Skip to main content

10 Things I Have Learned Leading Church Change

I left the church planting world to help revitalize and grow an established church. It’s proven to be challenging – maybe slightly more than I thought it would be.

But, God has allowed us to experience incredible energy and excitement. I am not big on sharing numbers in this format, but let me simply say – God is working. Amazingly working. The potential in the days ahead is astounding to me.

Needless to say, there has been a lot of change since I made the transition. I tend to like change. I think it’s necessary if any organization, church or relationship wants to grow – or even remain alive. But, some change came fast. It didn’t necessarily seem fast to me, and certainly not monumental, but I know, in a church over 100 years old – what is slow change to me is considered fast to others.

For the most part, the reception to change has been good. Still, change, no matter how necessary, is never easy. Along the way, I have learned a few things. I share this knowing over fifty percent of the readers of this blog are in ministry. Hopefully some of what we’ve learned will help others.

Here are 10 things I’ve learned in leading church change:

Don’t try to be the church down the street.

You have to be true to the DNA, heritage and culture of the church you lead. This doesn’t mean don’t change, but does mean change should be relevant to context. It’s a mistake to think you can “cookie-cutter” someone else’s success.

Don’t oppose everything old.

When you’re against everything done in the past you push people into a corner to defend themselves. The old – whatever it is – got you to where you are today. It may not be all bad. In fact, at one time it might have been very good – the best. The old was once new. The new is simply where the most energy is at currently. (Someday it will be old.)

Celebrate history and change will be easier.

People were there years ago, building the church where you serve today. My granddaddy would say, “Don’t forget what brung ya!” I especially love hearing the stories of how the church grew through other times of change. It may sound like a strange connection, but I’ve observed when people get a chance to tell their story they feel better about the change you are proposing.

Many times information overcomes objection.

Many times. I might even say most times. You can’t over-communicate in times of change. The more they know the “why”, the less they will resist the “what”. (By the way, my interview with Zig Ziglar confirmed this principle.)

It sometimes seems easier to let a church slowly die than to try to change things.

There. I said it. But, it’s true. Some people are not going to want the church to change. Period. End of story. And, most likely, they will find a way to let you know. (Most likely that will be some way other than telling you – but you’ll hear it.) But, that doesn’t mean the church can’t, won’t and shouldn’t change – and thrive again.

Change is uncomfortable for everyone.

It’s just more uncomfortable for some than others. You might read THIS POST about a recent sobering reminder I had about the relativism of objection to change.

Some days all you’ll hear are the critics.

This is just life. I think Satan even has a hand in this one. You’ll think no one is on your side. You’ll think you’re wasting your time. You’ll have a one-day (or multiple day) pity party. On those days, you’ll need to remember the vision God called you to complete. Keep going.

The degree of pain determines the degree of resistance to change.

When people are injured – or afraid – or lack trust, they are more likely to cling to what’s comfortable and resist what’s new. That is true in their personal life or their church life. When leading change in a place where injury is present, there will be resistance based solely on that pain. You may have to lead people to a place of forgiveness before you can lead them to a place of change.

The best supporters are often silent.

I don’t know why. They just are. They are satisfied. Happy. Ecstatic even perhaps. They just don’t always tell you they are. But, good news, they are usually telling others. And, that’s fueling more growth. And, God is faithful. Somehow, just when you need it most, God seems to send an encourager.

Change speed is relative to change frequency. The longer there’s been no change, the longer it will take to implement change. The longer a church has plateaued or been in decline, the longer it will be before the church can grow again.

These are some things I’ve learned about leading change. I hope something here is helpful to you.

What have you learned in leading change?

Related Posts

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

More posts by Ron Edmondson

Join the discussion 39 Comments

  • jimpemberton says:

    There are many fabulous observations here. I won't address everything, only make a comment about the last one. I don't have a term for it yet, but there is the understanding that when you change something, you don't change everything. That is to say that if you organize change by prioritizing it and focusing on one change at a time, you can develop a natural cycle or rhythm of change. That way people can become accustomed to change without having a lot of pain about change. It's especially good when people begin to see the need for change and can invest in the change. So you cycle through the various areas of the church and by the time you get back around to something, people start to become ready for a change in an area. Of course this all takes time.

    One other thing I will add. With all the talk about change, there is something that should never change. A church should find their unchanging identity in the person and work of Christ. While all else may change (and should change) over time, that one aspect must never change. If a culture of healthy change in a church develops, people will become less dependent of the forms and processes of doing church and become more satisfied on their individual and corporate identity in Christ. That's when a church becomes particularly healthy.

  • This is a great post! Appreciate your transparency here!

  • thescottspot says:

    Ron, I draw great encouragement from your blogs… and learn much that I can apply to my current pastorate. Thanks!

  • This is a great post, Ron! I'm not in church leadership, but I can totally see this. Change is messy and it's tough being the one in charge of a mess! Great thoughts and great job communicating your thoughts.

  • tompelt says:

    Ron, thank you. Valuable insights. I am stepping out on just this kind of turnaround ministry in Lexington. I appreciate your posts and, even more, your faith! Blessings, Tom

  • Ron, I think your no. 1 so incredibly important. Change does not have to mean subtraction. Addition works just as well, maybe better.

  • deandeguara

    When it comes to change I always think about this quote from Peter Drucker…“People overestimate what they can accomplish in one year but underestimate what they can accomplish in five years.” Change is the most difficult thing in church world because people are most resistant to change when it comes to their "personal" programming. If you can look forward with a 5 year perspective I've found that you usually outlast those resisting change.

  • Rob says:

    Hey Ron, great wisdom in this post. We need your voice brother!

    Ok, to answer your question – I've been part of leading a few congregations through change in the area of worship, which as I'm sure you know, can be a very hot topic.

    One thing I've learned – well, still learning, is to be sensitive to the context, measure and celebrate progress, and have a shepherds heart for the people. Leadership is stronger when it is rooted in relationships, imo.

    Bless you man!

    • ronedmondson says:

      Good word and reminder. In my talk I give on change “celebrate progress” “build trust” and “don't seek perfection” are part of it. I completely agree.Thank you Rob!

  • Ben says:

    Great post. I have been doing corporate process change management for long time and try do some at church level and failed miserably.

    Out of my failure, God worked out something bigger than I have ever imagined.

  • Gwen Ziegler says:

    Ron, I had the pleasure of visiting at your church, Immanuel. I heard you say in your sermon upon my first visit, " it's difficult being a church in transition." Well that bothered me as I thought you were another interim preacher and the church was still looking for a pastor. After the service, I asked two people sitting in front of me what was 'transitional' about Immanuel ? Being a visitor, the answers they gave me were so meaningful and reflected your faith and love of God and the church. They told me that Immanuel had searched for a pastor for a year and a half, and one weekend you came to speak at the church. You told people of the connection you felt with the church, then you applied for the pastor's position because you felt this was the place you were to be.
    Going from a church planter to the pastor of an established, but stagnant, church because of your faith truly impressed me…my feelings about Immanuel were strong before I ever visited, but once there, I knew this was the worship haven for me! Thank you for your dedication to ensuring God's Word is proliferated throughout the church and our world! God bless you!

  • Karl Vaters says:

    I've experienced them all, Ron. After 20 years in my turnaround church I can tell you it's worth it in the long run. But it does mean staying for the long run. It's a marathon, not a sprint, as you know.

  • David says:

    Great post Ron. All ten are dead on. I love how Kevin Ford in "The Transforming Church" frames it when he says "Leadership is leading people through change at a rate they can tolerate."

  • horngsaw says:

    Thanks for sharing pastor.

  • Mary K says:

    What have I learned about leading change? You can’t do it alone. As one person said, “You call yourself a leader, but if you look behind you and no one’s following, you’re just out taking a walk.”

  • Very encouraging post for the current church planting work I'm involved in now. You are always insightful!

  • 106hgc says:

    Good post. I'm leading change in a 125 year old church and I see all 10 of these things happening often.

  • kathyfannon

    Ron, I've enjoyed your blog for the past few years. Now that God has placed me in a position of leadership at my church, I appreciate you even more! Thank you for your honesty and encouragement In your posts…I'm better because of it. 🙂