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  • Writer's pictureJim Gettel

Leading Change in Church Communities: 10 Important Questions

Leading Change in Church Communities: 10 Important Questions | Where Jesus Leads

1. Do we need a change process?

  • What is the adaptive situation we are facing?

  • Are we responding to symptoms or purpose?

  • How will this change help us to respond to God’s call/live more fully into God’s Kingdom?

  • How are we making things better?

2. How much do we need to change, and how quickly?

  • Incremental change: Most people assume success comes one step at a time and are more comfortable changing one habit at a time.

  • Systemic change: We may need to reach the next level faster by learning or doing several new things at once. Consider whether we are taking all of the actions we need to truly bring about the changes we desire.

3. Are we prepared for resistance?

  • Different people have different approaches to change: only 3 percent will be innovators, 13 percent early adopters, 34 percent middle adopters, 34 percent late adopters, and 16 percent laggards. (see Diffusion of Innovations)

  • Different people have different stress tolerances, and different people face different levels of stress.

  • Since stress is cumulative, be aware of all stressors:

    • events in the church community, such as new leaders and leadership styles, new projects, perceived changes to worship style, or the arrival of new members

    • events outside the community on a macro level, such as war, natural disasters, or economic distress

    • events on a personal level, such as illness, concerns about children, loss of a job, divorce, or life transitions

  • We need to monitor resistance and build critical mass with pastoral and behavioral responses.

4. What is our level of trust?

  • Most resistance to change is rooted in fear and/or need for control.

  • People will follow those they trust: God/Jesus/Spirit, leaders (clergy and lay), ministry teams, themselves.

  • It’s important to develop a trusted leadership group that is

    • non-anxious;

    • God-differentiated (not self-differentiated);

    • confident;

    • purposeful; and

    • concerted.

  • Leaders need to the pace and tone: enthusiasm and commitment is contagious.

5. Do we have a vision?

  • Begin with a clear, shared, and compelling vision.

  • Draw and inspire people with a significant mission (purpose) to be accomplished together in a supportive community (belonging).

6. Do we have a guiding coalition? This coalition should

  • be trusted (above);

  • create urgency (momentum below);

  • inspire and set an example for later adopters;

  • set goals;

  • create expectations that goals can be met; and

  • carry as much forward as possible in a ministry team (versus the whole congregation).

7. Are we fully involving others?

  • The mission of the church is the work of all of us (1 Corinthians 12).

  • Teams achieve more than individuals (due to the variance of gifts, skills, and resources).

  • Involvement in planning and execution provides understanding and eliminates fear.

  • Teamwork increases energy and enthusiasm.

8. Are we over-communicating?

  • Make sure communication is open and honest to

    • build trust;

    • raise awareness;

    • reassure members that the changes are necessary and will pay off in the long run; and

    • give other people credit for making it all happen.

  • Good communication includes

    • sharing stories and personal experiences;

    • talking comfortably and often about the significant role Jesus (not us!) is playing; and

    • listening!

  • Be sure people know they are heard—but also be sure people understand that being heard does not mean they must have their own way.

9. Are we building momentum?

  • Is there a growing sense of urgency that changes need to occur?

  • Is there a growing confidence that changes will occur?

  • Are resistance levels decreasing? Remember to

    • maintain the right amount of energy, as in the pressure cooker analogy (cook but don’t blow the top off);

    • help concerned members avoid becoming overstressed; and

    • prevent dependent or recalcitrant members from undercutting the community’s vision and strategies.

  • How are we encouraging healthy reactions to stress?

    • Reduce people’s stress by listening carefully to their concerns.

    • Honestly discuss the changes people are experiencing, especially their personal feelings about them.

    • Point out which stress is external to the system or that changes within the system are relatively small, purposeful, and reasonable.

  • How are we reacting to unproductive conflict? Remember to

    • slow or stop the changes ( though this can be like giving in to a child’s tantrum and may not be possible if real stressors are beyond the community);

    • allow the stressed person to find a different setting where (s)he feels more safe; and

    • apply authority and place boundaries to define how individuals must act— even when they are stressed—as members of a loving community.

10. Are we learning?

  • Productive confrontations help leaders take time for conversation, prayer, reflection and discernment, and they reveal broader or deeper perspectives.

  • Leaders need to encourage, facilitate, and mediate confrontations that may help the community make better, positive decisions about questions that do not have clear answers and solutions.

    • See Ronald A. Heifitz, Leadership Without Easy Answers. Steps to successful adaptive confrontations are (1) identify the adaptive challenge; (2) keep the distress within a tolerable range; (3) focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions, (4) give the work back to people, but at a rate they can stand, and (5) protect voices of leadership without authority.

  • Avoiding loving confrontations undermines change by harming relationships, preventing reconciliation and closing off the productive learning that differences in perspective may spur.

    • We need to encourage confrontation to have the community question its attitudes, actions, behavior, or beliefs. At the same time, we need to manage people’s passionate differences in a way that diminishes their destructive potential and constructively harnesses their energy. First, create a secure place where the conflicts can freely bubble up. Second, control the temperature to ensure that the conflict doesn’t boil over—and burn you in the process. Third, make sure that the leader does not come up with an answer or solution on the leader’s own, but encourages the confrontation. Beware that identifying or raising issues that everyone else is avoiding puts the leader in the position of having anger and resentment surrounding the issue directed towards him or her.

  • There are real benefits to working through disagreements over values, goals, or methods if they are relevant to the mission of the community or the challenges the community is adapting to.


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