How Ready Is Your Church For Change?

A pastor called, concerned about his congregation, inquiring about a change process for them. One of our first questions is, “Why now?” This pastor described concerns about finances, participation levels, and the general morale. Through further conversation, it became clear this pastor was very concerned, but the congregation….not so much.

This surfaces the issue of “readiness.” How ready is one’s congregation for change? How ready is the staff, lay leadership team, and congregation for an intentional change process, focused on missional advancement? Through experience, we have learned to ask the readiness questions, discovering timing is everything. Change expert John Kotter brings laser-like clarity to this conversation in the Harvard Business Review: “Until 3/4s of your leadership cadre is convinced that ‘business-as-usual’ is no longer acceptable, your change process is not ready to begin.” If so, then how does a motivated pastor get others on board, preparing the congregation for change? What needs to be in place for kingdom-oriented change to be received and implemented?

Three Readiness Factors For Congregational Change Processes
First, the congregation must be more Christ-focused than church-focused.
A strange phenomenon is evolving. Many middle-aged and young adults are expressing great admiration and respect for the teachings and life of Jesus Christ. Simultaneously, they express clear lack of interest (or even disdain) for the Church as we know it. (See Dan Kimball’s, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, 2007) There are few people in this world who become captivated by the desire to build the Church, before transformative experience with the Church’s founder. Unfortunately, we run into many congregations who are more concerned about building their branch of the church than about connection with the risen Christ. Congregations are not ready for deep change (resulting in mission advancement) until they reconnect with the one who brings deep change to our individual and communal lives. When congregations are captivated by Christ, then they are ready for a change process.

Second, the congregation must have sufficient urgency for change.
When sufficient urgency is present, then congregations have the motivation required to tolerate what must be shifted during the missional change process. Without sufficient urgency, the resistance to change will undermine the potential gains.

Two distinct emotional states drive urgency. One is far more pleasant and desirable than the other: Passion. When congregations are captivated by the risen Christ they cannot be held back from passionate expression of this experience. They discover energy for missional change which grows out of this Christ-connection. The other emotional state which drives urgency is ….well, crisis. I wish this were not so. I wish all our motivation for change were noble and Christ-focused. Experience tells me that when we are worried about the metrics of our church (buildings, bodies, and budgets), then we are shaken out of the doldrums and grow more open to change. Institutional concerns may grow into crises which open up the congregational system. Whatever combination mix of passion and crisis develop, sufficient urgency must be present in order to embrace significant change processes. In fact, part preparing for change is shifting from crisis oriented to passion oriented urgency.

Third, effective leadership (lay and called) must be in place.
We did a large consulting process with an established, traditional church not long ago. The plan most in the congregation preferred included creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. A smaller group voted it down, largely due to a lack of trust for lay and called leaders. Effective leadership must be in place in order for congregations to venture out into the deep waters.

“What then contributes to effective lay and pastoral leadership,” one might legitimately ask? The great triumvarant of leadership are trust, support, and challenge. The Attribution of Intent Theory tells us that when I believe you want good for our group, then I will trust you when you ask me to step out of my comfort zone. The reverse applies too. Trust grows based on time and experience. Support on the other hand, is what we need in order to move through deep change. The greater the change, the more support we need (though the greater the change, the more preoccupied are the leaders who need to give support!). Challenge then, is turning up the heat to keep the congregation moving forward toward the goal – missional advancement.

So, how ready is your congregation for change? Ask yourself about the collective congregation’s Christ-focus, urgency, and leadership. May we be faithful and effective congregational leaders, accepting this church where it is, while leading forward toward the expansive kingdom of God.

Mark Tidsworth, President