Do you want change? Most people will say they don’t. If they do, generally it’s limited to changing a small section of their lives. When it comes to our organizations, as well as our careers, change is absolutely necessary. Without it, we are doomed to extinction.

Leading change isn’t always comfortable. However, it is a skill that can be learned. It starts with two fundamental things:

  • Vision: Change starts with our vision for something better. It’s how we want the future to be. Our vision should be big enough to challenge the organization for the next several years. It should be clear, memorable and exciting. Typically the senior pastor (with input from the board) will develop a specific church vision.
  • Strategy: Strategy is the plan for how we are going to achieve our vision. It’s the map of how we will get from where we are today to where we want to be tomorrow. Typically, the executive pastor or staff executive team will develop the strategy (with input from the senior pastor).

Leading People

Once we have identified where we want to go and how we will get there, the real work of leading organizational change begins … the leading people part.

The Change Pyramid

It may be tempting to immediately cast your vision to everyone. Don’t. To be effective, leaders must intentionally shepherd the change process from the people at the top of the organization, through the middle and ultimately to everyone. Think of the process as a Change Pyramid that needs to be worked from the top down through the base.

Start at the Top

A leader’s first job is to share the vision and strategy with those at the very top … the board of directors and the staff. Start with one-on-one meetings with key board members and high level staff (the executive team, for example). Let them ask questions and give their input. They will appreciate being able to do so and to be involved early. This means better buy-in from them. This socializes the vision/strategy and allows you to make adjustments early, based on the wisdom of your top people.

Next, present the vision/strategy to the entire board and entire staff during a regular group meeting. Again, welcome their input and adjust accordingly.

Now that the people at the top are on board, they can be available to answer questions as you move to the people at the next level of the Change Pyramid.

Influence the Influencers

In general, 80% of the work in a church is done by 20% of its people. It is this 20% that is our next focus. Call together a large group of volunteers and people with influence. You can find out who they are simply by asking your staff to provide you with the names of their key volunteers and of congregation members who, when they speak, are listened to.

During the large group gathering, cast the vision and share the strategy. Once the announcement is made, break people into small groups of 8-12. Have board members and staff lead these groups. Let the influencers ask questions and provide input. Gather questions on note cards and reconvene as a large group for the last 20 minutes. Have the senior pastor answer the harder and most frequently asked questions. People will be happy that you involved them in the process early and welcomed their input. Most people don’t have to get their way, but they want to be heard.

Close the meeting by giving people the opportunity to get involved. Ask your key people to help lead the initiative and show them specifically how.

Take the Vision Mainstream

Once the board, staff and influencers understand the vision and strategy, it’s time to engage the rest of the congregation. You can start by holding a special “future of the church” dinner/dessert night. You may also cast the vision during weekend services. This is a time to inspire. Get everyone thinking at the high level. Help them see what can be. Close by giving them a specific next step the church needs them to take. Make yourself, the board and the staff available after services to answer any questions or listen to concerns. Remember that (most times) questions aren’t opposition.

Church Alignment

Now that all the people in your church understand the vision and strategy, it’s time to implement. This means aligning major areas of the church to support the vision:

Staff: Most churches spend about half of their budget on staff. Carefully review, in light of the vision, how this precious resource is being used. Are all staff members on board and working towards the vision? Are there legacy staff who simply can’t accept the new direction?

With the new vision comes an opportunity to change how your church thinks about its staff. Are staff there to do the work of the ministry? Or are staff there to equip the congregation to do the work of the ministry? If staff can lead an army of volunteers, you will have significantly greater resources to achieve the vision.

Budget: With vision comes clarity. It will be as if you are looking at your budget with a new lens. You will see resources that are now going to things that aren’t aligned with your new direction. Shift money within your budget so it best supports where you are headed.

Calendar: We aren’t just stewards of money, but of time. A church is known by its budget and its calendar. Review all church events to ensure they support the vision. Don’t be afraid to let go of good things in order to focus on your God thing.

Influencing Change Through Celebration

Once the vision is cast and the strategy is being executed, celebration becomes key. Vision is caught, not taught. Each week during services, find a way to celebrate your new vision. Have testimonies and short videos that tell stories of how the vision is succeeding. Mark milestones. Publically pray for those who are working the front lines of your vision. When you see people behaving the right way, showcase it.

Church Change Tips

If you are casting vision, working your strategy, aligning your resources and celebrating your wins, then you are successfully changing your church. Here are some additional things we learned as we led change in our church:

  • Choose your pace—revolutionary or evolutionary change: Leaders should be aware that their desire to take ground generally exceeds that of the congregation. While instituting change at a revolutionary pace makes sense to most leaders, it rarely works in established churches. Consider the wisdom of a slow, consistent and caring approach to change.
  • Count the cost: Very early in the process, it is wise for senior leaders to think through the full ramifications of a new vision. In addition to identifying the many good things that will come, honestly count the costs. Change brings with it some predictable side-effects: temporarily reduced attendance/giving, frustrated long time members, changing staff positions and cutting long time programs. If you identify the possibilities in advance, they won’t catch you unprepared.
  • It takes time to change church culture: The biggest church changes involve shifting church culture. As a rule of thumb, it takes 5-7 years to genuinely change an organization’s culture. It may take an additional few years to begin to see growth as a result of that new culture.
  • Implementing is tough: The dreaming stage is the easy part. Real leaders are made when you begin the difficult and lonely job of actually implementing.
  • If it’s going to be, it must start with me: Change only happens when senior leaders model it. You must personally be doing what you ask your congregation to do. Never underestimate the power of demonstration.
  • Set the tone: It’s natural that people will resist change. Allow people a little space to grieve the loss of what was. However, always focus them on what will be rather than on what is going away.
  • Hiring: If you like the way an organization if running, hire from within. If you would like to see a change in an organization, hire from without. Leading a change may mean you need to find outside people to come alongside you. If that is the case, hire first for passion and ability to model the vision. You can teach skills, but you can never instill a personal passion for your church vision.
  • Go with the goers: Any change is going to result in people leaving your church. Don’t be so concerned about a handful of departures that you compromise your efforts to reach thousands for Christ. Give your time, attention and resources to those who are actively working on the vision. When skeptics realize this, over time they get on board.
  • My part, God’s part, their part: When leading change, remember that you cannot control everything. You have your part (to cast vision and create strategy). God has His part (to work on the hearts of His people). Your congregation members have their part (to prayerfully consider their role in the change).
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat: Continuously reinforce the vision. About the time we’re sick of it, it is just beginning to be heard by the congregations. It takes a message being heard seven times before it breaks through.
  • Join forces: Seek out like-minded national groups that align with your vision. Use them as a training, encouraging and networking resource. Regularly educate staff with books, conferences and videos that support the vision.
  • Expect “The Dip”: The Dip is the point after the initial energy/excitement runs out … and before the encouraging improved results begin. Expect that this will happen and stay the course when it does.
  • Words matter: Be careful about how your vision for change is communicated. Use specific words with specific meanings (definitions) to communicate what is desired. Do not let the words get misused. One trick the opposition may try is to co-opt your words. They will slather them on top of whatever they’re doing and claim to be aligned. This is a political move that benefits no one … and robs the congregation of its mission clarity.
  • Evaluate: Monitor your progress and make midstream corrections. No initial plan is perfect.
  • Head, heart and hands: During the process of change, people first need to understand intellectually (in their head). Once they have the head knowledge, the vision embeds in their heart. It becomes part of who they are. Lastly, the vision moves from their heart to their hands, where they act upon what they now believe. Use these milestones as a way to evaluate where your people are in the change process.
  • Relationships over rules: Transitions tax relationships. In times of change, it’s better to give grace and emphasize relationship (than to hold too rigidly to a plan).