Leading the Smaller Congregation – Part 8

Because a high percentage of smaller churches have either plateaued or are in a period of decline, pastors in these settings must also understand the process of implementing change. Since there is not a steady flow of new people into the smaller church, careless or too aggressive forms of change can create leadership conflicts that are extremely difficult to overcome. But that doesn’t mean change cannot be achieved. Instead, the leader in these settings must understand the necessary steps to achieve change.

The first such step is to communicate urgency. People will not embrace change until they feel they must. In fact, until the pain of staying put is greater than the pain of moving forward, most people will simply maintain the status quo.

In understanding urgency, there are four questions the church must ultimately embrace if successful change can occur.

1. Do we know we need to change?

Sadly, many churches do not perceive the need for change until after they have begun to experience significant loss. According to some studies, that realization doesn’t usually occur until at least three years after the need for change has emerged. In fact, until key people begin leaving or the future existence of the church feels threatened, congregations can find the excuses for their losses and maintain status quo. So, the first step toward change is to acknowledge that it is needed.

There are two types of urgency: survival and missional.

Survival urgency occurs when the congregation realizes things must change or the church may cease to exist. Usually financial pressure or a significant crossroad bring the church to such urgency. But survival is not an enduring motive for change. Once the church gets back on its feet and the crisis is averted, the motivation for continued change is often lost because its no longer necessary.

Missional urgency occurs when things must change because we are not fulfilling our mission. Maybe a group of people in the church’s neighborhood are unreached or a growing need among children or teens, or even a recognition that the church must begin reaching younger people awaken us to this kind of urgency. Missional urgency comes when we see we aren’t getting the job done like our community needs. This kind of urgency can keep us moving forward until we begin succeeding again at the work Christ has given us.

2. Are we willing to change?

Sadly, many churches recognize that change is needed, but they lack the willingness to take necessary steps. There comes a point in the church’s lifecycle where focus turns inward and congregatonal leaders maintain the types and styles of ministry that they prefer. When people become inwardly focused, decline comes quickly. And many congregations will allow the decline to continue because things are the “way we like them.” We ultimately have to say “yes” to this very difficult question.

3. Do we know how to change?

Once we recognize the need for change and are willing to take necessary steps, figuring out what to do is now our urgent challenge. Not every step of change fits every church, so a church must have a clear sense of vision and choose strategic steps that will help them fulfill that vision.

When a church initiates change that fails, the desire for future change diminishes. Frankly, a leader cannot afford too many failed changes. The people will lose confidence in his sense of what to do and will become increasingly resistant to new direction. So getting the right answer to this question is absolutely critical.

4. Are we willing to do that?

This final question is one of commitment. Once we know what steps to take, we must be willing to pull the trigger. There are times when a church knows what they need to do, but the choice to take action isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

The pastor of the smaller church must understand these four questions and continue to help his church face their implications. Leaders should never assume that their people share the same desires for a growing church. More often, smaller congregations—especially those with a long history—want their pastor to care for them and they see growth as a secondary goal while the pastor often sees growth as his primary agenda. When we’re not on the same page, a change journey probably won’t be very smooth.

Developing the urgency for change is a critical first step, but it’s not the only step. Next time, we’ll look at step two–building a team to help you.

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