Bungee Cord Leadership: Using Tension to Guide Your Church Through Change

bunjee 200c2“How do you stay fresh and open to innovation after more than 20 years leading the same small church?”

I get asked that a lot. There are a variety of factors of course, but today I want to tell you about one that has functioned almost subconsciously for me.

When leading, especially when leading for change, I try to imagine that there’s a bungee cord or rubber band connecting me to the people I’m leading.

If I’m not asking for enough change, the band stays limp and there’s nothing to pull people forward. This produces passivity and ineffectiveness.

But if I get out too far ahead of them, it can snap. This produces directionless churches and lonely, frustrated leaders.

They key is tension. Leaders need to keep just the right amount to pull people forward, without allowing the cord between them to break. Staying in the zone between too little and too much tension is one of the most challenging tasks a leader faces. Especially over a long period of time.


Don’t Create Tension, But Learn to Leverage It Well

In my work with Small Church pastors, I’ve often found that their complaints about a congregation not listening, following or changing can be traced back to either having too much or too little tension. Or bouncing wildly between the two. 

As I’ve written here before, people can handle change. What they can’t handle is surprise. And there’s nothing more surprising or discouraging than when a leader who hasn’t been challenging people at all suddenly demands too much change. This causes so much tension that the connection between leader and followers snaps. Suddenly, painfully and often permanently.

Leaders who bring people through big events, crises and changes have learned to leverage tension well. They’ve strengthened that cord, widened that sweet spot and increased the congregation’s tolerance for tension, allowing for bigger change.

No, we don’t go around creating tension. There’s plenty in the world already. But we can leverage the existing tension to our, and the church’s advantage if we follow a few simple principles. And avoid some common mistakes.


How to Strengthen the Cord

  • Lead with integrity. Every other leadership strength is an extension of this – and every weakness denies it.
  • Stay consistent over a long period of time
  • Be a listener so you know what they can handle
  • Keep regular tension, but allow for breaks from the tension (this is how muscles build strength, too)
  • Admit your mistakes
  • Thank people – a LOT
  • Lead by example
  • Show them a better future
  • Give people time to understand the need for change – just like God gave you

How to Weaken the Cord

  • Betray peoples’ trust
  • Ignore their feelings
  • Ask for too much, too soon
  • Complain when they can’t keep up
  • Demand change without explaining why
  • Keep changing your direction suddenly and without warning
  • Complain about the congregation without leading them to a better alternative
  • Gain a reputation for starting big, but finishing weak or not at all
  • Ask them to change for you, but refuse to change for them
  • Don’t change anything for a long time, then change a whole lot all at once


What Does the Right Amount of Tension Look Like?

The right amount of tension varies from church to church and from situation to situation.

Here’s one example that you can draw on.

If you’re in a traditional church and you want to introduce newer worship songs, don’t let months go by without introducing any new songs (not enough tension) and don’t do a whole set of new songs on one Sunday (too much tension).

Instead try this:

  • Play a mix of new songs as background music before and after the service for a few weeks
  • Introduce one of those songs in worship (It will feel familiar since they’ve heard it for a few weeks)
  • Sing it for two out of three Sundays
  • Add another new song from the background music mix two or three weeks later
  • Repeat for one year and you’ll have up to 20 new songs that won’t feel strange to people
  • (Just the right amount of tension)

Yeah, I see it too. No, I’m not going to call it the Goldilocks method of leading. I’m sticking with bungee cord.


So what do you think? Do you have any ideas about what weakens or strengthens the tension that can pull people forward?

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(Bungee Cord photo from PinkMoose • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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4 thoughts on “Bungee Cord Leadership: Using Tension to Guide Your Church Through Change”

  1. Great metaphor, Karl.

    One thought that occurs – I hope it moves the discussion forward – is that there’s a second bungee cord attached to the pastor. This one pulls him forward toward the direction the Head of the Church is leading. In our limited experience, most pastors aren’t really well connected to the Head of the Church and his mission.

    They lack a clear sense of how “the church” (generically) and “this church” (locally) contribute to God’s mission. So typically we’ll see the pastor bounce from one direction to the next (from 40 Days of Purpose to Emotionally Healthy to Missional to Exponential to whatever conference, workshop or seminar they can afford to attend) on recycling period of about six months.

    For six months the church and the pastor are all about X, then he loses momentum. Along comes another conference and for six months the church and the pastor are all about Y. Rinse and repeat with Z, AA & etc.

    We come to a lot of churches that are exhausted by the pastor’s search for clarity which they experience as wild, zigzags – bouncing on a bungee cord that’s not attached to much of anything. As a result, these pastors’ tenures tend to be shorter, in the 3 to 6 year range.

    Moving away from the metaphor of bouncing around, consider the pastor who was connected at one time but whose connection to the Head has gone slack. What we’ve found in the small churches we’ve been privileged to serve is that pastors wrapping up longer tenures (7+ years) tend to coast the last two to three years. Not all of them, mind you, but I’ll bet it’s a majority.

    (On a side note I recall reading an article by a church growth scholar that most long tenures of 20+ years typically run strong for about ten years. The first ten years are the building phase but in most cases the balance of a pastor’s tenure after 10 years is resting on laurels and drifting forward on diminishing momentum. I thought that was an interesting perspective)

    1. Great points, Bud. Those bigger issues are what I was pointing to in some of my bullet points like “Give people time to understand the need for change – just like God gave you” and “Stay consistent over a long period of time”.

      As to your last paragraph, that sounds about right from what I’ve seen in far too many churches. I even had an older minister advise me to do that years ago (I ignored him).

      If you haven’t read it yet, I deal with that issue a little bit in a three-part series I wrote when I hit the 20 year mark in my current pastorate a couple months ago – especially in the second post of the series. Here’s the link if you’re interested. http://newsmallchurch.com/20-years-the-cautions/

  2. This is so true. Many churches don’t move forward because the pastor either tries to ram a thousand changes all at once down everyone’s throat or they sit back afraid of trouble and never challenge the people at all.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  3. When introducing change, I once had a district superintendent tell me this story. A young pastor had been voted in to lead a very traditional small church. The last three pastors had all been forced out because they tried to move the piano from one side of the church to the opposite, so the bishop advised this young pastor to avoid the same fte. A year went by and the bishop called on the young pastor to see how he was doing. He was shocked to find the piano moved to the opposite side of the church.
    ” how did you do it without an outcry? This move crucifix the last three pastors. How did you move it without opposition
    The yung pastor replied, One inch a week.”

    I wish someone had given me this sage advice thirty years sago when I started out. Great analogy with the elastic. Know your pele, know you God and move accordingly.

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