Pastorpedia: Leading Incremental Change

A Video Resource of CE National, a church effectiveness ministry
In this issue we talk about where and how pastors can institute thoughtful change.

He made too many quick changes, and they responded …

… by changing his title to “former pastor.” So what is the point? People hate changes and surprises, so we have all been told. My favorite church coach, Lyle Schaller, taught many and me that “People hate changes and surprises.” And when I asked him why, he urged me to sit at a different chair at our kitchen table when I got home from the Wisconsin seminar.

Our one daughter said immediately, “That’s my chair, Dad.” And our other, “Dad, what’s wrong?”

And at church we have many sisters and brothers and daughters and sons who may respond to a sudden shift with alarm and even anger.

Not that any of us have ever seen it happen about music or procedures or emphases at church!

So this month three of us get together to share our concerns, and some ideas that have helped us. And one common denominator out of our combined 100 years of experience: Changes must be made!

See what you think.

Incrementally and hopefully,

Knute, with Jeff and Jim

Read the conversation here or download the PDF »

How does incremental change differ from abrupt change? Is it better?

Jeff Bogue

• Incremental change is different from abrupt change, obviously because of the speed and time involved. Abrupt change is often unexpected and possibly unwanted.
• Often, when you’re changing things abruptly it’s because you’re reacting to something. It might be circumstances, or relational stubbornness—and somebody just won’t cooperate so you have to make the change regardless of how they feel—or a plethora of other reasons. You just simply don’t have the time or ability to process that change all the way.
• Is Incremental change better than abrupt change?
  – It depends on what the change is and why it needs to be made. If there’s a crisis and change must happen quickly and decisively, then it is not the time for incremental change.
  – If you are able to lead through change relationally and give people the opportunity to digest it and join you, that is always the best option in my view.

Jim Brown

• Ultimately a goal or vision must be cast to show the why of change and incremental change helps to knock off the shock of abrupt change.
• Incremental change allows the group to process better and manages the emotions of loss or familiarity.
• It can be better, but if something has been talked about for years and there is no forward traction, then abrupt change can be best as long as it will not bring collateral damage. Often personal decisions need abrupt change to take place when a catastrophic situation surfaces.
• If there is a death in view for an organization, abrupt change must happen or it will not survive. If we are to better the future, we must disturb the present.
• Wisdom is the key in change, and rallying support from the key leaders helps the change process.
• Everyone thinks of changing, but few think about changing themselves!

Knute Larson

• Yes, incremental change is better. There, that settles that—and if you do not agree, please change your mind right now!
• If “people hate changes and surprises” is true, and it is, then normally we do not want to surprise our church people with a change. So incremental change, where you teach and prepare the people without alarming them, and you emphasize the mission behind the change, is the better way.
• Incremental change means you do not rush things in a way that make people decide quickly. You communicate well so that no one affected by the change will be surprised, and so that the best of them will have input to shape the new way. You start with staff and the church oversight board, then include the teachers and leaders and influencers (not an official position, but you know who they are).
• Incremental change needs patience.
• Careful change involves a slow process and has the following ingredients:
  – Strong reasons that build the church
  – Values in line with those of the church
  – Getting input from other leaders in the church, fathers and mothers and influencers
  – Board input and approval and staff also

What are some major principles to remember as changes are made and led?

Jeff Bogue

• Communicate, communicate, communicate! Any time, place, and way that you can, communicate, and recommunicate, so that people understand what you’re asking of them and why you’re asking it.
• A mistake a lot of leaders make is they get tunnel vision because they’ve been working on the problem themselves for a long, long time. Then they announce the problem and the solution simultaneously, which doesn’t allow people time to process through what their role in it may be. So, when possible, communicate!
• Another principle to remember is to listen. Listen to people’s fears, listen to their concerns, and listen to their insights. God wove the church together and that means there’s a collective wisdom in the body. Sometimes other people are just better at things than you are and that’s part of why God put them in your life. So, listen to them.
• Tied to that is: learn from them. If there is a better way, if there is a different path, or if there is a different solution. Often you can arrive at the same station on different tracks, and sometimes they have a better path or more helpful path you can take without surrendering what you feel needs to be done, or the vision that God has given you.

Jim Brown

• Communicate, communicate, and communicate!.
• Any time change is being made, help the church to see the people that it will benefit. I always build a scenario that asks the question, “How much would you pay to have your child, grandchild, or friend benefit from this?”.
• Don’t take opposition or questions about the change personally. People need to work it out in their own minds.
• Always remember it is easy for you to see the why, but this is the first time they have heard the new plan, so give them time to process it.
• Some people are inward processors, others are slow processors—so give them time to process the change.
• Remember, to say goodbye to something is to die a little to self.

Knute Larson

• Communication, communication, communication. Even Madison Avenue says that a person does not buy a product until he has seen and heard an ad at least 17 times! I have no idea how they get that, but it gives new meaning to the thought, “We announced that last week.” Or to the idea that telling a group of leaders one time that a change is coming.
• A major principle: all change is hard for some people! Probably they react to changes at home also, or roadwork, or new policies at work. They are just built that way, and not much changed when they trusted Christ as Savior, sometimes. We must be patient. And we must communicate.
• A major principle: stories that emphasize mission and changed lives and the high purposes of Scripture—these must be told. If you are adding a worship service, for instance, people need to hear from someone who thought the previous schedule made it hard to invite friends and neighbors. Or to simply hear from some whose life was changed by our Savior whom they heard about with clarity in one of the worship services.
• The ever-widening circles of informing and getting input and ownership—this is an important principle for change. We start with our spouse :-)—If you cannot convince her, you may be going down a dead end. And then staff and board and leaders and teachers. If it is a change that needs congregational vote, 30 to 50% of the people in the meeting should be shaking their heads in agreement and to show they are not surprised, as the action is presented. And strong leaders who have had a part in forming the change should be standing up front to answer questions with you, the pastor. This shows it is not just your idea. When we voted on a building program, all seven times the building committee that finalized the plans were standing up front with me to answer questions. This was a strong show of knowledge and wisdom, hard to argue with.
• We should not expect everyone to agree. Some people never will. Do not blame yourself if you have followed the ever-widening circles of communication.
• Prayer—that’s a practice more than a principle, but asking for wisdom and unity certainly is very important.
• Practices of pastoral love to the people way before changes are ever made—very significant! We earn the right to lead by love.

Are there any parts of church life that must keep changing all the time?

Jeff Bogue

• Yes, all of them. Change for change sake is actually a good thing and creates a discipline … a discipline of openness and new ideas and a discipline of leadership influx.
• Usually the reason the church is dying a slow death is because it’s unwilling to change and it has lost touch with its culture. By implementing a culture of change you’re able to work against that in some ways and help people be in that habit.

Jim Brown

• The heart of the leader is constantly growing and becoming more like Jesus. That is a change of sorts!
• Technology is always advancing.
• Culture is rapidly changing and we must be able to adapt to reach people of this culture.
• We are products of our past but we don’t need to be prisoners of it!

Knute Larson

• Yes, the pastor for one. We should all be getting better at what we do all the time. That would be changing from experience and lessons learned and maturity in Christ.
• Yes, the facilities must be updated every so often. In many buildings designed over 3o years ago, there probably are needs to update the stand-and-have-coffee area, the stage area, and the children’s area to improve security and fun! Paint and signage also.
• Yes, the methods of communication. They change regularly as methods are added.
• Yes, staff unity and teamwork. We really should be getting better at that all the time. Status quo has got to be a negative.
• Yes, the sensible and spiritual fervor of the people, and first the pastor. Staying the same is never commanded of a believer.
• Yes, the varieties present in the sermon. (I am stretching the question here, because I see so many sermons when coaching that could be improved with just a little variety.)
• Yes, the outreach methods in the community are changing all the time, or just becoming effective. Some of us can remember even calling at homes unannounced to invite them to church and/or Christ. Not much appreciated today!
• Yes, at least aspects of the music-worship life of the church. We certainly all want to avoid the nemesis of churches, worship wars, but we also must not pump the organ.
• Communication methods—there are so many new ways to get reasons and text and stories to our people. No mimeographed letters in snail mail for a while now!

Jeff Bogue, of Grace Church, in several locations in the Bath-Norton-Medina areas of Ohio; Jim Brown, of Grace Community Church in Goshen, Indiana, a church known for its strong growth, family and men’s ministries, and community response teams; and Knute Larson, a coach of pastors, who previously led The Chapel in Akron for 26 years.
Vol. 6, Issue 11 | November 2019

Pastorpedia is a resource produced by CE National, a church effectiveness ministry. Here’s how CE National helps to equip pastors and church leaders. Please contact us at or 574.267.6622 if we may be of any help to you or your ministry.

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