We changed our service times last weekend.
We had bounce houses in the parking lot. And a continental breakfast. And attendance nicely spread across all three services.
No fuss. No one left the church over it. I wish it were always that easy.
Why We Hate Change
We may say we like change, but what we really like are the results of change. Like when you change your service times and it goes well.
More often, change feels more like careening out of control down a slippery slide.
- Change takes away what is familiar and comfortable, and people naturally grieve the uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
- Or change hits close to someone’s work so they feel their efforts are undone, or worse, disrespected.
- Or change shifts power and they fight the loss.
Change feels good to the minority of early adopters who have already seen the need and had time to process. To everybody else, it sucks.
Nobody likes the feelings of loss and disorientation that can accompany change.
7 Strategies to Lead Change When it Hurts
1. Offer empathy and support.
When someone struggles with change, he may just need to make his case. If he knows you have heard and understand his concerns and disagreements, he may be able to let them go.
For him to feel heard you need to do two things:
- Pay attention to what he is saying. Listen to understand his perspective, not to formulate your response.
- Feedback to him what you heard him say. “I heard you say… Is that the issue for you?
It may be that the best you can do is just to hear him out. But listen for ways to improve your change idea and for ways to problem-solve the issue. It’s a huge win if you can leave the conversation with a better plan that has met his concerns.
These are one-on-one conversations. Meet with people individually, because otherwise, there isn’t time to address and resolve their individual concerns.
2. Facilitate participation and involvement.
Successful leaders of change spread ownership and let go of control.
Ask the people who will be implementing the change to figure out how to do it. They’ll solve the problems, own the solution, and make it sustainable. They will understand the needs and interests of the people most affected by the change.
When the change becomes part of the church’s normal work flow, you’re heading toward making it permanent.
3. Watch how people respond.
Heifetz and Linsky, two change experts, suggest that leaders learn to step back and watch how people are responding. People may say one thing with their words, but another with their body language. They may say the right things publicly, but something else privately. They may be cool at one moment and sideways again the next.
Don’t be so focused on what you are saying that you forget to watch for the look on their faces or listen for what is underneath the words they say. If you think you won, you probably didn’t. Watch for the undercurrents to discern how it’s really going.
You will be in the fray, but you want to be above the fray, too, watching what is happening so you know who needs more support or where a solution needs to be found.
4. Court the uncommitted.
Most people in your church won’t oppose the change and will follow the lead of the opinion leaders who support the change, but don’t take them for granted.
Thom Ranier says there are three groups of people in your church: people who are open to change, people who follow others, and people who are resistant.
It’s natural to focus on the people who oppose the change, but remember they are the minority.
Keep your focus on the majority of your church who want to move forward, and plan to communicate and roll out the change in a positive, timely way. Your plan for communicating the change should include when you are telling everyone about it, why you are making the change, how the change will benefit them.
Learn more about how to lead people-friendly change in this post from last week.
5. Guard your mouth.
You don’t want to find yourself ducking down an aisle in Costco when you see someone from church because of what you said during the heat of the change.
This verse in Matthew 12:36 is pretty convicting:
But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.
We know from James 3 that the tongue is a restless fire, an evil betrayer of pastors and change leaders. So what is a leader to do?
Psalm 141:3 holds the answer:
Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
You might want to memorize this verse, and make it your prayer as you go into difficult appointments and meetings.
6. Renew your strength.
You will come under attack. It feels personal, but the attacks are aimed at your role as the one who dared to lead change.
How to stay strong in the face of tension and criticism?
First: be with Jesus. Every day. He is sufficient and He promises to strengthen and help you. Rely on Him, show up, and see Him accomplish His purposes. Call to mind all the verses that promise strength: Joshua 1:9, Philippians 4:13, Colossians 1:11, and this verse, 2 Peter 1:3,
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
Second: prayerfully reflect on what is happening. Use your prayer journal to make observations, reflect, discern, measure progress, work out your emotions, and listen to God’s leading.
Your spouse, or a seasoned leader, may be a confidant who can listen and support you, and help you stay wise and grounded. Be aware not to treat an ally in the change as a confidant. Those are two different roles and it will mess with your ally’s loyalties if they begin to hear all of your angst.
Third: Keep praying.
7. Let some people leave.
I hope you’re making changes in your church that are leading to a more outward focus.
Unfortunately, that’s just not going to work for some people. They like the family-feel. They like the music the way it is. They like that they know everyone.
You have to decide who holds the future for your church.
Carey Nieuwhof recommends that we prayerfully, humbly discern which voices to listen to by asking questions like these:
- Are they focused on the past or the future?
- Are they open to the counsel of others?
- Who is following them? People you want around your leadership table?
- Are they focused on themselves or the people you want to reach?
- Are they offering alternatives to change that are better than your current vision?
The test, then, is to watch who is leaving your church. If the people who leave go to other churches and get productively involved, and the people who stay push back against every idea, then you’re listening to the wrong people.
Choose to make changes that make your church more outwardly focused and you will keep the right people.
We have a worksheet that will capture these strategies and help you work out how they apply in your situation. You can find it in the Pastor’s Personal Toolbox. It’s a library of our best tools and resources — all in one place. Tap below to learn all about it, and get the worksheet that will help you lead change when it hurts.
Hal Seed is the founding and Lead Pastor of New Song Community Church in Oceanside, CA. Hal mentors pastors to lead healthy, growing churches. He offers resources to help church leaders at www.pastormentor.com.
Start Here to learn more about the resources available for you at PastorMentor.