Common Pastoral Leadership Mistakes When Leading Adaptive Change

We love it when pastors enter coaching before initiating congregational change. This is a great opportunity to partner with pastors toward cultivating and preparing the change process. Often enough, we are engaged for coaching or consulting on the other side of change…when things don’t go so well. These pastors are typically curious (if they have the luxury of curiosity) about what happened. Certainly lay leaders and congregations are large parts of the mix. The American leadership fixation might infer that pastoral leaders are the only influence on whether change goes well. Beyond this, the following mistakes are common for pastoral leaders when initiating adaptive change.

Underestimating the complexity of congregational culture change
Initiating adaptive change in one’s congregation before counting the cost reminds us of the person who built the house on the sand. The wind, waves, and storms will certainly arrive. Frequently pastoral leaders ignore or simply don’t recognize culture’s commitment to maintaining itself. Nearly every mistake to follow fits under this broad category; underestimating the magnitude of culture change. The following four actions are necessary for preparing and cultivating the congregation before launching change.
1. Raising awareness around this major transitional time for the Church
2. Cultivating holy discontent and restlessness
3. Predicting a season of necessary and productive discomfort due to change
4. Anticipating and blessing a time of intentional holy experimenting

Overestimating Pastoral Influence
Perhaps there was a time when the pastor said it, so we did it (strong “perhaps”). We surely are not in that time now. But when we watch the way pastors lead, one can observe remnants of that perspective still at work. No pastor I know believes simply stating what we are going to do ensures that we will, yet many pastors lead as if he/she can lead adaptive change with minimal assistance from others in the congregation. Perhaps the force of personality has been sufficient for these pastors before, yet deep change requires more. This is a common, and typically fatal (for the change effort), mistake.

Neglecting Formation of the Guiding Coalition
Remember change expert John Kotter from Harvard Business School? “Until three-fourths of your leadership team believes business-as-usual is no longer acceptable, your change effort is not ready to launch.” The congregational formal and informal lay leaders must be on board before launching. Three reasons require this. First, they are tasked with implementing change. Second, they are necessary advocates for the change. Third, when the pastor is the go-alone change agent leader, the pastor likely won’t last long. When the lay leaders start influencing others in the congregation toward change, then you know the guiding coalition is ready.

Assuming Job Security
During times of change is when leaders grow vulnerable. I cannot tell you how many times we have heard pastors describing how they were blind-sided by their personnel teams or other leadership groups in their congregations. These pastors, due to their assumptions about job security, ignored the signs of eroding trust and good will from the congregation. They erroneously believed church job loss happens to others but wouldn’t happen to them. During adaptive change is the very time it’s more likely one will lose his/her position. Leadership is perfectly poised to receive the angst of the congregation, which often appears as blame. So, do not neglect the formation of the guiding coalition!

Discounting Congregational Support Needs
Change, even positive mission-focused change, is difficult. We have to let go of cherished practice while embracing a potentially fruitful yet unseen future. Most of us need significant levels of support to go there. Many pastors discount the support needs of disciples as they make good faith efforts to move ahead. Listening, understanding, empathizing, and dialoguing are extremely helpful actions which help people adapt. Telling people to get over it or get on board never works (for very long).

Mistaking Negativity For Helpful Challenge
Some pastors perceive their role in the change process as “holy confronter,” sort of like a bouncer for God. Their tendency in dialogue and discussions is to jump to the negative; challenging people on inconsequential matters. Some of these pastors mistake sullenness, anger, and abrasiveness as somehow helpful to the process. They find themselves putting others down or always pointing out the down sides. They find their influence diminishes quickly, burning all sorts of relational bridges.

Leaving Too Soon
How long does it take to create an environment where adaptive change can happen? Then, how long does it take to move through the changes themselves? Typically, the answer is, “longer than we think.” Everything in our larger culture and denominational systems encourage quick change. It is unremarkable that pastors grow impatient, frustrated, overwhelmed, or simply weary. Even when adaptive change is progressing, some pastors bail too soon. When authors like Israel Galindo (The Hidden Lives Of Congregations) encourage us to wait five years before discerning the vision, the pace of healthy and sustained congregational change grows more clear.

Neglecting Change-Focused Self-Support
Do not enter these adaptive change waters flippantly. Adaptive congregational culture change will take all the gifts and gumption you have…plus some. Certainly you will need God’s help; Holy Spirit intervention beyond your loaves and fish. In addition, you will need help with “skin on;” from live people. Don’t try this without a coach and a movement-oriented cohort or colleague group. And when it comes to a coach, you won’t need a content expert…a consultant disguised as a coach. Instead find a process expert coach, one who can support your leadership while understanding change processes. The bottom line is that adaptive change will require much of you, requiring you to build a strong self-support system.

Our hope is that sharing these common mistakes from real pastoral experiences will save pain and suffering for readers. May we exercise wisdom, learning from the experience of our spiritual kin.

Mark Tidsworth, President, PLA