Helping a Settled Congregation Move Ahead

By John Beukema

Seven steps to the future.

A pilot and his mechanic were driving each other crazy. One day the pilot turned his plane into the shop with a complaint, “Unfamiliar noise in engine.” The next day the plane was back in service. The pilot checked the logbook to see what problem had been found. The entry read, “Ran engine continuously for four hours. Noise now familiar.”

One of the greatest barriers to change in the church is that a congregation becomes so familiar with a problem it no longer recognizes it as trouble. The pastor is often more sensitive to the need for change. How can a pastor help a church recognize a problem and respond to it? I have observed seven steps.

Step 1: Commit to the Knowledge Process

In my first pastorate in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I was visiting a woman who was a long-time member. I had been pastor at the church for almost a year and was beginning to feel at home. The homey feeling evaporated when the woman fixed a steely cold New England gaze on me and said, “Young man, you are not a Cape Codder, and you never will be a Cape Codder!”

I believed her. Rather than committing myself to know Cape Codders, I withdrew. I did what I was gifted at and most comfortable doing: preaching and leading. But I soon discovered that my gifts lacked full potency because they were cut off from people. The intervening dozen years have underscored the value of committing my time and energy to knowing people.

When I came to my current pastorate, I publicly promised to spend time with as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. This helped build trust in my leadership. The more people feel they know me and the more I make an effort to know them, the more they will are receptive to change.

I also read every document I could find on our eighty-five-year history. I questioned everyone from past church members to the village barber. I am surprising long-time members with information about the church they didn’t know. The time spent in knowing people and the history of a church tackles two major obstacles to change. It calms people’s fear that I will negate their past. And it calms people’s fear that I will push the church into something that doesn’t fit who they are.

Step 2: Cultivate a Perception of Crisis

Our first elders’ retreat since I became pastor prompted a lot of prayer, asking for God’s wisdom for dealing with our declining membership, our landlocked facility in Toronto, and the future of our ministry. We came to quick consensus that God wanted us to stay in our community. At that point the chairman produced a letter from a neighboring church. “Since we’ve decided not to relocate,” he said, “perhaps this offer is something the Lord wants us to consider.” The letter asked if we were open to a merger. The other church was affiliated with a different denomination than ours but was in a similarly state of decline. The thirty-year-old daughter church of that church was included in the proposal, creating the potential of a three-way merger.

We began an intense process of prayer, discovery, and organization. After a year, the result was an overwhelming “no” from all three churches, but I couldn’t have known the good that would come out of the process. For years there had been attempts at significant change in our church. When I was candidate at the church, the elders told me that if significant changes weren’t made soon, the church would die within five years. This dire pronouncement was even made to the congregation. Yet it wasn’t until we invested a year in serious merger talks that the congregation finally believed it was in crisis.

Within four years we had a new building and a new organizational structure. Today the church ministers to four times as many people as it did ten years ago. I didn’t plan that merger crisis, but I did learn how important it is for a congregation to perceive crisis if change is to occur. Crisis may be the only way a congregation will hear troubling noise in its engine. I’m not advocating that pastors invent crises; just make use of the ones that arise.

Step 3: Craft a Consensus

When our elders began initiating change, we soon were spinning our wheels. “Let’s have lunch with Ralph,” a long-time elder said. Ralph was the last guy I wanted to bring into the situation. He was self-important, loquacious, lacking in spiritual depth, and, for all his years at the church, had never held an official leadership position. I knew Ralph had the ear of a certain group, but I didn’t think it was significant. The elder convinced me to lunch with Ralph anyway.

That lunch was the first of several. Along the way, Ralph proposed ideas I had recommended and contributed several I hadn’t thought of. Most important, Ralph helped us out of our rut by opening us up to other influencers. For example, Ralph would say, “We’re going to need money for this. Don’t worry about it. There’s more money in this church than anyone knows. Leave that to me.” I did.

I learned that winning key people is half the battle in bringing about change. I didn’t see Ralph personally mature in the process, but the Lord used Ralph to bring changes that resulted in the salvation and spiritual growth of many others.

In The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner write, “Leaders involve, in some way, all those who must live with the results.” Through important periods of change, I have used several methods to involve those who must live with the results.

* Gathering focus groups from within the church to help test and sharpen the issues.
* Involving key influencers early in the process. This helps win them over, gives them opportunity to broaden the base of support, and adds depth to my ideas.
* Presenting written proposals to key people and groups as drafts and starting points for discussion rather than completed documents. Resistance to allowing anyone to tamper with my perfect plan is poison.
* Delegating parts of the research process to as many other people or ad hoc groups as possible.
* Holding question-and-answer sessions. The earlier in the process and the more inviting of ideas, the better.
* Taking every opportunity not to take the credit.

Step 4: Conceptualize the Promised Land

Unless the pastor can picture the Promised Land, he may lose the participation of two key groups of people: the “Martha’s” and “Mary’s,” patterned after Jesus’ friends from Bethany.
The Martha’s are people who have taught three- and four-year-olds, ushered, served in the nursery, cleaned up after church dinners, written to missionaries, or worked with landscaping. Unless I conceptualize the Promised Land for Martha, she will grow weary. She has to see the priceless value of her labor as it relates to the larger ministry of the church.

In a recent talk to a group of ushers and nursery workers, I said, “On Sunday morning, you have the two most important jobs in this church. To visitors, how they are greeted and how their children are cared for will be more important than what I preach. Without your ministry, these visitors will probably not come back again.” One long-time usher replied, “It’s about time somebody realized that.”

The Mary’s in a church are people who will not involve themselves without a vision of the Promised Land. Years ago an extremely talented family left our church. We had a plan for change that would enable us to grow and expand. Yet this family kept asking annoying questions: “Why are we doing this? How will these changes help us to accomplish what God wants for us, beyond physical growth? What will our church look like when all this is over?”
It was demoralizing to lose this family, yet now I realize the validity of their questions and the missing part of our plan for change. Our vision was not significant enough. It did not include a picture of the Promised Land. When we do picture the Promised Land for people, they find motivation.

Once, right before presenting some major change proposals, I preached a sermon on Joshua 14: “Caleb offered no excuses that the city walls were too big, his enemy too strong, his people too impossible.” He left a legacy of wholeheartedness. The question is, “What will we leave for the next generation? What great challenge has God called us to meet? What kind of ministry will reach our children with the gospel?”

One result was that an 80-year-old woman caught the vision. “I’ve been thinking about craft classes as a way of ministering to our community,” she said to me. “Would it be all right if I tried to organize something like that?”

A “female Caleb,” she envisioned craft classes complete with childcare, refreshments, and a simple gospel message. She saw it as an entry point for retired couples, stay-at-home moms, and shift workers. This woman not only understood the ministry picture we had drawn for our church, she also saw how she fit into that picture.

Step 5: Communicate Redundantly

As part of a major shift in direction, the elders and board spent the better part of a year drafting changes to the church’s constitution. I preached a series of four sermons communicating its underlying biblical principles. We published a paper that explained what we had done, and why, and mailed one copy to each member. Later we put another copy in every church mailbox. Finally, we scheduled two open sessions for the congregation. The first meeting gave information, restating what was published. The second meeting was to answer questions.

At the second meeting one man stood and said, “I don’t know why you’re trying to shove this new constitution down our throats. We haven’t even had a chance to talk this through.” After an uncomfortable silence, numerous people responded without being recognized by the moderator: “You should have come to the question-and-answer meetings. Didn’t you read the information paper? It was all in there.” Sheepishly, the dissenter relinquished the floor. The new constitution passed unanimously.

You can’t overdo communication. Lyle Schaller says, “All important messages should be sent out on at least five different channels of communication.”

Step 6: Clarify Criticism

Two of our key young leaders were presenting ideas for a major addition to our building. They had done their homework and provided charts, conceptual drawings, anecdotes from our history, and energetic enthusiasm. The two had anticipated every question.

Then, right near the end of the presentation, Sam, a well-respected, fifty-something member, made a speech. In two minutes Sam seemed to undo what had been done the previous two hours. “We can’t afford this,” he carped. “Look at how few of us there are. Out of all the people here, look at how many are retired or will retire soon. I suggest we forget this grandiose idea and hold on to what we’ve got before we lose that.” My mouth hung open. I didn’t expect this from Sam, a former board chair. Single-handedly he had delayed further discussion.

Two months later my wife and I received an invitation to attend a party for Sam’s early retirement. Later, after Sam and his wife moved to Florida, I put the two incidents together: his stonewalling and his retirement. I concluded Sam had felt that he needed to protect the congregation from the removal of his spiritual and monetary contributions. I still felt he was wrong, but the incident encouraged me to try to understand why someone opposes a change.

Now, when I encounter opposition to an innovation, I ask the person to help me understand what they object to and why. For example, several people objected when we turned the sanctuary into a multi-purpose room, although pure necessity had led us in that direction. I discovered a variety of reasons for the opposition. “What about the flags?” asked one veteran of World War II. “We can’t have a bunch of basketballs knocking them off the wall.”

We found a way to protect this display rather than remove it completely (which I had initially assumed we would do). The other objections were handled, except one, which included translation of a passage from Scripture: “God says my house shall be called a house of prayer, and you have turned it into a gymnasium.” We used the objection to highlight the truth that there is no longer any earthly structure that is God’s house; the people of God are his building. This discussion was helpful to everyone except the critic, but we had taken time to answer his criticism. When we voted, he happened to be out of the country, and the proposal passed unanimously.

When criticism of a proposed change comes, I ask: Did I fail to communicate redundantly, to build consensus, or to commit enough time to the knowledge process? This keeps me from being too hasty to blame critics. If we have tried to understand the criticism and answer the questions and we are still confident that this is God’s direction, it is vital to continue on.

Step 7: Complete All You Can While You Can

I looked around the table at our focus group, which had gathered in my home, since the church had no facility. The church was preparing to move into a new building, with a new constitution and philosophy of ministry. Our purpose was to use this group as a sounding board. I excitedly showed them new logos, structural diagrams, and vision statements. When I got into the specifics of schedule changes and program ideas, I hit the saturation point.

“Wait a minute, John,” said a young professional woman. “Some of this is just going to have to wait. We can’t handle any more change right now. We need time to enjoy our new building and get used to the new structure.” Outwardly I remained calm (I think). Inwardly I contemplated whether we would have to be satisfied with fewer changes than I had envisioned. The window of opportunity would close for a time.

No matter how glorious and spiritually productive the changes may be, a time will come when the congregation cannot take even one more change. Even the most minor adjustments then will be too upsetting. So I intentionally planned not to introduce change once we moved into the new building, at least for a while. The important point is: Do all you can while the window is open.

John Beukema is pastor of The Village Church in Western Springs, Illinois.

This article “Helping a Settled Congregation Move Ahead,” by John Beukema was excerpted from: Leadership, Winter 1997, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Page 61. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”