The Art of Change Leadership
When people in your congregation are complaining about the way things are, it is important to acknowledge that they are saying that something needs to change, which does not mean that what has been done in the past was wrong. Our churches, like the bridge pictured on this page, were well-designed and well-built for the times and places in which they were planted. However, the world around them has changed, and many of us feel the tension of a situation in which “how we do church” does not seem to be accomplishing the mission we know it is called to fulfill. Even though the bridge was well-built, it is still necessary to change it if people are ever going to get from one side to the other. The context in which we are in ministry has been completely remodeled.
Yet, even when people ask for change, we discover that there is significant and surprising resistance as we begin to change. Change is about gaining something new, but it is also about losing something familiar. There is always loss, and where there is loss, there is grief. We are used to being church in a thousand small and big ways. We have habits, and we love the ways we have been almost as much (maybe more) as we love the mission that God has given us. We are good at doing what we have done, and we feel confused and incompetent when we begin to try something different.
This means that our efforts to become more vital will not only create new excitement and promise, but also will be accompanied by a sense of loss and grief. Conflict in congregations experiencing renewal is almost a universal experience, and if our new vision is to be fulfilled, then that conflict must be handled openly and gracefully. Have you ever heard someone say they have enough of “that stuff” at work, and they don’t need to come to church for it? In a church culture that emphasizes comfort and healing, we must not be surprised to discover that the skills necessary to handle conflict are not already in place! Change leaders need conflict-management skills. Your core team will need to be intentional about gaining them.
Key skills for Change Leadership
Change leadership requires the following skills if the emerging vision is to survive the inevitable conflict, move through a steep learning curve and find fruitfulness in masterful new practices. These skills include:
Non-anxious leadership: One of the many reasons that leadership teams are so important is that they calm each other down and provide better and more graceful responses in conflict and confusion. Non-anxious leaders take responsibility for failures with low anxiety and good humor (Well, THAT didn’t go the way we planned!). This allows the whole congregation to be more flexible and risk-taking.
Excellent communication: Congregations in change usually struggle over communication. There are many reasons for this. In stable congregations, everyone already knows what is going to happen. It has happened before. In renewal, all kinds of unexpected things are happening either because they are new or because they didn’t go according to plan. This requires much more attention to good communication. Communicate everything multiple times, in multiple ways. Pay attention to what needs to be communicated, and to whom, and communicate it in the medium most likely to reach the right recipients.
A focus on why: In stable congregations, we mostly talk about what we are doing. Sometimes we teach people how to do it. However, congregations experiencing renewal need to talk almost all the time about why we are doing these new things. There must be a persistent focus on the purpose of the church, of the congregation, of whatever action you are addressing and how these mesh. The biggest reason for the failure to fulfill new vision is declaring victory too soon. It takes about three years for the culture of a congregation to truly adapt to a renewed sense of mission and purpose.
Lots of listening: It is amazing how powerful just listening to the people in the congregation can be in sustaining the sense of community that keeps them together. Listening can be done in 1–1s, focus groups, town hall meetings, interest groups or in many other ways. (Surveys and voting are rarely useful listening methods.) Remember to listen without agenda (e.g., “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”).