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7 Pitfalls When Leading Your Church to Change

Underestimating the work involved in leading deep change is the most common mistake leaders make when leading congregations toward positive, life-giving, mission-congruent change.

The primary expression of this classic mistake tends to be launching our change processes too soon.

Before the congregational growth environment is ready, we initiate change, followed by great frustration when the change effort fails.

Many dynamics contribute to our tendency to start too soon, yet the following seven missteps are common pitfalls.

1.Mistaking inspiration for timing.

Often leaders are visionary people who lead by inspiration. When they discover a new insight, a new opportunity or a new direction for the church, they grow excited, ready to share this new discovery now.

Moments of high inspiration are mistaken for a signal that it’s time to begin the change process. These leaders must retrain themselves when it comes to large-scale adaptive change.

Leaders who recognize inspiration as a helpful tool, yet not a timing indicator, can use inspiration’s energizing effect without undermining their congregational change effort.

2. Exaggerating trust levels.

The default tendency of most pastors and lay leaders is to exaggerate trust levels in the congregation.

I’ve coached many clergy and lay leaders who believed they were highly trusted only to discover they had minimal working relational capital when they initiated change without sufficient trust that equips the congregation to risk.

3. Under-investing in the change coalition.

The strong current of individualism running through U.S. culture influences many leaders to believe we can lead change on our own, or at least with a small change coalition. But the larger, more significant the change, the larger and more expansive the change-leading coalition must be.

Pastors and lay leaders who launch their change effort without a guiding and sustaining coalition committed to seeing the changes through will experience adaptive failure.

4. Launching when urgency is low.

Urgency is the motivation to tolerate the discomfort of laying aside the familiar in exchange for an unfamiliar yet positive future. When our motivation for change is low, the inertia created by familiarity wins every time.

Congregations who adapt are driven by a high desire, or shall we say need, to become something more.

When a sense of apathy permeates the congregation is not the time to initiate significant change. Instead that is the time to raise the urgency level.

Adaptive failure results when we believe initiating adaptive change will be the catalyst for raising motivation. Change efforts require the reverse, high levels of urgency to sustain us through the change process.

5. Assuming persuasion is sufficient.

Preachers often believe that stating the case for change is sufficient. “If I can get that into a really good, meaningful sermon, then people will be on board.”

Or, perhaps you have seen it play out another way. “When we gather the necessary information, showing our 30-year attendance patterns on a graph, then our congregation will be ready to change.”

There’s enough truth in this perspective to make it helpful. We do need to understand why change is necessary. Yet, understanding alone is sufficient when we are engaging only low-level change.

6. Underestimating resistance to deep change.

People change daily. Congregations change weekly.

Much of the time we negotiate change fairly well; otherwise we would be in conflict at all times. But when it comes to adaptive change, we meet resistance.

Giving up something very important, such as a spiritual ritual that was so life-giving at one time, is hard work. Our rhythms, norms, processes, structures developed around our practices.

We find ourselves believing our way of being church is not only one good way to be church, but is the best or only way.

In fact, we come to believe that being church the way we are is what it looks like to be a faithful church. We mistake methodology for faithful practice.

So when we ask congregations to change, we are asking something very near and dear to them to be laid aside. Novice church leaders are often blindsided by the vigorous resistance to their innocently recommended changes.

7. Ignoring the obstacles to change.

When it comes to congregational change, two strategies bear excellent fruit.

First, new experiences of faithfulness, growth and spiritual invigoration in the present can overcome obstacles and impediments to change. These new experiences lift disciples up into a new reality, influencing them to lay aside their hesitation and resistance.

Second, some obstacles and impediments require direct attention. Time does heal some wounds, yet others fester without attention. The infection and toxicity in some wounds prevent healing until directly addressed.

By identifying these expressions of the classic change mistake, we more easily avoid them.

By reviewing these together before launching change, pastors, staffs, visioning teams and lay leadership teams will save themselves high frustration and plenty of angst.

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. A longer version of this article, which is adapted from Tidsworth’s forthcoming book, “Farming Church: Cultivating Adaptive Change In Congregations,” first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog. It is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his personal blog.