Churches can handle change.
But there’s one fatal mistake too many pastors make, that will kill any chance for change, no matter how badly it may be needed.
What churches, and church leaders especially, can’t handle, is this:
They can’t handle surprise.
And they shouldn’t have to.
Not when it can be helped, anyway. And it usually can.
In larger churches, changes aren’t as big a deal. People don’t expect to have a lot of input into possible changes. But in a Small Church, it’s critical that people know what’s happening and why.
A Promise Made and Kept
When I arrived at Cornerstone 20 years ago, I knew there would be a lot of changes coming. The church was discouraged and unhealthy. Change was critical.
In my first deacon meeting, they asked me to make them a promise. I’m slow to make promises, especially when I’m asked to by someone else. But I heard them out.
They related how a former pastor had made a physical change to the church building years before, and hadn’t told the deacons he was going to do it.
“It wasn’t that the change was bad”, the deacon explained (it was). “And we don’t feel the need to control everything” (they didn’t). “It’s just that, when people saw the change, they asked us why it had happened, and we didn’t have an answer. We felt foolish. And we looked like we weren’t doing the job we’d been entrusted to do.
“We don’t need to approve every little thing. But we don’t want to be surprised. We take the role of deacon seriously, and we can’t do it well if we’re not at least kept in the information loop.”
I was floored – and inspired – by their wisdom.
I promised them I’d never do that to them. And I’ve kept that promise for 20 years.
A Matter of Respect
We’ve tried many changes in our Small Church in the last 20 years. Some good. Some not. But no one was ever surprised by them.
Keeping that promise has been a credibility builder like no other.
Even when some people disagreed with the changes, the fact that they had the chance to prepare for them, helped them respect the process. They knew what was happening and why, and they had the opportunity to give input and state disagreements without fear of reprisal. In short, the lack of surprise gave the congregation one essential ingredient.
Everyone deserves it. Leaders require it. Churches will turn inward upon each other in dangerous ways without it.
But when people have it, it’s amazing how much change they’re willing to take a chance on.
Give People Time to Ponder
When I’m mulling over a potential change that’s especially large, I have a process that has worked well for me. I’ll use a specific example to explain it.
Over a decade ago, I was considering changing the name of the church.
Before I’d made up my mind about it, and long before I’d started thinking of a possible new name, I brought up the possibility to the deacon board.
I waited until the end of the board meeting, then told them what I was considering. I made it very clear I wasn’t sold on the idea yet, but I’d reached a point where I was serious enough about it that I wanted them to begin thinking and praying about it along with me.
(Which brings up an essential ingredient. Don’t telegraph every possible change. Just the likely ones. A lot of clunkers will take up residence for a while, only to be rejected. If you tell everyone every idea, you’ll look like a flake, and start losing credibility. Yes, it’s a fine line.
Hey, if being a Small Church pastor was easy, anyone could do it.)
I told them I didn’t want any feedback right then. And I asked them to make a promise to me. Don’t talk about this to anyone until the next board meeting. Just pray, ponder and mull it over for a while. I know a month seems like a long time. But if a name change happened, it would take a year or longer to implement, so pondering it for a month was reasonable.
And, God bless them, they did just that.
When we gathered for the next deacon meeting, I opened the subject up for discussion and got an amazing response from the longest-serving, most respected deacon in the room.
“The moment you brought the issue up last month I was opposed to it,” he said.
“My first thought was, they’re not changing the name of my church. I wanted to say so in that meeting, but you asked us not to talk about it for a month, so I didn’t. And now the month is up.”
He then told us that, while on vacation between deacon meetings, he and his wife had been looking for a church to go to on Sunday. He saw the name of one church and told his wife “I don’t want to go there. It’ll be old-fashioned and boring.”
His wife looked at him and said “that’s the same name as our church.”
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he admitted. “That’s how people see us. We need to change our name.”
If I’d asked for comments on the big name change when I brought it up, his negative response would have been the first seed planted. And, like a weed, it would have grown and choked out any chance for change.
Instead, within a year, we had a new name for our church. And we’ve made a lot more changes with the same process.
(No, I won’t tell you the old church name. Some of your churches still have it. It’s a name that works for a lot of churches. It had just reached the end of its usefulness for us.)
Take Your Time – And Give Some to Others
My deacons needed time to process and ponder.
After all, I’d had months to ponder it before I’d brought it up to them, and I still wasn’t sure. How do we expect people to make the right choice on something in 20 minutes, when we’ve had weeks, months, sometimes years to consider the question ourselves?
Small Church people are OK with change. But they deserve to have what every pastor wants to have. Time to think, pray, learn, discuss and ponder.
They require proper information so they can offer well-thought opinions. They need to be respected for those opinions.
And they deserve not to be surprised.
So what do you think? Do you have any ideas for how to encourage change by reducing surprise?
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