Leading Your Church To Change


“How can I get them to change?”  As a small church pastor, I think I’ve asked myself that question at least once a day in every church I have pastored.  Wanting the churches we pastor to change is part of our DNA.  We see opportunities for improvement, expansion, growth, outreach, and progress, and we think everyone should see things the same way we do.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to realize everyone doesn’t see things the way we do, and that our members like things just like they are.  How does a pastor, whose heart beats to the sound of change, lead his congregation to make the changes necessary for the future of that church?

Here are five keys to leading change in the small church that I’ve learned, mostly the hard way:

1.  Listen to the stories of the past. Our church is 153 years old.  Three years ago we celebrated our 150th anniversary in a 7-month long sesquicentennial emphasis.  During that time I got to hear the stories of our past.  Leaders, traditions, memories, and accomplishments were highlighted each month.  I developed a new appreciation for the 150 years our church had existed before I arrived on the scene.  Your church has a history B.Y. — before you.  Listen to and celebrate the stories of the past with your people — that will go a long way toward leading them to change in the future.

2.  Link the past to the future. The theme for our 150th anniversary was “Praise for the Past, Faith for the Future.” The steering committee came up with that theme, and I thought it was great.  They sensed that the past was important, not just because it was history, but because it was a link to our future.  Mark Lau Branson of Fuller Seminary has written a helpful book, Memories, Hopes and Conversations, about how his church built on the traditions of their past to find a way forward for the future.

3.  Learn what type of church you have. By church type, I don’t mean “Baptist” or “cantankerous.”  Israel Galindo’s book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations offers several clues to learning about church types.  After reading Galindo’s book, I learned where our church was in the typical life cycle of churches, and I understood the particular challenges we faced more clearly.  There are other church characteristics that Galindo covers that can be helpful in learning how to lead you particular type and style of church.

4.  Love your people. This is advice everybody gives, but too few pastors follow.  Loving people means spending time with them, getting to know their stories, learning what’s important to them, and genuinely caring about them.  The old saying, “People don’t care what you know until they know you care” is still true.  If you care, and your members know it, they’ll respond to your leadership enthusiastically.

5. Lead with patience. Change takes time in a small church.  Actually, I think changing small churches is more difficult than changing large churches.  Traditions and memories are the stuff of small churches, and change threatens both.   I wrote a chapter in the LifeWay book, Deacons As Leaders, that tells the story of how one church I pastored changed our deacon structure to a more positive, servant ministry.  Pastors that lead with gentle patience can look back years later to see progress that is steady and sustainable.

Change comes in fits and starts in small congregations.  But it can come.  In churches I’ve pastored, we built buildings, bought property, revised our by-laws, hired staff, altered schedules, moved classes, created new programs, and started new groups.  Your leadership as pastor is the key to transformative change in your church.  Take the time to listen, link, learn, love, and lead, and you’ll reap the rewards of positive changes in your church.

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18 Comments

  1. The church I pastor will celebrate their 90th anniversary next year. Thanks for th eincite on joining the past with the present.

  2. Thanks for the info. It is a good reminder to us all. Thanks too, for Galindo’s book title. I’ll be sure to pick that one up. Always gain something from your site.

    1. Kathy, Galindo’s book is just jammed with helpful insights into congregations and why they do what they do. Of all the “church” books I have, this has to be one of the 4 or 5 most helpful, and may be number one!

  3. Chuck

    Thanks for the article, I always enjoy the things you write about.

    I was thinking why is it that we think that we need to change? I don’t have a answer for that, but I do believe that many times people are frustrated by the amount of change that we as a culture seem to embrace.

    Several months ago I attended a funeral of a man that I had known over the years. He had attended the same little church all his life. During his service they did a video presentation of his life and one thing that stood out was his wedding picture in that church over fifty years ago was the fact that the stage at the church still looked the same, still had the same backdrop. The only difference was taken in black and white.

    hat brought me comfort.

  4. Part 2

    I had computer glitch

    That brought me comfort.

    I believe that in our fast paced culture we can point people to the things that never change. God and His Word. In these rough and tumble times our churches can become safe havens from the constant shifting of our culture. We can point and teach people to build their lives on these never changing foundations

    I will post again on this topic as I have time to think about this subject more.

    1. Steve, you’re exactly right — I think the changelessness of some of our churches is what gives comfort to lots of folks. Of course, things are changing whether we want them to or not, and I’m talking about the kind of changes that make sense for the future. But I do agree with you, and we’ve tried to be sensitive to what needs to change and what doesn’t. Good thoughts, and thanks for sharing them.

  5. Chuck: Great advice! One of the single most needed elements for change in a small church is patience. So many of us want to make it happen NOW. But we forget that God takes His time changing us, so we should also take time making changes in our churches. Thanks again for a great article.

    Terry Reed
    treed92@yahoo.com
    smallchurchtools.com

  6. In 6 short years our church will celebrate its 175 anniversary. This has been a helpful post to think about some of the changes we want to make in our small church and look forward to utilizing that event to help accomplish those things in a loving patient way. Thank you!

  7. “Your leadership as pastor is the key to transformative change in your church.”

    I would challenge this statement and ask if there is any scripture that teaches this? I’m sure in the traditional system of church, this is true, not because of God’s design but men’s desire to read their traditions into God’s Word.

    I find God’s design for change in that well read verse about “not forsaking the assembly as the habit of some is…” and it’s almost universally ignored context. This warning is sandwiched on both sides by God’s design for assembly or meeting. “Let us consider how we can spur on another on to love and good works…” and “let us encourage one another, and all the more as we see the day approaching.”
    1. The basis for any change is on God’s design for never ending growth in sanctification as brought out be the previous verses. We should never be satisfied where we are at. He has a “new and living way…”
    2. God’s design for change is edgy, including spurring, like a cowboy spurs his horse. It’s okay to be pointed and a little painful.
    3. God’s design is based on mutuality – one another quality relationships. A power pyramid with special titles and perpetual dependency on one guy will ruin this. If the “full-time ministry” versus secular layman caste system is in place and every one loves it, then you’ll have to ignore this scripture and find something else.
    4. God has designed to speak through every member of His body. Everyone has a piece of the kingdom to proclaim (Remember a “royal priest” is to “proclaim the glories of Him…) God will not funnel His wisdom through one man. Col. 3:16

    God’s people will not grow “on to love and good works” or be ready for “the day approaching” if they have systematized change through one man and one-way communication. In God’s mighty grace, some change and growth will happen, but not nearly anything close to what God has in mind. You might change the color of the carpet or the pulpit from oak to plexi-glass, but most real sanctification requires God’s people coming together fully prepared to mutually spur each other towards love and good works.

    Even if you want to claim that “God gave…pastors and teachers…to equip the saints for the work of the ministry…” is how “pastors are the key” to transformation, there are four other gifts mentioned here and few if any churches have anyone known by those gifts living among them – they only know a pastor-teacher. Also as the context goes on “speaking the truth in love, you will in all things grow up to Him who is the head..” is all the saints doing the talking – not just one guy.

    Preparing God’s people to do the “building up” and the “speaking the truth in love” presumes the pastor-teacher will not do 90% of the talking the whole life of the believer as is currently the dominant system of “meeting”. Even in Sunday school hour only one guy is prepared to do 80% of the expression of truth.

    Hint: If you want to keep new wine you will need a new wine skin to hold it or the wine will go to waste.

    1. Tim, while I don’t disagree with your point, the reality is that pastors lead churches. I believe that what we’re after is not replicating the first century church experience in a return to some kind of “pure, primitive Christianity.” Rather, church adapts to fit its context in time, culture, and a host of other externals. Just look at the wide variety of expressions of church not only in the US, but around the world for verification of that idea. While your concept is one of those expressions, it isn’t the only one, and it isn’t the best one for some situations. If you have read much on my blog, you will remember that I strongly advocate for shared leadership, the function of spiritual gifts, and the pastor as shepherd, not dictator. But, still because we pastors think about this church stuff more than most people have time to, we’re in a position to lead in some important changes. I’m sorry if that offends you, but most churches operate that way, and I don’t think there is anything inherently unscriptural about it. Of course, that’s my opinion and we might disagree. Thanks for commenting.

  8. I did not say anything about trying to be primitive or replicate 1st century cultural things. I’m merely talking about obeying what the scripture says will produce growth in love and good works. You seem to have no confidence in the power of God’s people to spur one another on to love and good works.

    What you claim is “adapting to fit it’s context in time” is a sad way of saying we can do what we feel is best at this point in time. Now you are the head of the church, not Jesus. The Catholic church has done alternative functional heads thinking up adaptation, conceptualization, and syncretism for a long time. Do you think it’s working?

    In my first statement I asked you for scripture to back up the statement of yours I quoted there. You gave none. I gave scripture that speaks against your claim and you brush it off giving higher authority to time passing and cultural perceptions.

    The whole point of your post is to help pastors stop from being discouraged that their people don’t want to change. Your system, with all it’s cultural adaptation is failing God’s plans to build His kingdom, transforming His people into His likeness. The saints are not responding. Maybe there is a system problem and a confidence in God’s Word problem?

    You have succeeded in “building buildings, bought property, revised our by-laws, hired staff, altered schedules, moved classes, created new programs, and started new groups.” Is that the extent of the change you can bring with your “adapting” and your “host of other externals”? God has far different plans of change and transformation than this. These items are not on His list at all. I think you know His items.

    “While your concept is one of those expressions, it isn’t the only one, and it isn’t the best one for some situations.”

    I don’t believe this is my concept at all. I don’t take credit. I think it is one “inspired by God”. I did not write Hebrews or Ephesians. Perhaps you can show me another “expression” that flows from God’s revelation of His church.

    The chief shepherd, your boss, has not informed us that he has altered the identity of His body such that we need adaptations driven by expectations of man (culture) or any other external adaptation.

    What God has revealed is designed to work anywhere, anytime, in any culture. He is the one who makes things grow. Is there any place, anytime or any culture His power is inadequate with His design and we must adapt etc? Is not the whole Bible “primitive”?

    I put my full confidence that anyone, anywhere who does not forsake gathering to “spur one another on to love and good works” and “encouraging one another and all the more as the day approaches” will have no lack in accomplishing any transformation or change God has designed for His people.

    Good luck with your adaptations.

  9. Tim, of course, you may be right and I might be wrong. Or both of us could be wrong, which is probably the case. In any event, we’ve probably both said all we need to say on this subject, and I thank you for commenting.

  10. Tim

    Your thoughts, and how you express them, are much appreciated.

    In your second post you said…
    “The whole point of your post is to help pastors stop from being discouraged that their people don’t want to change. Your system, with all it’s cultural adaptation is failing God’s plans to build His kingdom, transforming His people into His likeness. The saints are not responding. Maybe there is a system problem and a confidence in God’s Word problem?”

    Much agreement – It’s a system problem and a confidence in God’s word problem.
    Seems “The Word of God,” Jesus, wants to do the leading and changing.

    John 6:45
    It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God.

    Deuteronomy 4:36
    Out of heaven he made thee to hear his voice,
    that he might instruct thee:

    Psalms 32:8
    I will instruct thee and teach thee
    in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.

    You also questioned this statement…
    “Your leadership as pastor is the key to transformative change in your church.”

    Nope… That’s NOT Truth.

    First – Jesus is always the answer, the key.
    Jesus said – “apart from me you can do nothing” Jn 15:5

    Second – It’s NOT “your” church. “Our” church. “My” church.
    “The Church” belongs to Jesus. It is called “The Church of God.” Yes?
    Jesus will add to, and build, “His Church.”

    “The Religious System” of today says it’s the pastors place to lead.
    Can’t seem to find “Pastor = Leader” in my antiquated KJV.

    Jesus told “His Disciples” NOT to call themselves “Master/Leader”
    For you have “ONE” “Master/Leader” the Christ. Mat 23:10 KJV.

    “All” Disciples of Christ called themselves “Servants.”
    None called themselves “Leaders.”
    None called themselves “Servant-Leaders.”

    Why isn’t what Jesus said important? 😉

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall **hear MY voice;**
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice.
    If Not Now, When?

    Be blessed in your search for Truth… Jesus.

  11. Thanks for this insight. We attend a small church and have had some concerns about the teaching and direction of the church. This article has given me some ideas for what to connect with and how to love as we present our ideas to the church leaders. Thanks.

  12. Our Birmingham, Alabama PCUSA congregation is looking for speaker(s)to help us become a more missional church. Dates are March 23 and 24, 2011 or a Sat/Sun weekend in early April 2011. Agenda is not in cement yet but will likely be:
    Sat brunch; Women of the Church,(female speaker)
    Sat noon Elders meet with speaker(s)
    Sat evening,carry-in or catered meal with(male)speaker
    Sunday 9 am contemporary worship service(female speaker)
    Sunday 11am traditional service (Male speaker)

    I’m looking for suggestions for speakers who are knowledgeable of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship and who will help us get “plugged in and turned out)
    Please respond to me at my e-mail addy. johnbuckingham@att.net.

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