Why Isn’t My Church Changing?

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Change Management Mistakes that Keep Your Church from Changing
by Certified Church Consultant, Dr. David W. Smith

I firmly believe pastors are leaders and leaders are change-agents. Often, leaders see the need for change long before anyone else and desire to implement that change for the glory of Christ, improved health of the ministry, and advance of the gospel. That’s not a bad thing, but it can be executed in a bad way.

My first senior pastorate was fraught with challenges. The church was severely unhealthy and in dire need of significant and lasting change. As a passionate and visionary leader, I forecast the needed change and jumped in zealously. Some of the changes stuck, some didn’t. The church grew healthier in some areas and seemed to regress in others. Much of the change was met with mixed success. I wish I could go back and teach my younger self how to avoid several key mistakes that keep organizations and churches from experiencing lasting, significant, positive change.

Identifying common mistakes in change management can help pastors and leaders affect lasting and significant change.

  1. Tolerating too much complacency.

Churches, especially established churches, have a reputation for working on the principles of, “We’ve never done it that way before,” and, “We’ve always done it that way.” When a leader tolerates change resistance, they encourage complacency. Change efforts always fail to meet their desired outcomes when complacency levels are high. Running ahead to engage change without creating a high enough sense of urgency among key stakeholders within the leadership corps and congregation is a fatal mistake. Successful change agents take the time to prayerfully invest in their key stakeholders and fellow leaders to create in their hearts the sense of urgency they feel.

  1. Trying to go it alone.

Major change won’t happen if the primary leader isn’t on board. While this is true, the primary leader cannot initiate or implement lasting change alone. A wise leader will rally to the cause the church’s most influential people to build a coalition of change-agents to guide the church to lasting change. These individuals may be senior staff and they may not, at least not at first. Every church has wise, powerful influencers to whom the congregation looks to guide them. Build your coalition from those who will buy into the vision for the needed change and who have the influence to help you guide it to success.

  1. Casting a lack-luster vision.

Failing to cast a powerful vision for the change you desire will leave your people lacking clarity and wondering where you’re going and why. A strong vision sets the direction, aligns the church to the goal, and inspires the congregation to action. A powerful vision of change can be described in less than five minutes and elicits a reaction of clarity and interest.

  1. Casting your vision too little.

People will never fully engage in sacrificing to accomplish a vision to change the status quo unless they really believe the benefits of the proposed change outweigh the comfort of the known. Often, church leaders believe one or two congregational meetings, an email here or there, and Sunday morning announcements are sufficient for people to gain real buy-in to the vision of change. A strong vision for change must be communicated in both word and deed by every coalition member and be communicated regularly and relentlessly. If you think you’re communicating your change vision enough, multiply that by a factor of 100 and you’re almost there. You’ll know you’re communicating well when you see enthusiastic buy-in from every corner of the congregation.

  1. Letting obstacles derail the vision.

Every change initiative will be presented with obstacles trying to block the vision’s accomplishment. These may be perceived or real, internal or external. When leaders fail to confront the obstacles as they arise, they disempower those they lead and undermine the change they desire.

  1. Failing to create short-term wins.

Lasting change takes time. Changing the culture of a church doesn’t happen overnight. People quickly become change-weary if there are no short-term wins. Helping your congregation see the benefits of the end-goal by showing them the wins within 6, 12, and 18-months encourages congregants to stay in the fight and connected to the accomplishment of the vision. A wise leader will proactively look for clear, measurable wins to help their people see the benefit of the envisioned change. Create goals to help your people see the vision enfleshed step-by-step and they will stay engaged much more strongly than if you don’t.

  1. Declaring victory too soon.

Just because we see a win or two does not mean the vision has been realized and the desired change has become entrenched in the church’s culture. Celebrating wins is good and needful but declaring victory (or giving the impression of a declared victory) too quickly gives your people permission to disengage from the vision. When churches disengage from the change-vision before real culture change has taken root, regression is likely. When a church regresses before realizing the change-vision it’s much more difficult to get them to reengage or engage in a new vision.

  1. Failing to make the vision the new culture.

Simply changing for the sake of change is unhealthy. However, if real change is needed, it will only succeed if it changes the culture of the church. When a church is transformed from the status quo of “We’ve never done it that way before,” and “We’ve always done it that way,” and the new vision becomes “This is the way we do things around here,” then culture change is happening. Failing to entrench the new vision and the desired change it will produce as the new culture of the church dooms the change-vision to ultimate failure. It makes the change personality dependent, a change that will evaporate into the prior status quo the minute the change-agent is no longer driving the new culture.

These eight errors are all too common when we try to elicit change within our churches. They need not all be present for lasting change to be derailed. With much prayer and careful, intentional efforts on the part of the change-agent, they can be avoided.

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