5 Keys for Leading Change in Your Church Blog Feature

By: Jim Herrington on August 19, 2020

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5 Keys for Leading Change in Your Church

Leadership | Relaunch Church | Rapid Relaunch

As a leader, you’ve never experienced a season like this one. Even before the pandemic, the pace of change in our culture has been ever-increasing for the past 10 to 15 years.  

The current generation of leaders are the only generation that has had to lead in a context where the pace of change is so rapid. Not only are you managing and leading through the tactical work, making plans and working in details, but there is also the emotional stress of change followed by change and then more change again.

The bad news is the pace of change is likely to accelerate, as we’ve all seen in dealing with the global pandemic and its local impact. The good news is that change leadership is something that has been studied and has predictable principles and practices that can be learned.


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Leadership is Like Walking

Leadership is like walking with your two feet. One foot is all about the nature and quality of relationships, both with God and with our congregants or teams. The other foot is about results, strategy, tactics and goals. The challenge is that a lot of us are just hopping along on one foot!

The increasing pace of change is what makes walking with both feet challenging. As leaders, we must become more attuned to the emotional and relational side of walking, developing processes and skills for managing our relationships while we work toward tactics and goals.

Imagine someone on your team who is struggling to embrace the pace of change that’s happening right now. How unhelpful is it for somebody to either ignore that person or to look at them and say, “Get over it”? Neither of those strategies is helpful, so learning to deal with the emotional side of their experience, developing skills for that, is critical. Not ignoring or minimizing. Learning how to attune to the emotional side of our people has become a much more important leadership skill, now more than ever.

Signs of Being Disconnected

Failing to tune in to the emotional process can show up in several ways:

          • Conflict increases: You see more and more conflict as people have unprocessed anxiety, fear, grief or hopelessness

          • Disengagement: A lack of motivation or poor morale becomes visible.

          • Blaming and shaming: You begin to see pain or frustration being discharged. “This is not my responsibility.” Or, “If that person would do their part this wouldn’t happen…”

The way our brains are wired, change is viewed as a threat. The very process of change creates anxiety, and the more change there is, the more anxiety there's going to be in any group of people or system.

The New Normal is Constant Change

When you live in a place of slow change, you're probably doing an annual or semiannual assessment and then building plans from there. That was a workable strategy when change was less rapid.

Imagine, though, if you created a five-year plan for your congregation this past January, and it somehow didn’t account for a pandemic (imagine that). It also included nothing about the intense national conversation on racial equality and systemic injustice. So, what do you do? Do you pretend like those things didn't happen or do you stop and reassess?

You hear a lot about “finding a new normal” right now. And part of what we’re seeing is that it’s simply an accelerating pace of change. We can choose to live with the hope that "if we just get through this, then we can get back to normal." Or we can quit hoping to go back to “normal” and instead ask, “How can we lead well during rapid, ongoing change?”

In this context, we are going to need more conversations, internally as leaders and externally with our congregations and community, to help them know what the current reality is and help them understand the need to assess frequently and adapt to what is actually happening in our neighborhoods, cities, nation, and the world.

Self-Care vs Self-Comfort

Transitioning to a new way of living makes us tired. Think about having a newborn baby in your family for the first time. Or maybe you experienced the huge effort to launch a new business. Any new reality can be exhausting, but over time, we can become accustomed to that new context. If, after a certain amount of time, you find that you are still exhausted and running on fumes, it may be time to say, “There’s something here for me to learn.”

When Paul says, “Take off the old self and put on the new self,” at some point, that may include 20-30 years of habitual behavior and deeply ingrained ways of doing and thinking. In difficult seasons, many have a tendency to simply work harder and neglect taking care of themselves. You must fight that tendency with everything you have. And the more deeply involved you are in change, the more important self-care becomes.

We know good sleep, good eating and good exercise help us function at the highest level.

I think it’s also important to distinguish self-care from self-comfort. I joke all the time that Blue Bell ice cream is my self-comfort. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but so often what happens when we get exhausted is that we turn to self-comfort and we omit the self-care.

Often, what I really need to care for myself is to go walk. Ten minutes into a walk, my energy returns. My creativity emerges. I can have conversations about problems more effectively. Sometimes self-care is about doing the hard things like working out and eating the right foods. And I think making that distinction–rest, sleep, eating, time for reflection, reading, listening to God–all of those are the kinds of self-care that are going to make a big difference in seasons of deep change and crisis.

The truth is we can’t do everything, so we need to give ourselves the permission to not be the savior, not to overwork and bury ourselves in expectations. Leaders have to collectively agree what the reasonable expectations are.

5 Keys for Leading Well Going Forward

A new set of leadership skills will need to be learned and mastered in this era. Here are five specific things you can do to strengthen your leadership in a season of increasing change and unexpected circumstances.

          • Start by saying this is going to be messy, and we can't please everybody. With empathy and compassion, manage expectations by being honest at how challenging this season is for everyone.

          • Bring along your whole staff or leadership team. Do not lead alone. Invite others into the process, the decision-making, and the prayer.

          • Generate and sustain creative tension. Healthy tension creates an opportunity for creativity and innovation. If you eliminate or avoid all tension, you’ll end up carrying too much and frustrating even the most-engaged people around you.

          • Stop thinking in binary terms. When you create two sides, people become polarized. Become skilled at creating space that’s both safe and challenging as you adapt and move forward. Avoid the “either/or.”

          • Seek outside perspective. Find a pastor down the road, a denominational leader or get a coach. Have someone without anything at stake help you listen, evaluate your plans, and offer candid feedback in a safe yet challenging way.


Jim Herrington has been a pastor for 45 years and has served as a denominational executive and pastor to pastors since 1989 when he first began coaching leaders. He has worked with hundreds of congregations from a variety of traditions around the challenges of personal and congregational transformation. He currently serves as co-owner of The Leaders Journey.