How to implement and sustain change in a local church

Communications Staff — April 14, 2010

By Hershael W. York, senior pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. and Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at Southern Seminary.

With some regularity I receive an email or a call relating that some pastor, often a seminary student or recent graduate, has “torn up” a church he has served. Listening to the details, I usually discern two things: 1) the popular perception is that the cause of the problem was the pastor’s haste to change things in the church, and 2) the real problem was not that he changed things, but that he did so in a clumsy or autocratic way. In other words, how he does something is a bigger problem for a pastor than what he does.

Since churches aren’t perfect, no one should be surprised that a new pastor would want to change some things. In fact, churches usually expect, even demand, it. Growth itself inherently involves change, and almost all churches at least pay lip service to the need to grow and change. The problem, however, comes in the clash between the new pastor’s need to initiate change and his inability to know the relationships and history that would impact his success or failure in this effort.

Adding to the confusion, two schools of thought offer competing views and mutually exclusive advice to a new pastor. One philosophy urges him to take advantage of the honeymoon period, moving quickly and decisively to lead the church through change while the congregation is still filled with the excitement and good will churches have for a new pastor. The other opinion he might find offered sounds every bit as reasonable, but is contradictory: don’t change anything, at least for the first year. The justification for this counsel is that it takes at least a year to gain the trust of the congregation as well as to discern the potential barriers and pockets of resistance that surely lie beneath the surface.

Imagine that the congregation’s good will and acquiescence to a pastor’s leadership is like a bag of poker chips. When the pastor first arrives, the bag is quite full, but everything he does that requires change costs him chips. If he changes the offertory from the beginning of the service to the end of the service, it will cost him a few chips. If he wants to put the deacons on a rotation plan rather than to allow deacons to serve for life, that’s going to cost him a considerably larger sum of chips. If he attempts to change the worship style, introducing a praise band and new hymns into the corporate worship, then he can empty the bag because that will likely cost him every chip in his reserve. Perhaps the only thing that will cost him more is if he lets a staff member go.

The bag is replenished by doing the basic things that a pastor ought to do – and doing them well, frequently and noticeably. When a pastor preaches good sermons, visits the sick and shut-ins regularly, personally leads in efforts that he asks others to do or hosts the deacons or other groups in his home, he earns chips. His wife’s involvement with the congregation gets him chips. Growth in attendance and offerings earn him chips. A cool head in the face of conflict adds to his bag.

A successful pastoral leader has a keen, even uncanny, ability to know two things: how many chips a particular issue or change will cost him and how many chips he has left in the bag, if any. He knows how to invest his chips in issues that are worth it rather than frivolous and insignificant things, but he always evaluates what it will cost him and he knows when he has reached the limit for the time being and just needs to do the basics well for a while.

A pastor cannot spend what he has not earned or does not have. So in the interest of keeping chips in the bag, I offer the following bits of advice.

1. Lower your expectations of the church

This may be the most unexpected piece of advice I ever give young pastors, but I often find myself amazed by how quickly men who espouse a belief in total depravity forget that it applies to their church members. Some of the best people in a church will do some of the dumbest, most sinful and hurtful things at times. In addition, pastors often go into a church with a preconceived desire to shape the church into what they think a church ought to be.

Perhaps the greatest change that needs to occur, however, is not in the pew but in the pulpit! Especially in the setting of a church that has a seminary student pastor who rotates in and out every two to three years. More important than changing them is learning from them. Hone your preaching skills, visit the sick, win the lost and love the people. A pastor can find plenty to do without implementing change that the congregation hasn’t really accepted convictionally.

2. Raise your expectations of yourself

Seldom will a pastor fail when he enters a pastorate with the simple desire to be faithful. It’s far more important to be a preacher filled with grace than to pastor a people who can articulate the doctrines of grace. It’s more significant to be a godly elder than to lead a church to implement elder rule.

3. Never let them sense your fear or anger

A pastor can feel anything he wants to feel, but he cannot afford to show it. He is able to deal with matters, even in a contentious business or deacons’ meeting, dispassionately and with a cool head, no matter what he’s feeling inside. His emotions – and their telltale signs – are kept in check. Fear and anger are the two emotions that will cause the most problems for a pastor. He has to seem totally unafraid, but without anger when things don’t go his way.

4. Don’t ask more of them than you are willing to stick around and ensure

If a young pastor makes implementing elder rule his big agenda item, but then he leaves after the church follows his leadership and does it, he has not done them or his successor any favors. Leading a church into debt and then leaving it to someone else to pay off is simply wrong.

5. As soon as possible, find the place to plant your life and stay there

Lasting change in a church will only come through a lasting commitment to providing loving, Christlike leadership through that change. The high turnover rate in the pastorate only creates an atmosphere of mistrust in congregations. Their attitude becomes “We were here when you came and we’ll be here when you leave – just like the last five pastors who insisted on the latest ecclesiastical fad and then left. Why should we follow you?”

Only when one becomes a part of the community and has a history with them can he reach the most meaningful levels of true leadership.

6. Care more for people than for programs

Change occurs through people. People follow leaders, and leaders know the value of relationship. A good pastor discovers, befriends and shapes the leaders of the church through genuine love and concern for them, not through personal ambition.

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