Leaders have a responsibility to be change agents, especially in the local church. We cannot simply assume that things will be the same over the years, because it's an impossibility. The way churches operated 15, 20, 30 (even 5) years ago is a model that cannot carry on. The culture around us has changed. We've moved from a place of prominence to a place of general apathy in our communities. We're moving into a sea of a post-Christian worldview. We're moving towards commitment struggles among younger families and away from institutional loyalty. Even the way we communicate with one another has changed radically in the last several years.
Change typically falls into one of three areas, and it's important for a leader to recognize not only what kind of change they want to promote, but how it will need to be implemented and how it will be received. That's why the best rule for change is to navigate slowly. Leading change too fast makes it hard to get the onboard support.
1. Systemic Change - This is change to processes and operational issues. In churches this can include things like revising bylaws (which should be reviewed every couple years at a minimum), updating policy, developing an organizational pattern, building structures of accountability for finances, and other more impersonal changes. Leading through these can be difficult because there is often an emotional attachment to the processes people are familiar with. It's always key to lead through systemic changes with a team of people who can present a unified front to a church's leadership team and ultimately to the church body as a whole.
2. Surface Change - These are superficial changes like a fresh coat of paint, a new logo, a website redesign, decorating your children's ministry area, cleaning out junky closets (what's the weirdest thing you've ever found in a church closet?), and replacing worn out furniture. Surface changes can be costly because they're largely replacing material, but it can serve as a jump start towards systemic or cultural change. Many times churches keep things the way they are, even junky closets, because that's all they've known. It's not intentional, they just don't see what could happen if they made some minor adjustments. But surface changes aren't enough. You can't assume new parlor couches will spark revival. That's like hanging a chandelier in a condemned house. Sure it looks nice, but it doesn't fix anything. Surface change can be a "low hanging fruit" to generate short term wins (see Kotter's Leading Change, or Rainer's Who Moved My Pulpit? for more on leading with momentum).
3. Cultural Change - This is the most significant form of change, because it's not just changing appearances or processes, it's changing people. Cultural change happens slowly, over a long term process. Cultural change is becoming outwardly focused, creating a missions culture, repairing broken relationships, redeeming past church fights and splits, fostering a climate of unity, and developing a passion for sending. That doesn't happen overnight. And this is where many pastors throw up their hands in frustration and walk away, and never give cultural change a chance. If you're in a church and wanting to see cultural change take place, you're looking at a minimum of 5-7 years. And unlike a fresh coat of paint or new bylaws, you won't see immediate fruit of cultural change. That's where a leader has to be willing to take the long view, which means not getting bogged down by week-to-week or even year-to-year. You have to look at things from 3 years ago, 5 years ago, to truly see cultural change take place.
But pastor, don't lose hope. Your faithfulness in the pulpit, in the hallway, in counseling, and in your community are producing something wonderful. You're stewarding the Kingdom through a local church that Jesus loves. Hang in there. Don't lose hope. I say this as much to myself as to you: God's not finished with you or your church yet.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.