One of the tensions that exists in all churches is the fact that there are things that need to be changed on the one hand and people who hate change on the other.
In any group of people, studies have found that 20% of the people will embrace change quite easily, 60% can be persuaded to accept the change and another 20% will resist the change just because it is change.
If this is true, there will always be people in a church who will resist change not because they want to be contrary but because it is their nature to resist.
The key in bringing about change is to convince the 60% of people that might not accept the idea immediately but who can be persuaded.
Bringing those people on board requires patience but it can be done. Let me stress this again. It does require patience.
As I pointed out in a previous blog, there are few qualities more important in the church than a huge dose of patience. Without patience it is almost impossible to bring about meaningful change and most churches need a healthy dose of change if they are going to stay healthy.
Five indispensable steps in achieving change
1. Give people time to adjust
One of the mistakes, that I made over and over again in my early years as a pastor, was to expect instant response to a new idea. I would introduce something at a board meeting and then be disappointed when people didn’t jump all over it.
Finally I realized what I was doing. I was presenting an idea that I had thought about for months and I wanted my board to respond in minutes.
I thought that it was a great idea because I had thought about it and rethought about it and rethought about it again. In fact some times I had gone through a process in which I had been excited about it and then on second thought rejected it and then been excited about it again.
As I do with most things, I would have spent hours talking about it with my wife. She would have helped me fine tune the idea since she has the ability to ask great questions that might not be easy but are always the right questions to ask.
After going through this process, I would take my idea to the board and be disappointed when they weren’t as excited as I was.
After this happened more times than I like to admit, I realized that they weren’t necessarily rejecting the idea. They just needed the same amount of time that I had had to think about it.
With that realization came a different approach to introducing change. Unless it was an emergency situation, I never asked for a decision at the meeting at which I introduced the idea. I would give them the time between meetings and some times even over the course of several meetings to process what I was suggesting.
It took patience, which for me has been an acquired trait, but it produced far more results.
2. Identify needs
I am one of those people mentioned above who can adjust to change at the drop of a hat. I find change exciting and life rather boring if there isn’t some form of change constantly happening.
Having said that though, I am opposed to change just for the sake of change. If we are going to propose change in our churches, we also need to explain the need that the change is going to meet.
People in large churches often respond to vision. They have been through building programs and attendance increases and they get excited about future growth and development.
Small church people respond to needs more than vision.
Too often a new pastor has come and within a short time he is sharing a new vision for the church. Then, in a couple of years, long before the vision is realized, he is moving on to another location. After a while the small-church stops responding to a new vision.
Small churches do, however, understand needs. The roof needs to be repaired and the church responds. The furnace breaks down and the church responds.
In a small-church context, change should always be proposed as a response to a need. If the Sunday school space is overflowing, show leaders the crowded classrooms. If the Sunday morning worship service needs to change, show them the reason for that change.
In small churches a proposal for change should always include a need for the change. Again that may take patience as you give people time to process the need, but the end result may be positive.
3. Build relationships
In my first couple of churches I committed one of the cardinal errors of a young pastor. I built relationships with the wrong people.
As a young pastor I built relationships with people whom I liked and who liked me. Some of those people are still my friends to this day. They were usually people like me with young children and an interest in sports. We enjoyed doing things together and usually became good friends.
I didn’t do this to the neglect of everyone else but they were the people with whom I had the closest relationships.
The problem was that they had very little impact on the direction that the church took in the decisions that it faced.
After being fired in the second church that I served, I realized that the people in whom I needed to invest time and energy were the leaders, official and unofficial, in the church. As I look back at the last church I served in, the people with whom I had the best relationships were those who served in a leadership capacity.
I invested a lot of time into my relationship with those people because they were the people who determined the direction that the church was going to go.
That may sound a little like politics but reality in the church is that politics is part of what we do as leaders. We need to learn to do it well.
If I were doing it all over again I would invest even more time in my leaders. I would probably meet with each one on a monthly basis just to stay caught up on what is happening in his family.
4. Plant seeds
Is there anyone that has to be more patient than the farmer? He plants his seed in the spring and then waits. For the first few weeks it looks like nothing is happening. Then the plant appears and he waits for months for that plant to mature and produce a crop.
Like the farmer, leaders need to plant seeds and then wait for them to mature.
Leaders can plant seeds in two ways. The first is to plant them in individual minds. Take a leader out for coffee and ask for his thoughts on the idea that you have. Present it as something that you have been thinking about for the future rather than as something that you want to do right then. Listen to the other person’s input and maybe even let him shape the idea a little. If you have enough individuals on board before the issue ever comes to a board meeting, they will often fight the battle on your behalf.
The second way in which seeds can be planted is to raise an issue at a board meeting just for discussion. Every issue doesn’t have to have a decision at the meeting at which it is first presented. Tell the board that you are just throwing this out for discussion and then listen to their input.
You might have to let the seed lie dormant for a period of time before raising it again. You might have to have some meetings with individuals in order to hear what they have to say one-on-one. You might have to reshape the idea.
All of this takes patience but over time that seed will produce fruit if the leader is willing to take the time that is needed.
5. Share the credit
Someone has said that there is no limit to what a person can accomplish if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.
That needs to be the mantra of every church leader.
One of the interesting side effects of planting seed is that sometimes people start to think that the idea actually originated with them. More than once I have had a member of the board bring my idea to the table as if it were her own.
At that point I have been faced with a decision. I could remind the board member that it was originally my idea or I could get on board and support the idea that she was bringing. I found that I got far more accomplished if I let the board member lead the charge and supported her in her attempt to get board acceptance for the great idea that she had.
At that point I had to decide whether I wanted credit or results. Some of the easiest changes were ones in which someone else got credit for what was actually my idea.
Patience and impact
I want to end this entry with a quote that has greatly influenced my life over the years. I believe that it was Robert Schuller who said it but I am not sure and I have been unable to find the source of the quote. It is such a good ending for this blog entry that I am going to quote it without giving proper credit.
“Most people seriously overestimate what they can accomplish in one year and seriously underestimate what they can accomplish in five years.”
That is a very effective way of saying that change takes patience. Lasting change doesn’t happen in a few months. Lasting change is brought about by the person who has the patience needed to change not only external behaviour but the mindset behind that behaviour and that always takes time.