Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

Change is ongoing in the healthy church. Leading change is a high priority strategic skill that every pastor will need to develop in a rapidly changing world. Refusing to lead congregational change is to choose slow death over health and growth.

I know that leading change is not for the faint-hearted. A declining church doesn’t turnaround and become outward focused without a demonstration of uncommon courage from the leader. There is great risk involved, yet, it is not reckless risk, for such courage is grounded in Christ Jesus who declared that He would build His church.

Church transformation requires mapping out a personal game plan that will help one stay the course, especially when fear threatens to paralyze. I wish to suggest some strategies to use in your personal game plan to becoming an agent of transformation.

1. Change agents surround themselves with traveling companions.

Leading change is similar to heading out on a week long back packing trip. You can go alone, but it will be a lonelier trek, and far more dangerous. The same is true in leading the local church through change. Most who go it alone end up lost, discouraged and in some cases severely wounded. So who should accompany you along the journey? There is wisdom in surrounding oneself with a variety of traveling companions.

Peer-to-Peer Learning Community. No one can learn enough in today’s world through solitary study. That’s why there is high value in being involved in a learning community of peers who are each committed to study, mutual accountability and reflection of ministry best practices.  A peer-to-peer group supersedes the traditional clergy cluster model in that it is primarily formed for the purpose of leadership development, not fellowship.

Vision Team. This should be a broad representative group of people from the church that would discern the church’s vision and work out a vision path for implementation. These would represent the various stake holders of the congregation and would serve to interpret and defend new directions the church takes as new ministries are launched. Most importantly they believe in the emerging dream, and help the pastor communicate it with urgency. Detailed explanation of a vision team may be found in Direct Hit, by Paul Borden.

Prayer Group. Find the people who understand the power of prayer and will commit to praying daily for the church and its leadership as it goes through transition. This group should meet together at a strategic time in the week, perhaps early on Sunday morning. Regular communication of the existence and purpose of this group will foster prayer as a high value during the change process.

Coach and/or Mentor. There is much to be said about the increasing role of personal coaches and mentors in leadership development. Without taking the time to explain the difference between coaches and mentors, let it suffice for this article that either a mature mentor or a skilled coach are both invaluable companions along the leader’s developmental journey.

2. Change agents demonstrate change in their own lives first.

The pastor is the fundamental change agent. Not the sole change agent, mind you, but the primary one. If anything is going to change in the church it must start with the leader. In fact, the only person over whom any of us have control is ourselves. We can persuade, cajole, threaten, inspire and suggest. But we can’t force change on anyone, or any group, much less a congregation.

Leaders who wish to change the system, have to change themselves first, and foremost. If the leader changes, then the relational system of the congregation must change as well. Pushing hard from the pulpit and hoping for resultant change is insufficient as a tactic for transformation. In fact, it can lead to resistance. Most people push back when pushed. The person in the pew needs to observe the leader engaging in new behaviors that flesh out new direction as well as new commitments. Churches will find a changed pastor difficult to resist.

There are several churches in our region that have experienced a major turnaround. In each situation the pastor showed the way, usually through leading a team of people to engage in some form of hands on ministry that was external in focus. For example, Paul Burnham has led the Newport Hills Community Church from a congregation running 15 in worship to one that is now beyond 130. Paul and his wife, Leona, started a myriad of ministries that reconnected the church with the surrounding community. They didn’t wait for someone else to do it. For example, they started a mid-week children’s ministry that targets the families within the low-income housing across the street from the church. This work involves a meal, family worship time and break out Bible studies that are age appropriate. They rolled up their sleeves and launched the ministry. Of course, they have recruited others to help, but they cooked the meals, walked the halls of the apartment complex inviting the children and their parents, and designed the evening’s program.

Leading a church outward in renewed ministry requires that the pastor show the way through new behaviors. The change agent starts the change process in himself, or herself, first. This personal change has strong potential for transforming the entire congregational system.

Originally published December 13, 2004  © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest