If you have ever been whitewater rafting, you know how important the role of the guide is. The responsibility for getting the rafters through the rapids safely falls to the guide. A rafting guide must know the river well, aware of the shallow and dangerous sections that might stop the rafts or even cause them to flip. The main responsibility of guides is to clearly communicate instructions to those paddling so that everyone is on the same page going down the river. They must also be ready to change course quickly as rivers are unpredictable. From the opening instructions until the raft is carried out of the river, the guide is in control.
Similarly, whenever churches move forward with changes, it is the pastor who must lead the way. Like a rafting guide, pastors must have a clear plan for navigating change, taking into account what might cause problems, steal momentum, or worse, stop important changes from taking place. Pastors also need to be constant and clear with their communication, helping their congregation understand why change is necessary and how the church plans to move forward. From the beginning of the process until the very end, pastors must take their responsibility of leading their people through change seriously.
Every church goes through seasons of change. Some of the changes that take place are small, but others can affect the trajectory of the church for decades. Regardless of how big or small the changes are, every change can have the potential to cause frustration and even division within the church if pastors are not careful. As many pastors have learned through first-hand experience, leading a church through change can be the most difficult responsibility a pastor carries out.
In my first pastorate, I learned just how difficult it could be to lead a church through change. While I knew some big changes were necessary, I was not prepared for what it would take to lead my people through it well. I was passionate but naïve, self-assured, and stubborn. Reflecting on the mistakes I made, here are three lessons I learned on how pastors can lead their people well through change.
Do Not Stop Praying
In our rush to make changes and see results, we often ignore the most important step in leading change: prayer. Healthy, lasting change is not something you can bring about in your own power and wisdom, no matter how good of a leader you are. You need God to do what only He can do. Therefore, pastors must keep themselves and their people focused in prayer every step of the way.
Rather than assuming we know what needs to be done, in humility, we should ask God to show us what changes are needed, how we can lead well, and when the time is right to begin. We must also pray for God to protect our churches by guarding our hearts and the hearts of our people from any bitterness, worry, anger, and divisiveness. Change can lead to confusion and hurt, and our enemy would love nothing more than to tear our churches apart. Our main weapon against the schemes of the devil is prayer. And when we know that God is calling us to lead our church through difficult changes, we continually pray for the strength to persevere until the very end, no matter the cost.
Make Sure You Communicate
Many pastors have struggled with making necessary changes because of a lack of clear, constant communication. Shepherding our people well through change often requires sharing with them why the changes are needed, what the changes will affect, how the church plans to make the changes, and when changes will take place. By communicating openly and clearly with our members, we invite them to be an important part of the process.
Even the most laid-back, flexible, and trusting members can struggle with change, especially when they feel blindsided by it. Do not make the mistake of assuming that your congregation fully understands the vision because you hinted at changes a few times in your announcements. Sure, some of your key leaders know the plan, but they have probably been hearing about it for months. If the majority of the congregation is still confused or ignorant of what you plan to lead them through, it is going to be a struggle to get them on board and involved. Communicate early, often, and clearly.
You have prayed and prayed about the upcoming changes, and God has given you peace about moving forward. Key leaders agree that changes need to be made and have your back. You communicated consistently and clearly with the entire congregation, patiently bringing them along in the process. But then, out of nowhere, everything seems to fall apart for no apparent reason. All momentum is lost, people are angry and confused, and doubt begins to creep into your mind about whether or not change is the right move. What seemed so certain days before suddenly appears as clear as mud. Should you stop the process? Maybe. Or maybe God is calling you to persevere.
The smallest of changes can often unsettle members, and the large changes can split a church. At times you will do everything right and still face pushback and criticism. The friction can be enough to make you begin doubting whether or not you are doing the right thing, or whether God is really in it. But friction does not always mean you are doing anything wrong. Friction does not always mean God is calling you to stop.
Leaving Egypt for the wilderness and the Promised Land was a huge change for God’s people after four centuries in slavery, but God did not tell Moses to stop leading his people through the change, even when they complained and threatened to stone him. Nehemiah persevered through intense opposition when God called him to new work, learning that “the joy of the Lord is [our] strength” (Neh. 8:10). Peter faced criticism from the circumcision party when he reported that the Gentiles were being saved and brought into the church, but he persevered in leading the early church to see the glory of God’s mission.
The opposition, struggles, and criticism might be warning signs from God that we need to slow down, modify, or even stop the changes we are making. But that is not always the case. Sometimes the changes God leads us to make simply require patience, grace, and perseverance.
No one really loves change. It can be exhausting and make us uncomfortable. But change is necessary and a healthy part of life, especially life in the church. As pastors, God has called us to shepherd our people through change, even when change comes at a cost.