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My Experience in Leading Change

In the past weeks:

You may be asking, does this really work in my church?

I’m certainly no expert but I thought it best this week and next to lean on the “experience” lever just to say: “Some change management wisdom can be helpful!”

I’ll be brief. It’s difficult to drop 25 years of dramatic congregational change in a century-old church. (Dramatic as in major, difficult, and painful for the pastor and the people.)

Gail and I arrived, new out of seminary, at the 125th anniversary of our church and school. They once boasted well over a thousand in worship, but were down to less than 40% of that number.

When I think of change dynamics, I think of 3 very different seasons at that church.

The Early Days 

I became senior pastor within 6 months of arrival. I was the newest and youngest on a staff of 20. It felt like people had sensed crisis in the months before we arrived. “We can’t stay here or we won’t exist any more.” It didn’t need to be translated for them. The last great celebration had been the building of the new school 25 years earlier. But disappointments and demotions had followed since that time. There was no “hope” that a new future could be had. 

There weren’t many big wins in the congregation, so we celebrated “little wins.” A baby crying for the first time in church in years. A bump in the numbers that everyone counted. A story here. A testimony of a changed life there. 

More than anything, I tried to build relationships. Demonstrate trust, live with integrity, and not reinforce bad behaviors in members. Use everything to point to God’s mission to get His lost people back. (And it was very difficult for our folks to not focus on maintaining the institution.)

The “What Now?” Days

This season came quickly. Our church had grown. It had a future. But we were asking: Do we stay in our urban neighborhood or relocate? The church appointed a Future Committee. This was not a standing committee that intuitively tries to preserve the status quo. Seven or eight trusted leaders from different circles in the congregation asked to study and recommend a future path. And I had a seat at the table. Eventually the recommendation to not relocate but start another campus was proposed and captured favor. 

I was still younger and newer. I was listened to, but not particularly trusted with 130 years of heritage. Two men emerged that caught the vision. Kenny in his 70s, his speech slowed by a stroke a few years earlier, and Arnie, a TV repairman. 

They championed the change with their peers. Spoke about the next generation and reaching God’s lost people. They softened the strident voices that couldn’t imagine an omnipresent God could be in two different sanctuaries and worshiped at the same time. And we launched a second campus.

Also at this time, we partnered with a neighboring congregation to launch a Hispanic church. Several pastors, mostly with great competencies but trumped by character issues, crippled the start before a godly, gifted, mission-focused pastor arrived. He continues to lead today!

We had almost 20 years of surprising fruit from the two campuses! The Hispanic ministry grew, another church was planted, lives were changed and people baptized.

It’s difficult to hold steady when disappointment has been added to disappointment. But my experience has been that there is a way through it. As you look at your context, what “wins” can you celebrate? Even the little ones matter. Where can you build stronger relationships and trust?

I hope that you’ll join us for our Leading Through Change workshop. And come back next week as I’ll share more of my experience in leading through change. Because even though we found ourselves in a fruitful season, more change was coming!

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