The Classic Leadership Mistake Of This 21st Century

Mark Tidsworth, Pinnacle President

How does something become classic in only 19 years? Cars must reach the 25 year mark before they are officially “classics.” Well, frequency and prevalence are the drivers in this car. Here’s what we mean.

The road to becoming adaptive churches in this century is not smooth. We watch pastors, lay leaders, church staff persons, denominational leaders call for change; presenting convincing evidence that doing what we have always done won’t serve us well. We also watch these well-intentioned efforts lead to high frustration levels, given the lack of progress. With a wee bit of investigation, it’s clear that leaders frequently underestimate the work required to shift congregations who are living, breathing systems. If this sounds familiar, don’t despair, you are in good company. Leaders in most contexts carry this tendency to underestimate the work of deep change. Change expert John Kotter says it this way, “A good rule of thumb in a major change effort: Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo” (Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press). Underestimating the work required to facilitate adaptive change….the classic leadership mistake of leaders in this 21st century.

When it comes to leading churches, the first and primary sign we are underestimating the work of adaptive change is launching our change or transformation process too soon. The following beliefs and actions signal us we may be on that pathway.

  • Mistaking inspiration in the pastor or leadership as a signal to launch our change effort

  • Exaggerating trust levels in the congregation

  • Neglecting the cultivation of staff and lay leaders, preparing them to sustain for the duration

  • Starting when urgency in the congregation is too low

  • Believing stating the case for adaptive change produces sufficient motivation for actual adaptive change

  • Underestimating the resistance to deep change, even when verbally endorsed

  • Ignoring the obstacles and impediments blocking the way forward

(Learn more about these signals in my book Farming Church, pp. 12-17)

So where to from here? Are we suggesting adaptive change is unnecessary?

If we believe the old leadership maxim, “Adapt or die,” then change we must. What we are suggesting is to start the transformation process long before you launch your “formal” change process. Cultivating readiness is the ongoing work of leadership when they are looking for adaptive change. Readiness cultivation is a key competency for church leaders in this 21st century who believe their role is to shepherd the church into faithfulness and relevance. In fact, cultivating readiness is an essential, yet typically neglected part of leading adaptive change. I would describe it this strongly: Seventy-five percent of the work leading to successful adaptive change in congregations occurs before launching the change process.

So, here’s where we are. We all believe adaptive change is necessary for churches to live into their best selves in this radically changing world. We all believe God will supply our needs as we travel that pathway. Now we also know not to launch our change process too soon. We also know that leading change requires far more cultivation work than we imagined. So, let’s do what we need to do. Let’s learn the key competencies involved in cultivating readiness, positioning ourselves to effectively serve in God’s vineyard.

NOTE: Watch for our training and publishing activities regarding “Faith Change Agents,” coming this Fall.

Helen Renew