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8 Mistakes Ministers Make When Leading Adaptive Change

I am engaged regularly for coaching or consulting on the other side of change – when things don’t go so well.

Pastors who have initiated a failed change process are typically curious (if they have the luxury of curiosity) about what happened.

Certainly, lay leaders and congregations are large parts of the mix. Beyond this, the following eight mistakes are common for pastoral leaders when initiating adaptive change:

1. Underestimating the complexity of congregational culture change.

Initiating adaptive change in one’s congregation before counting the cost reminds us of the person who built the house on the sand. The wind, waves and storms will certainly arrive.

Frequently, pastoral leaders ignore or simply don’t recognize a culture’s commitment to maintaining itself. Nearly every mistake to follow fits under this broad category: underestimating the magnitude of culture change.

The following four actions are necessary for preparing and cultivating the congregation before launching change:

  • Raising awareness around this major transitional time for the church.
  • Cultivating holy discontent and restlessness.
  • Predicting a season of necessary and productive discomfort due to change.
  • Anticipating and blessing a time of intentional holy experimenting.

2. Overestimating pastoral influence.

If there was a time when the pastor said it, so we did it, we are not in that time now. But when we watch the way pastors lead, one can observe remnants of that perspective still at work.

No pastor I know believes simply stating what the congregation is going to do ensures that it will, yet many pastors lead as if he or she can lead adaptive change with minimal assistance from others in the congregation.

Perhaps the force of personality has been sufficient for these pastors before, yet deep change requires more. This is a common, and typically fatal (for the change effort), mistake.

3. Neglecting formation of the guiding coalition.

Change expert John Kotter of Harvard Business School once said, “Until three-fourths of your leadership team believes business-as-usual is no longer acceptable, your change effort is not ready to launch.”

The congregation’s formal and informal lay leaders must be on board before launching. Three reasons require this:

First, they are tasked with implementing change. Second, they are necessary advocates for the change. Third, when the pastor is the go-alone change agent leader, the pastor likely won’t last long.

When the lay leaders start influencing others in the congregation toward change, then you know the guiding coalition is ready.

4. Assuming job security.

During times of change, leaders grow vulnerable. I cannot tell you how many times we have heard pastors describing how they were blindsided by their personnel teams or other leadership groups in their congregations.

These pastors, due to their assumptions about job security, ignored the signs of eroding trust and good will from the congregation. They erroneously believed church job loss happens to others but wouldn’t happen to them.

During adaptive change is when it’s more likely one will lose his or her position. Leadership is perfectly poised to receive the angst of the congregation, which often appears as blame. So, do not neglect the formation of the guiding coalition.

5. Discounting congregational support needs.

Change, even positive mission-focused change, is difficult. We have to let go of cherished practice while embracing a potentially fruitful yet unseen future. Most of us need significant levels of support to go there.

Many pastors discount the support needs of disciples as they make good faith efforts to move ahead. Listening, understanding, empathizing and dialoguing are extremely helpful actions, which help people adapt. Telling people to get over it or get on board never works (for very long).

6. Mistaking negativity for helpful challenge.

Some pastors perceive their role in the change process as “holy confronter,” sort of like a bouncer for God. Their tendency in dialogue and discussions is to jump to the negative, challenging people on inconsequential matters.

Some of these pastors mistake sullenness, anger and abrasiveness as somehow helpful to the process.

They find themselves putting others down or always pointing out the down sides. They find their influence diminishes quickly, burning all sorts of relational bridges.

7. Leaving too soon.

How long does it take to create an environment where adaptive change can happen? How long does it take to move through the changes themselves? Typically, the answer is, “longer than we think.”

Everything in our larger culture and denominational systems encourages quick change.

It is unremarkable that pastors grow impatient, frustrated, overwhelmed or simply weary. Even when adaptive change is progressing, some pastors bail too soon.

Authors like Israel Galindo (“The Hidden Lives Of Congregations”) encourage us to wait five years before discerning the vision, so that the pace of healthy and sustained congregational change grows clearer.

8. Neglecting change-focused self-support.

Do not enter these adaptive change waters flippantly. Adaptive congregational culture change will take all the gifts and gumption you have, plus some.

Certainly you will need God’s help. In addition, you will need help with “skin on” – from live people.

Don’t try this without a coach and a movement-oriented cohort or colleague group. And when it comes to a coach, find a process expert coach who can support your leadership while understanding change processes.

Adaptive change will require much of you, requiring you to build a strong self-support system.

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his personal blog.