The Starting Place for Change

The pastor is at the pulpit asking the congregation, “Who wants change?” All the hands are in the air. Then he asks, “Who wants to change?” No hands go up. That’s pretty much how the change process goes.


We’re all pretty good at identifying the ways that others need to change. When I coach church leaders who are struggling, I often hear some variation of this: “I’m just in the wrong place with the wrong people.” The solution seems simple: find the right place with the right people--or better yet, change the people we have. A lot of what passes for leadership training is a thinly disguised effort to change other people, eventually leading to disillusionment, frustration, and burnout among church leaders.


Here’s a pretty basic concept of leading change: Personal transformation precedes and accompanies congregational transformation.


It Starts with Us

That means change has to start with the individual—you have to change yourself first. If you want things to be different, you have to be different. If you want your church to be transformed, start with your own transformation.


But it doesn’t stop there. The kind of change that God brings starts with one person but is rarely intended to stop there; rather, God is at work to reconcile the world to himself, to transform families and congregations and systems and nations. Every Bible story, it seems, tells of God’s work in one person that, in big and small ways, changes the world.


Deep change happens in a rhythm of conversion. God begins a work in me—and I cooperate with God’s work in my life. As I begin to be different in my relationships and my leadership, as I continue to tell the story of God’s transforming work in my own life, things begin to change around me.


Many church leaders want things to change, but we don’t want to change. We want other people to do things differently while we follow our own autopilot and our own preferences. We look for a bag of tricks to get the outcomes that we want, but we avoid the hard work of practicing being different and risking failure.


However, there is another way: We can look for how we are contributing to the results we are getting by what we do and what we don't do. Then, we can intentionally focus on changing our own interactions rather than blaming others or trying to get them to change.


Fleshing it Out

Think about your biggest frustration with your church. Now ask yourself these two questions:

  • How am I contributing to this situation by what I do or don’t do?
  • Given that this situation exists, how do I want to respond?

Ask God to show you what you can’t currently see and try not to argue when he does. (Trust me, it’s easy to get defensive when the Holy Spirit shifts our focus from others to a focus on ourselves.)


Case Studies

In my work, I often talk about the importance of authenticity in congregational life. One leader was telling me that she longed for real honesty in her church relationships but that her church was too judgmental and too much of a “country club” to be willing to be truly honest with each other.


I asked her, “What happens when you show up authentically in that group?” She replied, “Oh, I would never do that; I hide just like everyone else.” Maybe my eyebrows went up. Maybe the Spirit was at work, but she laughed and said, “Oh, I get it . . . you’re asking me to be the change I want to see.” I reminded her that I hadn’t said a word!


Almost instantly, she was able to see that if she wanted a change, she would have to change. If she wanted authentic relationships at church, she would have to show up in her relationships authentically. We talked about ways to do that in baby steps—how she could answer the question, “How are you?” with a more honest answer than “Fine,” how she could offer prayer requests in her small group that really reflected what she wanted prayer for, how she could ask non-threatening questions of the people she saw every week, inviting them to be just a little more authentic with her.


It was so exciting to watch the transformation unfold. Every time I saw her, she shared a new story about how she came out from behind the protective wall she had built around herself and how others were willing to do the same.


This approach can change the way pastors lead as well. Many years ago, a friend told me about his frustrations with the church he served as pastor. He had tried every program in the book to get them to be different. Some days he considered going back to his pre-ministry profession. One day, though, my friend said to me, “I’ve heard clearly from the Lord: my church needs a new pastor . . . and I’m called to be that pastor.”


In response to what he heard from God, he took on a rigorous process of change in which he learned some new ways to think about himself and ministry. He got regular coaching to learn to change the way he led. The church also learned alongside him, increasingly following his lead and growing in their maturity. When he retired after 25 years, he told me, “In the last 25 years, this church has had three pastors . . . and all of them have been me.”