It’s Flashback Friday and we’re happy to bring you this Cutting Edge article from Fall of 2005
Navigating the Change in the Life of the Church
How two Vineyard Pastors have Taken their Congregations Through Change
Jason Chatraw talks with Rich Nathan & Tri Robinson
(Volume 9 No. 2 Fall 2005) Vineyard USA
Much like we all go through tough transitional times on an individual basis, churches experience periods of transition, as well. For many people in the church, change is overwhelming and uncomfortable. Knowing how to navigate a church through various transitions is paramount for pastors, especially if they want to maintain growth and health.
Cutting Edge asked a couple of pastors—Rich Nathan, senior pastor of the Columbus Vineyard in Ohio, and Tri Robinson, senior pastor of the Vineyard Boise in Idaho—who have planted churches and grown them to significant size, about their secrets when it comes to making successful transitions.
When you recognize a big change needs to be made in your church, what action steps do you begin to take?
Rich: I love living in reality, therefore I try at all costs to get the facts. I read and listen to successful practitioners outside my church. I never listen to theoreticians, or those who don’t love the church. I also listen to the counsel of key staff and lay leaders. But for me, I generally can’t move forward without a deep personal conviction that the Lord is calling for this change. I need to experience something of “the cloud and the pillar of fire.” This, of course, is not necessary for all decisions or for all changes. But big changes, such as the decision to build a new sanctuary, or rework the church’s DNA, or a major theological shift (all of them exceedingly rare) require a deep sense of divine leading.
After our leadership team determines that a change needs to occur, I have found the approach in the book Leading Change by John Kotter (from the Harvard Business School) to be extremely helpful. Kotter describes how to build a guiding coalition, how to develop a strategy, how to communicate the vision, how to empower for broad- based action, how to generate short-term wins, consolidate gains, and anchor new approaches in the culture. I spend a lot of time thinking through how to “build a case” for the change and the way that I’m going to communicate this case to various groups of people.
Tri: The problem for most pastors in dealing with the need for transition is that they don’t recognize it. You have to train yourself to recognize it.
I remember watching the movie, The Right Stuff. There was a scene that personifies what it’s like for a pastor to lead his church through change. Chuck Yeager goes up in his high speed test plane, but he hasn’t yet kicked in the afterburners. As he’s jetting along, suddenly everything starts shaking and shattering and the instruments are flipping out of control. It seems like everything is falling apart. But actually, he is moving toward mach 1.
There is this invisible barrier that you can’t see as you approach the speed of sound. You can’t see it, but the symptoms are there. In the scene, Yeager had a choice to make: throttle back and not go through it or power forward and blast through it. He decides to push through it and when he throttles forward, the ground crew hears this explosion. They thought he blew up, but what they actually heard was the sound barrier breaking for the first time. And then they show Yeager, who is now flying smoothly toward mach 2.
When you feel the thing shaking and it seems like it would be a lot easier to throttle back as a leader, this can be a sign that you are about to break through the barrier.
For me, the most important thing is recognizing what that stress is. It’s always something like, “Nobody knows my name any more” or “This church is getting way too big.” Many pastors don’t understand it, so they don’t break through. They don’t want to make waves. The most difficult part of change is identifying that you’re actually up against a barrier. And most of the time, the changes are generally structural changes. In order for pastors to throttle through it, you’ve got to make shifts in the culture, such as how you spend your time, or who you invest in. You have to create better management systems to handle the problems. Those are all cultural shifts and structural changes that we all experience.
What has been the most difficult transition you have had to navigate in the life of your church? how did you get through it?
Rich: One of the most significant changes for our congregation was being adopted into the Vineyard. We were an independent non-denominational church loosely affiliated with a small coalition of other churches. We held a series of congregational meetings for nearly two years as we walked through the change. We also had many of our leaders attend John Wimber conferences over the course of two years. And most helpfully, we invited Lance Pittluck to come in to introduce our congregation to the theology and practices of the kingdom.
Tri: I just went through a difficult change, where I had to create a whole new management team to respond to problems that quickly flared up in the church in order to prevent it from getting out of control. I first of all analyzed it by myself and tried to get a rational look at it, otherwise you’re just listening to complaints and hearing people say hurtful things as opposed to understanding the real issue. You have to get above that and get a bigger view.
You have to go to the Lord in prayer and say, “Lord, what is the bigger issue and what’s holding it back?” Many times, it’s a management issue. Oftentimes, you aren’t able to change quickly enough—and that’s the problem.
In developing this management team, I got a diverse group of people who think differently, especially about solving problems. In the book Good to Great, one of the important points of the book I think is so crucial to pastoral leadership is that you have to embrace conflict and chaos as your friend. People don’t like change because it changes relationship structures on your team, and that’s never fun. It always takes confrontation, but you have to think outside the box.
How do you sell the vision for a big change in your church with the leaders? How does it differ when you sell it to the rest of the congregation?
Rich: As a general rule, I try to leak big changes to influencers (in other words, I send up trial balloons to sharpen my thinking and to field test my message). I deeply appreciate Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, concerning how massive change takes place in various social settings. I also hold a series of meetings for leaders in which very frank discussion and a robust exchange of ideas can occur. For large changes, I personally lead those leaders’ meetings. It is important that leaders hear directly from the senior pastor what we are doing and why we are doing it. Concerning people in the congregation, I believe in over-communicating change using a variety of communication devices including Sunday morning messages, emails, coffees, vision meetings, brochures, bulletin inserts, and celebration meetings. I also like to give congregation members an opportunity to ask questions to trusted and trained leadership team members who understand how to communicate the vision.
Tri: I talk with my advisers and elders first about the problem that the change is addressing. Sometimes, I’m not quite sure what to do, so we discuss it first. And then, I resolve the vision within myself. Once we formulate a plan, I take it to my first line of pastors and leaders and then I go to the rest of the staff before I go to the congregation.
When I go to the people, I always present the problem. I say, “Here’s the situation.” It’s usually a good problem, but it’s still a problem. And then I say, “This is what we’re doing about it.” I don’t ask for their advice. I’ve already figured out what we’re going to do and just explain how we’re going to get it done. People appreciate strong leadership in that way.
How do you feel about change in general? Do you like it? Does it pain you to make changes?
Rich: Some people are wired to like change for change’s sake. They just get tired of the “same old thing.” That’s not me. I love change. I think most large church pastors do. But I love change for a purpose; change that will link more disconnected people with Christ; change that will result in more people understanding God’s Word or discovering God’s calling for their lives. I’m not particularly interested in change in order to be novel or “cutting edge” (no offense to this wonderful periodical!).
Tri: I know change is a necessary thing for a leader, and I also know it’s necessary to help a church grow and move ahead. Part of it is fun—figuring out a more effective way to do things. But I also hate part of it. Sometimes, I’ll call other pastors who have gone through it before me and find out how they made it. I always try to ask lots of practical questions about budget, schedules, service times, facilities, staff, etc.
What advice would you give to church planters who are in transitional phases and needing to make big changes in their churches?
Rich: Use “the Lord told me” rarely. You have only so many bullets in that gun and you don’t want to waste them. Nothing will shred your credibility or deplete your equity more than being consistently wrong when you speak in the Lord’s name.
Get lots of advice; talk with others. Remember “we” have the mind of Christ. This is a plural, community verse. In other words, we need other people’s input.
Also, remember that people’s willingness to follow a leader is based upon the three C’s of leadership: character, competence, and care. People will follow someone who has a reputation for honesty and transparency in decision-making. That is character. People also want to know that your decisions generally turn out well. That is competence. And people will follow someone who has personally ministered to them or their family. That is care. When all three are working together: character, competence, and care, change is pretty easy to bring about in a church.
Tri: Don’t be above asking people for help who have been where you are. Don’t be afraid of change—and lead through it with confidence.