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Leading Change: 3 Strategies to Help Make it Easier

In the beginning, God spoke and change happened. That may have been the last time change management was that simple. For the rest of us, there is usually a process to change.

In the world of ministry, pastors are trusted with leading an entire church congregation—that means families and kids of all ages. What a task!

On top of that, being successful in such a complex arena requires adapting (and leading adaptation) to the ever-changing climate of culture. That’s why I believe pastors should be better at leading change than nearly everyone in the church.

Because let’s be honest:

  • if culture shifts
  • if a model needs to change
  • if a style, phrase or tradition becomes outdated . . .

. . . it will be church leaders like you who experiences the tension first and it will often be you who is tasked with communicating the cultural shift and need for change with senior leadership.

3 Strategies to Leading Change

In other words, change management should be one of your chief skills. Unfortunately, many of us are not trained in change management.

We’re trained in theology, communication, adolescent development and the basics of non-profit finance, but when it comes to one of the trickiest and most important responsibilities we hold, there are very few resources out there for church leaders who want to be great at innovation and leading toward change.

So, if you find yourself…

  • leading a change within your ministry
  • leading a change with your volunteers
  • leading your leadership toward a necessary change . . .

. . . it may be helpful to consider some of the following time-tested change management skills employed by those in leadership, business, education, and other fields where both innovation and humans are required ingredients.

1. Understand the Process

In the beginning, God spoke and change happened. That may have been the last time change management was that simple.

For the rest of us, there is usually a process to change. There are some ups and downs. Some parts will be easy and other parts are difficult.

Consider the Change Curve Theory popularized in the 1960’s by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to explain the grieving process. In this model, most change happens in four stages:

  • Status Quo: a difficult, but familiar time for everyone
  • Disruption: which can be painful for everyone
  • Exploration: an easier time
  • Rebuilding

While not all of these stages are pleasant, history tells us they are generally consistent and happen in this order. And, if we expect them, we can better prepare and prepare those we serve to experience each phase.

2. Develop Empathy

At the heart of many of the changes and tensions we all feel with change sits a single idea: emotions. We all have them and, for most of us, they drive us squarely in the opposite direction from change.

In The Heart of Change, authors Kotter and Cohen put it this way:

Four sets of behaviors commonly stop the launch of needed change. The first is complacency, driven by false pride or arrogance. A second is immobilization, self-protection, a sort of hiding in the closet, driven by fear or panic. Another is you-can’t-make-me-move deviance, driven by anger. The last is a very pessimistic attitude that leads to constant hesitation. Whatever the reason, the consequences are similar.

In other words, until we understand the emotions being experienced (or those that may be experienced in the future) by those we serve, it will be difficult for us to lead them in any direction that is new or unknown to them.

3. Communicate Clearly

Because conflict makes all of us nervous, it can be tempting to avoid it in times of change by using vague or ambiguous language.

In my own ministry, this has been an Achilles heel. Over and over, I’ve seen (and caused) failure in change or innovation simply because those required to change did not understand the reason, the vision or the processes behind the requested change in behavior.

For adults, unclear communication can result in fear or confusion. For the kids we lead, it’s almost always a catalyst for suspicion and distrust. Because they’re masters at the vague-dodge response, they can sniff out intentional ambiguity miles away.

So what do we do instead? Kotter and Cohen place the bullseye here.

Sending clear, credible, and heartfelt messages about the direction of change . Establishing genuine gut-level buy-in that shows up in how people act. Using words, deeds, and new technologies to unclog communication channels and overcome confusion and distrust.

This strategy makes sense. Why? Because that’s how we want to be treated in change.

In other words, Cohen and Kotter point back to a principle that Jesus laid as the bedrock for our interactions with others: Love our neighbor as ourselves. And in times of change, we must provide for our neighbors, for those we serve, exactly what we want from those who lead us:

  • Understanding
  • Empathy
  • Clarity

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