9 Common Church Change Mistakes

Being aware of these mistakes can be the difference between damaging the church and strengthening it.

Q: It seems to me that I’ve seen more churches damaged when a pastor attempts to lead change than I have churches made stronger and effective. Why is this? What are some of the common mistakes that derail a positive transition?

A: It’s true. The church world is littered with and haunted by failed attempts at transition and change. Though attempted by well-meaning pastors and leaders, the changes were approached in the wrong way and/or for the wrong reasons. Beyond the hurts experienced by both leaders and people, these failures have left us with an even larger problem: the widely embraced belief that change isn’t possible or worth it. These failures have entrenched many churches against the very point of following Christ—change.

From my experiences as a pastor and my privilege of working with other pastors and churches on the journey of change, I’ve discovered nine common mistakes. Being aware of these before or early in the process of leading change can be the difference between damaging the church and strengthening it.

Common Mistakes:

1. Leading change with the wrong motivation.

We have a natural desire for significance and success. Though Jesus didn’t condemn the desire in the early disciples, He did condemn selfish motivation. We can’t seek to lead a church through change to build a kingdom for ourselves (e.g., “I want to pastor a large, successful or better church”). Our motivation must be to advance God’s kingdom by serving the genuine needs and eternal interest of others.

2. We seek to do change to people rather than leading people through change.

I learned this mistake the hard way in my first pastoral ministry. I did change “to people” by making all kinds of organizational changes before investing appropriately in the existing people. Though the organizational changes were important and allowed us to begin reaching new people, the existing people revolted. The church blew up, and my wife and I were forced to leave. I learned quickly that simply changing the organization changes nothing because the church is people. Therefore, spiritual leaders must focus on leading people through the journey of personal change. When they do, the organizational changes necessary to better reflect Christ in this generation become a natural outcome.

3. We see change as primarily a strategic issue.

This is a huge mistake. While strategy is important, change is first and foremost a spiritual issue. Early in my ministry, I failed consistently in this area. But ultimately I learned the lesson of Nehemiah. He would have failed if he had started with strategy. He was successful because He started with God, His Word and prayer. Then, as he waited on and watched God move, he dealt with the strategic plans and leadership necessary to bring about restorative change to Jerusalem.

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4. We fail to understand that we can’t move ministries through change while remaining unchanged ourselves.

Pointing the way doesn’t work. We need to show the way by allowing God consistently to be transforming us. Two things happen as we allow God to shape us. First, we begin to naturally lead in the way God would have us lead. Second, people are able to see in us who they want to be and where they want to go. As the old saying goes, “Speed of the leader, speed of the team.”

5. We think we can do it alone, and we try. This always leads to failure.

The truth is that one person can’t change anything, but one person can be a catalyst for change. A great metaphor is “the wave.” One person can’t do it, but one person can start it. The same is true with church change. We need to invest in, empower and release other leaders into the church—to start “the wave” of change.

6. We lead to get the temporary applause of people rather than God’s eternal applause.

The first makes us followers because we surrender to the agendas of others to keep or make them happy. This guarantees failure because we compromise what’s right for the church for what others want. The second makes us leaders. While we’ll lose some people and make others angry, we will be more apt to consistently pursue the agenda that God has given us.

7. We tend to change way too much way too soon. This is a common mistake.

Pastors come in and indiscriminately change everything. This totally disrupts the lives of the people in the church and leaves them no place where they can feel connected and comfortable in their own church. The key is to identify and then change the issues killing the church while providing a place for the existing people to remain cared for and connected.

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8. We change the wrong things.

Too many churches are willing to compromise God’s clearly expressed Truth but will die before they let their man-made traditions change. God-honoring and effective change demands leading backward by holding onto God’s principles and forward by innovating practices that work for new times. If the church isn’t fulfilling its mission to make true followers of Christ, it needs to change. If the changes aren’t leading people to become more like Jesus, they’re the wrong changes. Simply put, we need to change without compromise.

9. We think change in the church is a journey with a clear beginning and end.

Unless we’re thinking in terms of the end being when Jesus returns, this thinking is wrong and will become an obstacle for effectiveness. The one unchanging outcome of following Christ is change. We should be seeking to lead the people in our churches to embrace change as the constant of their lives, faith and ministries. When we do, we will actually have a chance at creating churches that remain alive, growing and faithful.