“It’s my first week. What should I change here?” Perhaps new pastors don’t vocalize the question, but I know they think it. The default setting to change something is only natural for a good leader. Having a vision means being dissatisfied with the status quo.
“The search committee said they were bringing me on to make needed changes. Why is the church resisting the obvious?!”
Why have so many pastors’ honeymoons ended after the first few months? Resistance to change is one of the largest hurdles in leadership. I once had a handful of pencils launched toward me when my tweaks to a potluck dinner were discovered. I learned not to mess with potlucks. Luckily the pencils weren’t that sharp. No blood, no foul.
Every church leader has been there. We’ve all met the resistance. Here are a few reasons why people resist change.
You are the change. New pastors often miss this fact. Even if you change nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—in your first year as a pastor, people will still experience a huge change: you. You are not new to yourself, but you certainly are new to the people of the church. Any change efforts you introduce in your first few months are only magnified by the fact that people are still trying to get to know who you are.
Technical change and cultural change. When people say they want change, they often mean technical changes. Technical problems require specific expertise. For many, pastors are seen as the hired expert on hand to work through technical problems. People desiring technical changes ask these questions: Can you ensure my curriculum is in my room? Can you see that church is not so hot in the summer? Why haven’t I received the newsletter? These questions involve small technical changes, but often people desire significant technical changes too, like a new building.
Technical changes are important. If you pastor a church of any size, then you must manage the organization of people. Few people, however, understand that lasting change is cultural, not technical. A technical expert does not solve cultural problems. If you are a leader, then you’re most likely gravitating toward the cultural changes you believe need to be made. That’s what leaders do. They challenge the status quo. But you must realize that very few people in your church default to cultural changes. There’s a reason why some things get embedded in the culture of a church. Most people find them acceptable. Early in your leadership, win people over with easy technical changes before launching into significant cultural changes.
Lack of trust with those who propose the change. Just because people like you and send encouraging cards in your first month doesn’t necessarily mean they fully trust you. Even when people respect the office of pastor, not knowing the person who fills that spot often leads to a cautious acceptance from the congregation. Respect and trust are two different mindsets. People may respect you while not fully trusting you. Earn their trust by honoring their respect before making big moves.
Belief that change is not necessary. It’s a fundamental question: Do the people I’m leading even recognize the need for change? If the current way appears successful, then the evidence of a problem is hidden from the plain sight of the people. As the leader, you may have the advantage of inside organizational knowledge. A knowledge to which the average churchgoer may have zero exposure. Before implementing a change effort, you must show people the hidden problem.
Belief that change is not feasible. Even if everyone agrees that change would be good, not everyone may agree that change is possible. It’s easier to show people the problem than the feasibility of fixing it. Getting people to agree on a common problem is not enough. To enact lasting change, you must also show them how the solution is feasible.
Loss of position, status, and power. People will resist a change effort if it reshuffles the power alignment. Rare is the person who willingly gives up position, status, or power without some resistance. This resistance makes sense. If someone challenged your position, then you would likely resist that effort as well. Though people are rightly repulsed by the idea of the church being a political organization, forming political allies is necessary within every organization. Before you challenge the current power structure of a church, serve and befriend the power brokers. If you can win them over, then you will have their help in enacting long-term cultural changes.
Threats to values and ideals. People react emotionally when you challenge their values and ideals. When change is viewed as an assault on a current set of ideals and values, you can expect widespread resistance. These values may not be what’s formally published in the constitution and bylaws. The only way to uncover these values and ideals is to spend time with different people. Detached pastors will never know the unspoken—yet well-understood—values of their congregants.
Change is likely to occur when the people within an organization believe the benefits of making the change outweigh the costs of making the change. This attitudinal shift doesn’t come easily or quickly!
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Posted on December 21, 2022
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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Excellent first point.
When I arrived and reordered a few elements of the Sunday service, I was told by an elder, “You have changed so much here!” It wasn’t a loaded statement with any emotion, just an acknowledgment of CHANGE, which is always an exercise of someone’s authority.
My first 3 years were burdensome because of expectations. They hired the young pastor with a growing family; the pastor came to an historic 150 year old church. This pastor actually cared about history and foundational principles, they just wanted new families to join who thought exactly as they did. The young families came, but they were more in line with the pastor’s convictions rather than the “family values” of the established congregation (“What do you mean, ‘Children should stay with their parents during the whole service??'”)
In reality, the 150 year old church had CHANGED slowly overtime and had become something other than her historic and confessional identity. Is returning back to our Founding Principles CHANGE? Surely. But in reality, we are supposed to be an ordinary church. It’s not our place to compete with all the innovations that churches usually accociate with CHANGE.
So much more to say…
They like the new format of the monthly newsletter, tho!
These are excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing!
I’ve said it before here but it is worth repeating. A mentor told me “don’t change anything in the first 6 months unless it is absolutely broken.” I think, depending on the age of the church (either institutional or membership) that can be extended out with regard to substantive change. But they stressed, the greatest gift you can bring is the ability to create an environment where change is not viewed as the enemy or final, unless the change is adopted.
Early in my tenure I tried “new things” and made the caveat – we’ll try “singing the psalms instead of reciting them” for 8 weeks and assess how that helps or hinders our worship experience. If, after 8 weeks we think it’s the dumbest thing we’ve ever done we’ll let it go. If we think it’s okay sometimes then we’ll keep it around. We didn’t change critical things, rather created confidence in the change process.
As William said, much of my time has included convincing by word and action that I had the Parish’s best interest at heart. I wasn’t simply changing things because I could, rather because the change would help them in their ministry. And as William said, it took a long time (~6 years) to start gaining their confidence. Likewise, it took reaching that point “when we need to change or we will be changed” to get people to really devote themselves to changing.
Prior to becoming Pope Francis, Cardinal Borgoglio was teaching a class and told seminarians that they would learn much about their parishioners prior to their parishioners learning anything from them.
It is a tragedy that churches operate like Washington politics.
It is less about politics and more about human nature. Most people don’t seek out change and many loathe change. The basis for that is laid out well by Sam. Institutional change is political because it impacts people but not because it is bureaucratic.
All pastors need to realize that changing a church culture takes many years and it requires the permission of the people. I have been in my current church for 14 years and we are just now beginning to make significant changes in worship and our church culture. I have been talking about this for all of that time but the last point you made is where my church has finally arrived.
“Change is likely to occur when the people within an organization believe the benefits of making the change outweigh the costs of making the change. This attitudinal shift doesn’t come easily or quickly!” With our steady decline in attendance we realized that something had to change. We are making significant changes and the church at large understands that something had to be done. It is an exciting time watching what God is doing.
Good stuff, William. You are leading them well!
The people may see that you are just wanting to change things for the sake of change. This only makes people upset and accomplishes nothing useful. See what is not working too well before starting the changes. Some things may be working. There are often multiple ways to do something and they may not all be wrong.