead
A pilot and his mechanic kept driving each other crazy. One day the pilot turned his plane into the shop with a complaint, "Unfamiliar noise in engine." The next day the plane was back in service. The pilot checked the log book to see what problem had been found.
The entry read, "Ran engine continuously for four hours. Noise now familiar."
One of the greatest barriers to change in the church is becoming so familiar with the "noise" that the congregation no longer recognizes it as trouble. The pastor is often more sensitive to the knocking need for change. How can a pastor help a church hear the need for change and respond?
I have observed seven steps.
Step 1: Commit to the knowledge process
In my first pastorate in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I was visiting a woman who was a long-time member. At the church for almost a year, I was beginning to feel at home.
The homey feeling evaporated when, with a steely cold New England gaze, she said, "Young man, you are not a Cape Codder, and you never will be a Cape Codder!"
Unfortunately I believed her; rather than committing myself to know the Cape Codders, I withdrew. I did what I was gifted at and most comfortable doing: preaching and leading. But I discovered that my gifts lacked full potency if cut off from people. The intervening dozen years have underscored the value of committing my time and energy to the knowledge process.
In coming to my current pastorate, I publicly promised to spend time with as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. This helped build trust in my leadership. The more people feel they know me and the more I make an effort to know them, the more they will be receptive to change.
I also read every document I could find on our eighty-five-year history. I asked questions of everyone from past church members to the village barber. Now I've even surprised staff and long-time members with information about the church they didn't know or didn't remember.
The time spent in the knowledge process deals with two major obstacles to change. It calms people's fear I will negate their past. And it calms people's fear I will push the church into something that doesn't fit who they are.
Step 2: Cultivate a perception of crisis
It was our first elders' retreat since I became pastor. As much prayer preceded that event as any I'd been part of. We were seeking God for answers to our future ministry, our declining membership, and our landlocked facility in Toronto.
We came to quick consensus that God wanted us to stay in our community. At that point the chairman produced a letter from a neighboring church. "Since we've decided not to relocate," he said, "perhaps this offer is something the Lord wants us to consider." The letter inquired whether we were open to the idea of a merger. The church was affiliated with a different denomination but was in a similarly stagnant situation. Their thirty-year-old daughter church also was included in the proposal, creating the potential of a three-way merger.
Within weeks we began the intense, year-long process of prayer, discovery, and organization. The result was an overwhelming "no" from all three churches, but I couldn't have known the good that would come out of the process.
For years there had been attempts at significant change in our church. When I candidated, the elders told me that if significant changes weren't made soon, the church would die within five years. This dire, and probably unfounded, pronouncement was even made to the congregation. Yet it wasn't until we invested a year in serious merger talks that the congregation finally believed in a potential crisis.
Within four years we had a new building and a new organizational structure. Today the church ministers to four times as many people as it did ten years ago. I didn't plan that particular crisis, but I did learn how important it is for a congregation to perceive crisis if change is to occur.
Crisis may be the only way the congregation will hear the troubling noise in the engine. I'm not advocating that pastors invent crises; just make use of the ones that arise.
Step 3: Craft a consensus
The elders were beginning to initiate change, but we seemed to be spinning our wheels. "Let's have lunch with Ralph," a long-time elder said. Ralph was the last guy I wanted to bring into the situation. He was somewhat self-important, loquacious, lacking in spiritual depth, and, for all his years at the church, he had never held an official leadership position. I knew he had the ear of a certain group, but I didn't think it was significant. The elder convinced me to go.
That lunch was the first of several. Along the way the elder got Ralph to propose ideas I'd recommended and to contribute several I hadn't thought of. Most important, by bringing other key influencers on board, Ralph helped us out of our rut.
"We're going to need money for this," Ralph said. "Don't worry about it. There's more money in this church than anyone knows. Leave that to me." I did.
I learned that winning key people is half the battle in bringing about change. I didn't sense Ralph matured tremendously in the process, but the Lord used Ralph to bring changes that resulted in the salvation and spiritual growth of many others.
In The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner write, "Leaders involve, in some way, all those who must live with the results." Through important periods of change, I have used several methods to involve those who must live with the results.
—Gathering focus groups from within the church to help test and sharpen the issues.
—Involving key influencers early in the process, which helps win them over, gives them opportunity to broaden the base of support, and add depth to my ideas.
—Presenting written proposals to key people and groups as drafts, starting points for discussion rather than completed documents. Resistance to allowing anyone to tamper with my perfect plan is poison.
—Delegating parts of the research process to as many other people or ad hoc groups as possible.
—Holding question-and-answer sessions. The earlier in the process and the more inviting of ideas, the better.
—Taking every opportunity not to take the credit.
Step 4: Conceptualize the promised land
Unless the pastor can picture the promised land, he may lose the participation of two different groups of people: the "Marthas" and "Marys," patterned after Jesus' friends from Bethany.
"Martha" has taught three- and four-year-olds, or been an usher, or served in the nursery, or cleaned up after church dinners, or written to missionaries, or done the landscaping. Unless I conceptualize the promised land for Martha, she will grow weary. She has to see the priceless value of her labor as it relates to the larger ministry of the church.
In a recent talk to a group of ushers-greeters and nursery workers, I said, "On Sunday morning, you people have the two most important jobs in this church. To visitors, how they are greeted and how their children are cared for will be more important than how I preach. Without your ministry, all these visitors will probably not come back again."
One long-time usher replied, "It's about time somebody realized that."
"Mary" represents those who will not involve themselves without a vision of the promised land. Years ago an extremely talented family left our church. We had a specific plan for change that would enable us to grow and expand. Yet this family kept asking annoying questions: "Why are we doing this? How will these changes help us to accomplish what God wants for us, beyond physical growth? What will our church look like when all this is over?"
It was demoralizing to lose this family, yet now I realize the validity of their questions and the missing part of our plan for change. Our vision was not significant enough. To me it was exciting simply because it was a drastic change from the status quo.
When we do picture the promised land for people, they find motivation.
Once, right before presenting major change proposals, I preached a sermon on Joshua 14: "Caleb offered no excuses that the city walls were too big, his enemy too strong, his people too impossible. … He left a legacy of wholeheartedness. … The question is, What will we leave for the next generation? What great challenge has God called us to meet? What kind of ministry will reach our children with the gospel?"
One result was that an 80-year-old woman caught the vision. "I've been thinking about craft classes," she told me, "as a way of ministering to our community. Would it be all right if I tried to organize something like that?"
A "female Caleb," she envisioned craft classes complete with child care, refreshments, and a simple gospel message. She saw it as an entry point for retired couples, stay-at-home moms, and shift workers. This woman not only understood the ministry picture we had drawn for our church, she also saw how she fit into that picture.
Step 5: Communicate redundantly
As part of a major shift in direction, the elders and board spent the better part of a year drafting changes to the constitution. I preached a series of four sermons communicating its underlying biblical principles. We published a paper that explained what we had done, and why, and mailed one copy to each member. Later we put another copy in every church mailbox. Finally, we scheduled two open sessions for the congregation. The first meeting gave information, restating what was published. The second meeting was open to questions.
At the meeting one man stood and said, "I don't know why you're trying to shove this new constitution down our throats. We haven't even had a chance to talk this through."
After an uncomfortable silence, numerous people responded without being recognized by the moderator: "You should have come to the question-and-answer meetings." "Didn't you read the information paper? It was all in there."
Sheepishly, the dissenter relinquished the floor. The new constitution passed unanimously.
You can't overdo communication. Lyle Schaller says, "All important messages should be sent out on at least five different channels of communication."
Step 6: Clarify criticism
Two of our key younger leaders were presenting ideas for a major addition to our building. They had done their homework and provided charts, conceptual drawings, anecdotes from our history, and energetic enthusiasm. The two had anticipated every question.
Then, right near the end, Sam, a well-respected, fifty-something member, made a speech. In two minutes Sam seemed to undo what had been done the previous two hours.
"We can't afford this," he carped. "Look at how few of us there are. Out of all the people here, look at how many are retired or will retire soon. I suggest we forget this grandiose idea and hold on to what we've got before we lose that."
My mouth hung open. I didn't expect this from Sam, a former board chair. Singlehandedly he delayed further discussion.
Two months later my wife and I received an invitation to attend a party-for Sam's early retirement. Later, after Sam and his wife moved to Florida, I put the two incidents together-his stonewalling and his retirement. I concluded that knowing of his retirement and move, Sam likely felt he needed to protect the congregation from the removal of his spiritual and monetary contributions. I still felt he was wrong, but the incident encouraged me to try to understand why someone opposes a change.
Now, when I encounter opposition to an innovation, I ask the person to help me understand what they object to and why. For example, several people objected when we turned the sanctuary into a multi-purpose room, although it was pure necessity that led us in that direction. I discovered a variety of reasons for opposition.
"What about the flags?" said one veteran of World War II. "We can't have a bunch of basketballs knocking them off the wall."
We eventually found a way to protect this display rather than remove it completely (which I had initially assumed we would do). The other objections were handled, except one, which included translation of a passage from Scripture: "God says my house shall be called a house of prayer, and you have turned it into a gymnasium." We used the objection to highlight the truth that there is no longer any earthly structure that is God's house; the people of God are his building.
This discussion was helpful to everyone except the critic, but we had taken time to answer his criticism. When we voted, he happened to be out of the country; the proposal passed unanimously.
When criticism of proposed change comes, I evaluate: Did I fail to communicate redundantly, to build consensus, or to commit enough time to the knowledge process? This keeps me from being too hasty to blame critics. Once we have tried to understand the criticism and answer the questions, if we are still confident that this is God's direction, it is vital to continue on.
Step 7: Complete all you can while you can
I looked around the table at our focus group. The focus group was gathered in my home, since the church had no facility. The church was preparing to move into a new building, with a new constitution and philosophy of ministry.
Our purpose was to use this group as a sounding board. I excitedly showed them new logos, structural diagrams, and vision statements. When I got into the specifics-schedule changes, program ideas-I hit the saturation point.
"Wait a minute, John," said a young professional woman. "Some of this is just going to have to wait. We can't handle any more change right now. We need time to enjoy our new building and get used to the new structure."
Outwardly I remained calm (I think). Inwardly I contemplated whether we would have to be satisfied with fewer changes than I had envisioned. The window of opportunity would close for a time.
No matter how glorious and spiritually productive the changes may be, a time will come when the congregation cannot take even one more change. Even the most minor adjustments may then be upsetting. So I intentionally planned not to introduce change once we moved into the new building, at least for a while.
The important point is: Do all you can while the window is open.
John Beukema is pastor of The Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois.
1997 by Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.