A yellow left turn sign against a backdrop of trees and a body of water
Peggy Sue Zinn / Unsplash

Countless leadership books and articles give advice on strategies to make changes in our organizations. Many of these resources are quite valuable, and we would do well to heed their wisdom: they remind us that change is necessary for growth.

Experience also teaches us that sometimes change is needed just to survive. Most congregations in the U.S. are still trying to adapt to new realities and lean into new opportunities, as post-Christendom is upon us and our beloved church buildings are aging.

We may know what needs to change. The challenge is that most change efforts fail.

Let’s be honest: change isn’t easy. Whether new plans are hampered by institutional or individual opposition or a lack of resources, change is often extremely difficult. When change doesn’t happen, we may think we know why: “Obviously, people just don’t like our ideas.” That might be true, but perhaps there’s more to the story. Understanding the issues that complicate change can help us avoid common mistakes and have a better chance of seeing ministry flourish.

One reason congregational change falls flat is a lack of effective communication. For instance, doing ministry in a hybrid environment makes communication even more challenging — and even more important than it was before the pandemic. Key stakeholders may not be consistently worshipping in person to hear the pastor’s remarks from the pulpit, so change initiatives must take into account how leaders will keep multiple groups of members informed in different ways.

Many other factors can sabotage our change efforts. When we don’t expect and prepare for resistance, and when we don’t have a solid strategy to guide the work, being an effective change agent is going to be difficult. Avoid those common pitfalls and, with God’s help, you’ll be on your way to seeing God do a new thing.

Resources

Tod Bolsinger headshot

Tod Bolsinger: Navigating Change

In this episode of “Leading and Thriving in the Church,” Prince talks with Tod Bolsinger, senior congregational strategist and associate professor of leadership formation at Fuller Seminary. He’s also the author of several books, including “Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory.”

An illustration of two buildings with arrows pointing opposite directions between them

Could ‘hybrid shared ministry’ help struggling congregations survive?

A pastor shares his experience with a new model in which a larger congregation helps a smaller one by digitally sharing resources, sermons and other assets.

By A. Trevor Sutton

An arrow pointing left labeled ''OLD WAY'' and an arrow pointing right labeled ''NEW WAY''

The church needs innovation instigators

As we’ve learned through COVID-19, faith communities can adapt. Church leaders must be willing to continue sparking change by asking new questions and challenging old answers.

By Gabby Cudjoe-Wilkes

Edgar Villanueva headshot

Christian innovation must change the status quo to help the marginalized

Innovation isn’t Christian if it doesn’t focus on God’s priorities.

Q&A with Kimberly R. Daniel

A stack of quarters sits on top of a collection of U.S. bills

The willingness to do something different can make all the difference

Three colleagues share practices they developed and then lived into as they re-envisioned their work. The disciplines are useful to individuals discerning their purpose, to the mentors who walk beside them and to leaders of organizational change.

Q&A with Stephen Lewis


Before you go…

One question I try to ask myself before initiating a big or small change is whether people are ready for it. When people aren’t ready for the change, the implementation almost always fails. “Ready” is a moving target, to be sure: different people and groups need different information and motivations to accept change. But it’s my responsibility as a leader to listen and observe carefully and to know what it’s going to take to prepare people for something different. As Tod Bolsinger observed about the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, “The leader knows it’s going to take 40 years because you’re going to have to be transformed to be a people who can enter that promised land.”

The more eager we are to see something change, the harder it is to be patient. But do not underestimate the importance of preparing people. Do whatever it takes. Meet one-on-one with key leaders. Set up small group conversations to discuss options. Preach a sermon series. Teach a Bible study. Take leaders on a field trip to see another context where the change has already happened. All these steps might feel like too much, but they are just the beginning. If you want the change to succeed, don’t move until a core group of stakeholders is ready.

You can always reach me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Until next week, keep leading!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity

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