Right People, Right Direction

June 15, 2010

There are two common maxims offered to pastors when entering a new ministry.  Both are wise and true. But they are mutually exlusive:

  • “Don’t change anything in the first year.”
  • “If you don’t change anything in the first year, you will never be able to change anything later.”

One way to resolve the tension is to realize that not all churches are the same. And not all churches are in the same condition when a pastor, or others, assumes leadership. Therefore wisdom dictates applying the proper suggestion to the present state of the church. 

For instance,

The first established church I pastored was a total mess.  The church had existed for nearly 50 years, and had fired every pastor. The longest tenure, prior to my arrival, had been 5 years.  Presbytery was sick and tired of the church’s shenanigans, and threatened to remove them from the denomination if they persisted.  The church averaged about 25 people on Sunday morning, and had only two children under age 18.  Obviously change was needed. Equally obvious was that change needed to happen immediately.

The second church I pastored had enjoyed solid numerical growth in the years prior to my arrival. Much of this growth was not healthy, however, but that was not particularly apparent to most people.  There were a lot of good things going on, but still areas that needed attention and revision.  Wisdom would have been to learn the landscape and go slower with initial changes.

The present church I pastor, Walnut Hill Church, was in many ways healthy when I came on board.  My predecessor had enjoyed 16 years of relatively effective ministry, and the Interim Pastor between us was (and is) a gem. The church leadership had come to a conclusion that this church, while in many ways good, was not functioning on all cylinders, and therefore needed to take the opportunity afforded by a transition to reevaluate the ministry.  Change is needed, and even desired, but what is the best approach: quick or slow?

Change is always needed. My college football coach, Johnny Majors, frequently reminded us that we never stay the same. Each day we either get better or we decline.  And, at least in this way, what is true of football teams, and athletes, is also true of churches and organizations. 

But one of the problems resulting from change, perhaps especially in a church, is disenfranchisement.  People have invested themselves in a church long before changes are even on the radar. In fact, people are often part of a particular church, even with it’s warts and weaknesses, because they like that church the way it is. When change starts taking place, whether systematic or unintentional, fear often accompanies it.  And fear keeps whispering in the ear: Am I sure I will still like this place if it changes?   

This is an important dynamic working against change, and against leaders who bring change.  And the problem is enhanced when the leader is focused more on bringing the change, and the anticipated positive results, than they are on the people in the church.  Not only is this recipe un-pastoral, it is ultimately ineffective.

I am not suggesting that the leader is responsible to appease all the people.  That is not possible – and it is not our job.  I am suggesting that sometime, as pastors, we have been so exhorted by the experts and the know-it-all books to make necessary changes for the sake of the ultimate “potential” good, that we may lose perspective.  We are anxious for success but forget what our success really looks like.

While it is true that to lead any necessary change, to chart any specific vision, risks losing some people, I wonder what place among our priorities  Jesus’ instruction to “count the cost” holds. I wonder if we tally everything up correctly, or if sometimes we cook our books like ENRON did – counting only the gains, ignoring the losses. 

The fact is sometimes some people need to go. This is especially true in an unhealthy church. (How else did it become unhealthy unless the stakeholders allowed it to become unhealthy and unfaithful?)   This is a sometimes painful reality. (At other times it is really not so painful. It may even feel blissful. But, as pastors, we’re not supposed to say that.) The questions are: How many losses are necessary? How many are appropriate? How many could have been averted, yet still allow the church to be faithful to the new (or renewed) vision and purpose? 

Tomorrow I plan to post the insights of leadership expert, John Kotter, about the stages of effective change. That post will apply Kotter’s insights to the mission of bringing appropriate, and necessary, change to the local church; and the ways pastors and churches  commonly act unwisely. Chief among them is moving too quickly to implement a new vision. But that will be for tomorrow.  At present, however, I want to ask the question: How many people might we keep if we were wiser about the change process?  What if we  moved a little slower, in cases that allow for it?  Of course, we will never know the real answer. But one thing I am convinced of: More harm than good is done in many churches because of unwise implementation of change.

In a post last week I introduced the following quote by Jim Collins, from his best-selling book Good to Great

The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.

I am convinced what Collins observed should be an important element for consideration in the early stages of all church vision and mission planning.  Clearly his approach does not eliminate the loss of some – maybe even many – people. But his approach does guard against the loss of good people who avoidably become disenfranchised due to  premature implementation of new direction. 

One last observation. Collins is not stating that the leader does not have any idea about where he/she might like to take the “bus”.  He is saying that the effective leader places a priority on the right people, and does not see himself as the sole navigator.  I suspect that the effective leader may well have a good idea of where the bus should go, but in genuine humility he is willing to consider the God-given insights of others.  What Collins is suggesting, as applied to the church, is that we lead to where God would have us go, and be less concerned about whether the destination is primarily according to the leader’s preconceived atlas.

One Response to “Right People, Right Direction”

  1. David Alexander Says:

    Well said Dennis…


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