Stop Getting Mad at People Who Question Change

By Sam Rainer

Most people don’t like change. Most leaders want to challenge the status quo. Leadership is, in part, the process of helping people see the need for change, embrace the vision for change, and then implement the change.

Getting mad at people who question change does not help the process of change. Those who are truly malicious are typically small in number. When people have questions about change, it does not necessarily mean that they are questioning your leadership. It’s likely they just have questions. In fact, the only leaders who go unquestioned are despots.

Particularly in the church, there is built-in institutional resistance to change. Almost every church has this inherent resistance, especially established churches. The body may spend decades building something—a program, a worship space, or a culture. Shifting direction on a decade’s work is jarring, even if it’s the right thing. The church is often the place people cling to the familiar. The world is changing rapidly, after all. At least the church offers some solace from what feels like a whirlwind of change.

When a church leader introduces bold change, a strong reaction should be expected. Some will complain it’s too much too soon. Others will complain it’s too little too late. Others won’t care. And a few will champion the change.

Bold change almost always raises questions from people. Getting mad at people who raise the questions does nothing to help move them through the process of change. Yet a leader’s visceral reaction to these questions is often anger. I’ll admit I’m guilty! And it’s wrong, a leadership flaw, arguably sinful in many cases.

So what can you do in the moment when questions fly your way? How can a church leader quell the knee-jerk anger to questions about change?

  • Listen. Seriously, just listen. Don’t talk. Don’t say anything. Don’t explain yourself. Don’t get defensive. Let people speak to you about the change. Many times people just need the opportunity to hear themselves speak and to know you heard them.
  • Learn. Your posture and your tone can speak more loudly than your actual words. When introducing bold change, take the posture of a learner. Let’s assume you’ll make a big announcement from the podium about a large change initiative. Make a resolution to be a learner the moment you walk off the stage. And the way you’ll learn is by listening to questions about the change.
  • Smile. Remember school pictures? I never liked them. I often didn’t smile, and the low quality of the pictures reflected the intensity of my scowl. The quality of your change initiative will be directly correlated to the amount of encouragement you give people. If you think more explanations, more spreadsheets, or more structure will get people moving, then think again. Forcing people through change without encouragement signals that the change is for your benefit, not their benefit. You’ve got to love the people who are affected by the change through the change. When questions come . . . smile. Encourage. Love.

You’ll never please everyone. How many times have I heard that? How many times have I said that to others? You know upfront that change initiatives can be tough, that people will resist change. Getting mad at followers ensures only one thing: failure. I’ve never heard a leader mention how unjustified anger inspired people to embrace a change initiative. So listen. Learn. Smile. And perhaps the change initiative might just go a little more smoothly.

Posted on September 25, 2019

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • When I went directly to our former pastor and pointed out issues and asked questions about “the plan” I was labeled a Troublemaker and a disruptive influence. I had a young first time pastor who refused to listen and had an answer for every question . He swore up and down only he knew best. He even publicly chastised people calling them spiritually immature during a meeting because the vote wasn’t unanimous. He was very vindictive and did a lot of sinful behavior that was abusive to the members that wasn’t his favorites.
    I got to the point I gave up and waited. It got to the point even his favorites was ready for him to go. Eventually He left for a bigger and better church even though he promised he wasn’t ever leaving. Now our church is growing and our current pastor is the total opposite.

  • Very informative post.

  • A good place to start might be to self evaluate what change you want to bring and why. Are you sure you want that music because it will better communicate the gospel to the lost, or is it just the music you prefer? Are you sure the people need to understand and accept your “new” theology, or is it possible you are quite wrong? Are you hiding your own personal preferences under snide remarks about the way things were done in the 50’s and 60’s and coming into the 21st century?

    And how do you plan to bring about the change? By sound preaching and teaching, or by manipulating the wall colors/lights/smokemachines/wall colors/temperature/volume/lasers all to affect neurotransmitter release?

    Does the church need to change? Often the answer is YES since it is entertaining the masses, not presenting the gospel. But the slick mind science manipulation has been outed now, and sometimes the resisters of change are not resisting Godly change but resisting hucksterism.

    Some of us lowly pew folks have been praying for change in the church for decades. Give us the RIGHT change and you might find us a mighty army backing you!

  • Good thoughts and observations Sam.

    Working through change in the church will have it challenges and the challenge of the people can be the greatest. Along with your thoughts to listen, learn and smile working through key leaders for buy in through the process can provide for a voice other that ours speaking to the need to change.

  • Hi Thom,
    Good reminders for those attempting the often hated change in church. However, I found after working with three different churches that it is usually the people who don’t want change to be reactive and angry. Since they fear losing something precious like a position, or a routine, or a program they lash out and many times irrationally. They maintain that whatever is being changed is what built their church in the 50’s and 60’s and refuse to understand that we are in the 21st century. They fought technology, music changes, contemporary services, neighborhood prayer, fall festivals…you name it.

    One church developed a strategic plan at the denomination’s insistence; it turned out to be planning for the past instead of the future. Why? They were afraid that it would be too much work to look towards the future. Those trying to move ahead were the ones who were getting blasted while trying to educate and pray for those who were steadfastly sticking to ceremony and traditionalism. Consequently, these churches are dying a slow and painful death with few visitors and even fewer who stay.

  • I wish the word change had been omitted. Asking questions tends to make church leaders mad. This is probably where there is rarely a Q&A session in any church. It might be even a simple of question of how one came to particular conclusion. It might not be someone criticizing the change but simply asking for an explanation. Even simple questions like these can get one in serious trouble or result in a long sermon on “murmuring” perhaps culminating a condemnation to hell.

    • I agree. Every church should have open question and answer sessions or even a class of some kind. Did not the Bereans question the Apostle Paul and were considered noble (Acts 17:10-12)? Why is questioning presuppositions so threatening?

      • I agree Bill. Questions should be invited.
        The pastor of the church I attend has a stock answer to anyone who questions him. “The last time I checked,there were plenty of storefronts available for you to start your own church”.

      • Those who did not want to answer questions from kids had the parents to thank for telling their kids in advance to not cause trouble by asking anything. If the kid did ask the question, the leader could ignore the question and run right to the parents and get the kid in big trouble for asking and ruining their dad’s chance at making deacon or elder.

  • I have been a Pastor for 6 weeks (after being in my home church for more than 40 years, teaching the word for10 years, and teaching the Word daily for 2,183 consecutive days) this message really helped me.

  • Ken Kroohs says on

    It took me a long time to understand that people had been satisfied with the status quo for long time. So telling them we needed to change was insulting them but saying that they had been doing things wrong for a long time. Or so they heard. So I began asking about history, listening and learning as you mention, and commiserating about how it was a shame people did not understand what we were doing. With that introduction I could introduce the changes and get more of a buy in.

  • Thank you, Sam, for this timely reminder. We are moving forward with a significant change that will likely elicit strong responses once it becomes public knowledge. I needed this reminder!

  • Robert Ivey says on

    Working in local Baptist Associational ministry this is going to go to every pastor and church I can get it to. We are giving all of our pastors a copy of “Scrappy Church” this may go along with the book.

  • David Viland says on

    Thanks Thom for this reminder. Sadly taking this positive posture that you suggest does not come naturally for most of us. We intuitively want to defend our position, but as you said, getting angry with the dissenter does nothing, absolutely nothing to help us move through this in a God honoring way.

    After the listening, questioning and smiles the next steps are also important. I many years ago learned an approach from a mentor that has continually served me well over the years. Then ask, “What questions do you need answered in order to be able to support this?” I have found this question to be, sometimes surprisingly well accepted, if indeed I have truly handled the listing and questioning with genuine grace.

  • One of the best decisions I ever made related to a huge change for our church was to go first to our longest tenured members and tell them that they have veto power over my proposal. It utterly defused the tension in the room and we were able to have an open conversation that dealt freely with all their concerns. Holding the change loosely enabled us to handle the process in a mutually affirming way… that led to a unanimous vote of approval from the whole church.

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