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7 Keys to a Smooth Church Transition

How to make major changes without alienating your congregation.
7 Keys to a Smooth Church Transition

“Change is the silent killer in the church,” a pastor friend once said to me.

I’ve spent years consulting organizations on managing change and teaching on the subject, so I’m painfully aware that change can be hard. Restructuring small groups, starting new building projects, energizing volunteer efforts, motivating discipleship, updating governance structure—change is inevitable at every level of a church. Isaiah 43:19 tells us that our Creator is always doing new things, therefore how we do the work of the church, too, depends on change.

But why does change in the church disrupt the work of the church? Fixated on this question, I spent a great deal of time researching and interviewing pastors about the challenges their churches face and the problems that prevent them from growing. Some see hope when facing change. Others feel overwhelmed by the list of tasks required to serve their attendees, elders, staff, and volunteers.

Managing change effectively can provide time and resources to focus on the spiritual growth of your congregation and their response to the Great Commission. Here are seven things to keep in mind as your church jumps into a time of disruptive transition.

1. Know when to make a change.

While the right time to make a change will vary for each church and situation, generally it’s time to change when the pain of staying in the current state outweighs the cost of changing. A sense of urgency drives action and risk-tolerance.

Poorly timed change can be distracting. While some churches hesitate to change, other churches are change-saturated, investing in large organizational transitions or uprooting from conventional ways of doing things.

It’s time to change when the pain of staying in the current state outweighs the cost of changing.

When an organization is oversaturated with change, the likelihood of effective transformation diminishes. One pastor I spoke with joined an 89-year-old church battling 30 years of decline. For the majority of the first year, he introduced no change, despite the challenging circumstances. The church had experienced a painful leadership separation in the past, and he focused on learning the history, building trust, and building alliances within the congregation. He simply prayed that God would show him how to love the people of his congregation.

It wasn’t until the pastor had earned the trust and respect of the congregation that he began to introduce significant, disruptive changes that challenged conventional ways of church operations. Since the congregation was actively engaged in the decision-making process, the pastor created accountability and early buy-in with the people.

2. Prepare for change.

Plunging into a transformative effort requires thoughtful preparation. Organizations that intentionally map out the desired outcome, along with how the change will impact the culture, benefit from greater success.

To effectively plan for the change, prepare to answer questions such as these:

  • What is the change?
  • Why are we changing?
  • Who will the change impact?
  • What are the benefits of the change?
  • What will the change cost us?
  • What happens if nothing changes?
  • What obstacles might we encounter?
  • What key messages do we need to communicate?
  • In what ways can we engage the congregation?
  • Who needs to receive training?
  • How will we collect and respond to feedback?

Casting the vision for the change is a good place to start so you can emphasize that vision throughout the completion of the effort.

Remember, individuals experiencing transition will go through an emotional process, from loss and grief, to acceptance and commitment. These are normal responses, and leaders who acknowledge them permit their staff and congregation to cope with the loss of the past in order to see beyond the horizon. Pastors and church leaders can prepare their staff, attendees, and volunteers to survive, and perhaps even thrive, during a time of change by leaning on the strengths of the culture and refining its weaker components.

3. Get people involved (without letting them take over).

Most people don’t like when change happens to them. Instead, they want an active role in effecting change. This presents problems.

In most churches, the pastors, elders, or trustees make important decisions on behalf of the congregation. People may feel like they deserve a say in decisions because of tithing or contributions they’ve made to the church. To address this dilemma, consider ways to engage the congregation without completely giving away decision-making authority, while still empowering people to voice their point of view. One pastor I spoke with encourages people in his age-diverse congregation to “discuss what they’re most afraid of and find common ground for healing, vulnerable cooperation, and adventurous risk-taking.”

The most vocal resisters to change can become the most outspoken advocates for your cause.

One powerful tool to engage people is through your church’s primary influencers—the “change champions.” This group can share the message and enthusiasm for the change with their peers. Yes, peer pressure works on adults! When managed intentionally, it can be a powerful force to help your congregation move through change.

A successful change champion program includes regular touch points, progress reports, talking points, and two-way feedback. The most vocal resisters to change can become the most outspoken advocates for your cause, if engaged early and with a specific purpose. Build a coalition of supporters to address potential resistance and rally others for the change.

One mid-size church I spoke with leveraged the power of change champions as they went through a transformational turnaround. They organized a small group of people, diverse in backgrounds, who met every other week to discuss the transition progress, develop ideas, and report back to the church council. As a result, the congregation members felt represented in the effort and embraced the multi-year change effort.

You can also engage your congregation through intentional surveys, geared towards providing your church leadership with information required for communication, resistance management, and training. For example, if your church wants to increase its number of volunteers, consider probing what is hindering people from currently volunteering. Is it other commitments, lack of training and support, or lack appreciation? Armed with the facts, you can mitigate resistance by removing obstacles.

4. Lead through the change.

The greatest contributor to successful change is alignment at the leadership level. The “why” of the change has to be birthed within the church, deeply rooted in the church’s mission and values. With strong support from other leaders, pastors can share a compelling story and prioritize actions to propel the work forward.

Be trustworthy.

“I have found that when people have great trust in church leadership, it makes change much easier,” a pastor of a multi-campus church in the Midwest told me.

People follow leaders they trust. Churches that have weathered the storm of failed pastoral leadership are understandably challenged to put their trust in someone else. It’s inevitable that we as leaders will, at some point, fail people in one way or another. We all make mistakes. Admit to them and ask for forgiveness.

How strong is your connection with your church attendees and staff? If it is less than satisfactory, prioritize that connection above all changes. Lasting change cannot be effective with a less-than-trustworthy leader.

Be visible and communicative.

Transformational initiatives fail when leaders are not visible throughout the entire process, consistently empowering people to embrace the change.

Most leaders deal with changes before their congregation even becomes aware of the shift. Combat stagnation by effectively communicating the reason for change, how the change will impact the congregation, and how people can become informed of the progress associated with the transformational work.

Initiatives that lack urgency often fail to accelerate.

Your staff and church attendees must know your vision and enthusiasm for the transformation. When fears from the past creep up, and the whispers of “We tried that already,” or “We’ve survived just fine, haven’t we?” hum through the congregation, communicate the urgency and pain that your church is currently experiencing. Peel away the underlying fear or anxiety associated with the change. What are the unmet needs that would benefit from the change? Who will be impacted if change never happens? Paint a grim picture of the future without change, and connect emotionally with the unmistakable reality of your present situation.

While your own visibility is important, ensure that you include communications from other leaders in the church. This will assure your congregation that you aren’t the only one who thinks this initiative is important, but that others in the church believe it is a worthwhile endeavor.

Initiatives that lack urgency often fail to accelerate. While removing roadblocks and potential obstacles, insert a message of hope. What will success look like in the future? Is it a new ministry opportunity? A renewed vision through strategic alignment? A new building or additional regional campuses? Our connection with the church begins with our faith in Jesus and his ability to do miracles with what we offer up to him.

Be patient.

Past change efforts that fall short can leave a lasting negative impression and make people unwilling to try new ideas. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to bypass this part of the process. Permit people to express their concerns early on, so they feel heard and understood. Pray for healing, forgiveness, and restoration.

Be open.

Allow staff to express their concerns and questions without negative consequences. Create the space for people to speak into how the change will play out. Engage them in collaborative creative thinking. Allow people to participate in discussions, workshops, meetings, focus groups, and other formal and informal communication efforts to understand and mitigate resistance.

Be humble.

Your initial plan may evolve throughout the transformation process, and that too is normal. By being inclusive, you can learn what aspects of the transformation will work well in the culture of your church. You can receive input from your congregation and consider what is at stake as it relates to your staff. Adjust your plans accordingly to reflect on the feedback and collaborative thought from your team.

5. Manage resistance.

During any large transformation, leaders will encounter early adopters, laggards, and everyone in between. Resistance is a normal part of the process, and leaders should prepare for it.

One multicultural church I spoke with struggled with generational tension that widened the gap between first-generation and second-generation immigrants who attended their church. A point of disagreement included worship preferences to align with the change in attendee demographic. The leaders observed significant emotional resistance that required patience and open dialogue.

Resistance can surface in many different forms. Some is passive, such as silence or denial. Other resistance is aggressive. Understanding the “why” behind resistance is instrumental in managing it. We can categorize resistance in three areas:

Intellectual: I don’t understand it.

This can be overcome by asking questions, answering the “what’s in it for me,” listening, and communicating clearly and often.

Emotional: I don’t like it.

Overcome emotional resistance by recognizing concerns, engaging in dialogue, reiterating the positive, and—as with intellectual resistance—listening.

Personal: I don’t like you.

How can you address personal resistance? Acknowledge your past mistakes, restore trust, leverage other influencers in the group, allow yourself to be influenced, and—you guessed it—listen.

6. Make time for affirmation and encouragement.

Significant transformation takes time. If your initiative is going to last one, two, three, or more years, build in milestone celebrations along the way and communicate incremental wins to energize your team. These small anchors will move people through the change process and give them hope that their work is recognized and appreciated.

7. Remain steadfast during change.

“Maintaining my spiritual health as a leader is significantly more important than perfect change theory,” said a pastor of a church undergoing a major transformation. “Theory is great, but without a well-grounded soul and without healthy relationship with those you are trying to serve and lead, great theory amounts to nothing.” I couldn’t agree more.

Even the most thoughtfully planned change efforts fall short when church leaders experience spiritual slumps. Prayer, personal reflection, Scripture meditation, and solitude are instrumental in the life of pastors and church leaders, and even more so during times of transition.

Change is hard. It is messy. It is uncomfortable, unsettling, and often unpopular. Cultivate a church culture so your congregation is ready for change. Apply change management techniques through a structured process, external consultants, and change management resources.

With a comprehensive approach, carefully crafted messages, and a prayerful heart, change can be a life-giving experience that rejuvenates your congregation and grows the church.

Pam Marmon is a change management expert, consultant, teacher, writer, and the founder of Threefold Tribe. She and her husband are raising three young sons in the suburbs of Chicago.

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