“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.