When our world was turned upside down in mid-March, everything changed so much and so fast we began experiencing change fatigue. The coronavirus crisis had thrust our world into more change in a few months than most of us have known in the past five years. We have entered uncharted territory, where the future won’t look much like the past. Nobody knows what normal will be a year from now.
The local church and its leaders are not exceptions. The church must stand up and lead its community through change. It also must face the sobering reality that changes must be made within. A crisis’ biggest obstacle for your church is rarely its new external challenge. Instead, it’s the revelation of unhealthy internal systems.
How does your church lead and navigate through change? How do you lead yourself when your world has been turned upside down? How do you lead others when what you considered foundational ministry programs have been taken away? How do you get out of crisis mode and bring clarity around your calling to live and share the gospel? How do you turn this crisis into an opportunity, rather than a downward spiral?
Here are some proven principles that should aid you well during this rapidly changing season.
Sorrow before scurrying
If you are wired like me, when this crisis hit, you immediately rolled up your sleeves and worked toward the solution side of things. Most church leaders I know, despite having lost access to their facilities and being forced to reschedule meetings, actually saw their work hours double.
This workload is unsustainable — not only from a time management perspective but also because you ignore emotional realities when pressing ahead so quickly. Shock that the unimaginable happened, outrage about decisions being made by authorities, denial of the severity of it all, grief as you mourn the loss of connection, frustration over the loss of rhythms, anxiety about going outside and depression born out of loneliness are just a few of the emotions you may be feeling.
This crisis is an opportunity, but you won’t fully see it that way until you emotionally allow it to become a moment of crisis. You need to be honest with your emotions and process them before you can truly find solutions.
Further, you must have compassion for those you lead. They, too, are experiencing change fatigue. As a leader, you need to help these exhausted people understand that their one safe place, their church, must make changes also.
Don’t underestimate how emotional this will be. When you aggressively make changes and cry out, “Out with the old and in with the new,” help your people process the changes. If you skip that step, your efforts will always be met with resistance. Yes, you must lead yourself and others, but have patience, wisdom and compassion along the way.
Purpose before panic
In a crisis, it is difficult to avoid battening down the hatches, sticking with the familiar and avoiding all risk. Many churches talked about freezing budgets and laying off staff —when the pandemic was only three days old!
Now is a time to ask lots of questions, but sadly, leaders too often ask the wrong questions. Rather than ask:
How we stop everything, we should ask what our church’s purpose is.
How can we huddle together and keep our people happy, we should ask how can we help people connect with Jesus when everything safe and familiar has been taken away from them.
Where can we freeze spending, we should ask God to show us how we should invest our resources in this new reality.
How can we just hang tight with the familiar, we should ask what are we learning that we should incorporate into the new reality.
Most important: We should not only ask how can we survive, but also what is our purpose, to whom are we called and how does God want us to advance the gospel during this season.
A crisis reminds us what matters. We must use logic, but our passion and purpose should not take a back seat. Our methods and strategy may change, but our mission does not.
Entrepreneurship before enforcement
A referee’s job is to enforce the rules. One bad call leads to a watercooler conversation by angry fans for the rest of the season. But entrepreneurs get to be like mad scientists. They are not judged by their 284 failures; they are celebrated because they stumbled into what’s right.
This is not a time to be obsessive about doing everything perfectly. Instead, call upon your entrepreneurs to help you think outside the box and to have fun experimenting. Create a team of all ages and roles, commissioning them to be your mad scientists.
Never announce, “This is the new way.” Instead, say, “You know, folks, we would like to experiment with some ideas. Would you journey with us as we try it out for four weeks?” Most people are open to a good short-term experiment. It’s not too scary for them because it’s short term.
If it bombs, announce the failure with a big laugh. “Well, we now know what a mad scientist feels like!” If it works, then keep going.
Be forewarned that when you find things that work, the need for agility does not stop. Just like this crisis exposed weak areas of the church, new processes and systems will also reveal areas that need to change. Have your team of mad scientists help figure out how to break through the barriers to additional changes that may need to take place. An outside coach may help you navigate change.
Stakeholders before seniority
During rapid change, it is much easier to gather a few senior leaders to make decisions, announce the change and move on. But, there’s a huge problem with that approach: Dictating from the top rarely works.
It is critical that you get buy-in from your influencers, who may or may not hold positional leadership. The mad scientist team is one example. If you are going to make a major change, have individual or small group conversations with those who will be able to support you when the naysayers are being critical in the back room.
Clear before clever
When leading people through change, you cannot communicate enough. An announcement or email is not enough. As a rule of thumb, when you communicate something so much that you are bored talking about it, you have just reached the point where it is starting to be heard.
Powerful and sustained change requires constant communication, not only during the rollout but after the plan’s major elements are in place. Finding clever forms of communication is not wrong, but do so only after you can clearly articulate the change in a simple sentence.
It is also critical that you create a common language that is communicated on all levels. The worship minister, the youth leader, the children’s director and the people directing traffic in the parking lot should all have the same narrative about the changes taking place.
Wins before weeds
Change can be exciting — for about an hour.
But as the hours, days, weeks and months set in, change doesn’t hold the same level of excitement. It can become easy to lose sight of why you made the change. In addition, your “detail people” can get so wrapped up in the process, that the change can unintentionally move from being an expression of your purpose to just another program. Simply put, what was once an exciting adventure can get buried in the weeds.
You must break the change into smaller increments with clear, little wins along the way. Your church can celebrate these smaller wins once or twice each month. Those moments of celebration become wonderful times to remind them of your church’s vision and purpose, keeping them focused on the long-term goal.
Suppose a student has two professors. One only gives a final exam. The student has no idea how she is doing in the class until it’s over. In her other class, she is given 10 quizzes along the way. She knows how well she is grasping the material and where she needs additional study. Which class will give her a greater sense of security? In the same way, create multiple wins so that your church does not get lost in the weeds.
Culture before concept
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a famous quote from legendary management consultant and writer Peter Drucker. He didn’t mean strategy isn’t important. He meant that leaders could make plans all day long, but if the community culture doesn’t buy in, the plans will never come to fruition. This is why copying what the church down the street is doing rarely works.
To be certain, leaders should be learning from others. The leader must also understand the unique calling of the unique people of God this unique leader has been called to lead. Leaders who announce rapid change without getting buy-in sprint ahead only to look back and discover no one is following. Navigating a church though difficult concepts and change is an art form. It is critical to get buy-in or change will never last.
The tables have been flipped
Many prayed for years that by 2020 certain goals would be reached. Some goals were, many were not. This year might actually be a blessing, despite significant tragedy. The tables have been flipped, and it is time to lead through significant change.
When all is said and done, we might become less institutional and more missional. We might find even better ways to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, love our neighbors like they have never been loved before and make disciples of all nations. Church, this could be your finest hour!
Dr. Bruce Hopler, Executive Director of Church Strengthening
Dr. Bruce Hopler has been coaching pastors and church planters for over 20 years. He now serves as the executive director of Church Strengthening at Converge. Bruce started a church in Maryland against all odds with no core group and no upfront funding, but it has grown for 18 years. He then moved to Las Vegas, where he was the Spiritual Formation pastor for the eighth-fastest growing church in America. During his time in Vegas Bruce completed his doctorate in spiritual formation and leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. After four years there, he moved to Orlando to join Converge. Bruce loves planters and pastors. He has been certified in StratOps, Church Unique and SOULeader coaching. He strives to help pastors discover what healthy means, within their unique calling and context.