In my last article I wrote on the leadership principle that “change takes time”: that when leading necessary changes for growth in a church, it is wiser to be strategic and steady, bringing as many people along as possible, rather than rushing ahead and potentially “blowing things up”. I first learned, and then experienced, that there are three exceptions to this principle that this article will address. However, let me caution that these are exceptions. And even when these exceptions exist, it does not mean you should abandon the steps involved when leading through change. It just means you can move more quickly through the steps. Here are the three times you can make changes quickly in the church:
- When there is a new priest.
Popular wisdom passed on from priest to priest when they are going to a new church, especially as rector or priest-in-charge, is to not make any changes for the first year. Instead, they are told to take time to get to know and love the people, understand the culture, and earn the trust needed to later introduce change. I couldn’t disagree more. Now of course a new priest must get to know and love the people, understand the culture, and earn trust through competency, compassion, and consistency. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t also make some strategic changes in that first year.
In fact, when a priest is new is a perfect time to make some strategic changes. Why? Because the congregation is expecting the new priest to make some changes! Every priest is different and will do some things differently from the last priest so of course some things will change. The church is in a time of change and changes are expected. Now this “honeymoon” period, as it is often called, will end and the “change takes time” principle will kick back in. But in the meantime, some strategic changes here make sense.
Also, I believe most lay people want to know that their new “leader” is a competent leader and not a ‘dud’. Making some initial, wisely chosen strategic changes, during a time when changes are expected anyway, is a good way to establish that. Again, there is a caution here. These changes must be wisely chosen and still taken through the steps of leading change like: prayer, getting the support of key influencers, communicating how the change solves a problem and advances the mission and vision of the church, etc. The classic example of what not to do is of a new rector who didn’t like the tree outside his office window because it didn’t let in the sunlight. So, one day he went out and cut down the tree only to find it was a Memorial Tree given in honor of a church matriarch! Needless to say, that change didn’t go over well. You don’t have to wait a year to make changes but be wise!
When I was a new rector one of the first things I noticed when I arrived was that there were no “visitor parking” signs. However, there was a very nice “rector” parking sign in the best spot right up front. To me, that communicated that we were an internally focused church that put the comfort of the rector ahead of unsaved people. Since our mission is to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28: 19) then, that sign issue needed to be changed and it shouldn’t wait a year until I got to know everyone. It was a small and strategic change. When I started communicating to the leadership that I wanted to remove the “rector” sign and replace it with a couple of “visitor parking” signs I got immediate pushback. I was told we couldn’t do that because one of the “charter members” of the parish had hand-made the wooden “rector” sign. It would have been easy for me to just accept that since I certainly didn’t want to offend one of the last living charter members, and just end it there. Instead, I called up the man who made the sign and explained what I wanted to do and why. I asked if he could/would make the new visitor signs and he agreed! No one would argue against that. He made them, we installed them, and I moved the “rector” sign to the back of the parking lot by the dumpster to visibly communicate that our mission is not about us and we need to put non-believers need’s ahead of our own.
This is only one example, but I hope it communicates the kind of changes that are worth making during this season where changes are expected anyway.
- When there is a crisis.
If you happened to live through the period where many of us left the Episcopal Church (well they left us, but you know what I mean) you will understand this idea. During the crisis, congregations that might have spent a year debating and then tabling decisions about what color the new carpet should be or something, were making rapid fire changes all over the place! We just had to. Debating and tabling were not options. Changes had to be made and made quickly. Debating did happen, but it was quick and purposeful, decisions were made, and change happened fast.
Crisis times are not to be sought out or hoped for but when they come, it does provide an exception to the principle that change takes time.
- When the congregation develops a culture of change.
This should be sought out and hoped for! This should be the goal of every local church that wants to be missional and grow in today’s culture. When a congregation becomes so committed to fulfilling the Great Commission and adopts a “whatever it takes” attitude to where the needs of lost people who desperately need to be in Jesus’ Kingdom get routinely placed ahead of their own desires, regular adaptive change can become just a normal part of how the church functions. Change isn’t a crisis, it is just part of what you do to proclaim the never-changing truth in an ever-changing culture.
For example, programs can come and go. If they are still working, keep them going. If not, end them. Give thanks for the good they did and move on to a program that will be fruitful now. Let’s use something sacred like Sunday School as an example. Sunday School is a program used to fulfill the purpose of making disciples (Matt. 28:19). Did you know Sunday School didn’t exist in Christianity until the last century? Somehow disciples of Jesus were made for over 1900 years before that without Sunday School. It’s a program. If it’s still working to make disciples, keep doing it. If not, change to a program that will. It, like other programs, can become “sacred cows.” I heard a pastor once say that “sacred cows make great hamburger meat,” meaning they can change. Now I’m not suggesting you get rid of Sunday School here, I am suggesting that when the church develops a culture of change, it can regularly change programs as needed to better fulfill God’s never-changing purposes.
So, you might ask, why is this an exception and not the norm? The reason is that it takes spiritually mature members to have a culture of change in a local church. It takes people whose lives are so deeply rooted in their relationship with Jesus, that the external changes in the church don’t weaken their own security. People who find their identity and security in Jesus first, and not in other people or tradition or sacred cows or anything else, can adapt to changes without their own life feeling insecure. And also, people who are willing to “do church” selflessly for the sake of others and not primarily for themselves. It’s like in John 13: 3-5 where we see Jesus, knowing who he was and where he was going (identity and security) was free to selflessly serve others: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” It often takes a long time to get a church to that level of rootedness and selflessness in Christ.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching at the American Anglican Council.