Leading Change for Elders, Part 1

change.jpgThe topic is how an eldership might lead its congregation to make a controversial change. It’s an important one — one that people frequently ask me about. And to be perfectly frank, I’m not sure I know the answer. But I do have a thought or two to share that might help — no solutions, but maybe some steps toward a solution.Let me start by thinking backwards, which sometimes seems easier for me. I guess I’m just a backwards sort of guy (I’m not the first to suggest this). Consider the Quail Springs Church of Christ in Oklahoma. They just added a second Sunday morning service — with instruments. Click here for the news story. Here’s the statement from the elders.

The elders announced the decision to add a second service having instruments in January 2007 but waited a full year to implement it. 300 of the approximately 900 members left the church over the decision.

Now, the criticism on the Internet has been loud and downright hateful at times. And unjustified. This eldership was trying to do what they could to reach the lost. And my heart goes out to them. I mean, they are attempting to do the Lord’s work.

They surely knew they’d be blasted by many of their sister congregations. But I seriously doubt that they expected to lose 1/3 of their members. That’s a huge blow, and it was surely an unexpected one. They are in my prayers.

The point of bringing them up is twofold. First — if you try any major change in your church, you’d better be very, very prayerful, thoughtful, and careful. You too can lose 1/3 of your members. That means the loss of beloved friends, perhaps family members, and essential volunteers. It may mean you can’t make the next mortgage payment! Such a huge loss could destroy a congregation.

On the other hand, none of the people who left went to join the Church of Satan. They just transferred to another Church of Christ. Their souls are in no jeopardy because they left. But if the elders are right and Quail Springs brings many more to the Lord because of the change they made, the Kingdom will have grown because of their efforts. And many churches have suffered and survived much worse than this.

In other words, losing a third of your members is surely a miserable, awful experience, but it’s not the end of the world. It may even be a desperately needed rebirth of your congregation. Sometimes, there are members who should leave.

But as an elder myself, I’m left pondering this question: How might an eldership make a dramatic change and lose no members at all? Or only a very few at worse?

I’m going to make some suggestions. I’d appreciate hearing others from readers. And none of these are criticisms of the Quail Springs elders. I have no idea why so many members left. Maybe they did just as well as possible. I’m not their judge and have no interest in the question. But having seen the danger, it’s worth considering how such things might be prevented.

Now, this is not particularly about instrumental music. It’s about any major change. “Major” is a change that, if not properly handled, could split a church. Introducing instruments would certainly be major. But in some churches, so would starting a children’s church or adding a kitchen. And the leadership principles are the same in either case.

And it’s absolutely imperative that leaders make changes. Leaders who live in fear of the consequence of change are not leaders. They are mere figureheads. But wise leaders recognize the difficulty of accomplishing change and so take appropriate and wise precautions.

And so — let’s ask what might cause people to leave? It’s never just the change. It’s always the change plus something else. After all, most people stayed! Why did those who left leave?

– Well, some leave because they are persuaded the change violates scripture and may even jeopardize their salvation if they stay. These people should have been taught better.

– Some leave because they feel their views weren’t considered. They see the elders as “lording it over” the flock. They resent the idea of major decisions being made without their input. They should have been given a chance to give some input.

– Some leave because they would be ostracized by other members of their families if they stayed. They should have been given a vision of such beauty and importance that they feel compelled to stay.

– Some leave because they prefer the old ways. They should have been given more time.

– Some leave because they’re selfish. They should have been rebuked.

With those concerns in mind, let consider some possible preventive strategies —

* Pray. Pray before the decision and pray after the decision. A lot. Most elderships know this, I think. But it’s too important not to mention.

* Place a simple, beautiful, compelling vision before the congregation. I don’t mean some corporate-type vision statement. I mean something the church can close their eyes and imagine with intensity. Ask the members what will it be like when the change is complete, and they can see it and they can feel it. They know why it’s worth the sacrifice — and trust me, change will be a sacrifice for some of the church. After all, we did things the old way for a reason.

* Respect the price the members have to pay. Some people love change, even craving it. Lots of youth ministers are this way, because they’re young and used to it. Don’t look down or condescend to the resisters. Respect their pain.

* Seek advice. We confuse autonomy with isolation. And so we don’t even think to ask for advice from churches that have been through it already. Ask! If you don’t know who to ask, call a nearby Church-affiliated university. Talk to the development office or the church relations office. You may get transferred to a dozen different extensions, but you’ll get some help.

Some of my favorites times as an elder has been spent over coffee with elders of other churches sharing challenges and ideas. Call the elders of a church that’s been through it already. They’ll be generous with their time and advice.

* Be patient. This is particularly a problem for young ministers. Why do the elders want to take a year? Well, change is hard. Some changes take years at best. But change takes forever if you don’t even take the first steps.

Until you’ve been through it, you don’t appreciate the time change can take. In all seriousness, some churches will need a decade or more to give up their legalism, for example. Accept it and be persistent. Gently but continually push.

* Don’t try to do too much at once. People just can’t handle but so much change at a time. Now, some folks just love change. But most people need some sameness from week to week. Don’t do too much too fast. Decide what’s really important and focus on it.

Moreover, you’ll get distracted from the most important task. It’s only natural to focus on the most immediate needs to the exclusion of the greater less urgent needs. Don’t so crowd the agenda that you never get to the big but hard essential.

And you only have so much time. Elders have jobs and families. Pick your fights, but win the ones you pick.

* Stick with the change. And once you make a change, don’t go backwards! Then you’ll have to go through the misery all over again. Stick with it!

Every once in a while, we’ll have a minister beg us to let him do something off the beaten path. We allow it. And we catch grief and defend the decision. And then the minister never does it again. To quote Charlie Brown, “Aaaarrrrgggghhhhh!!!!” Don’t put your members through the pain of change unless you plan to stay changed.

[I’ve been pondering the picture at the top of the page. Is the painter painting white images red? Or is he using something red to cleanse them? Hmm …]

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Leading Change for Elders, Part 1

  1. TCS says:

    Brian McLaren had some really good suggestions I remember from "A New Kind of Christian". I don't remember them all but it started with informing other leaders "that my thinking on some things is changing" then as you've said, casting a vision, bringing in lots of outside consultants, having a conflict resolution expert. I don't remember the rest. But I do remember he thought that major innovations were not nearly as successful if taken incrementally.

    I personally think you've got to be ok with people going somewhere else. Not that you don't care about their opinions, but if you are certain Jesus is leading his church to do something, you've got to follow that.

    BTW, I've really enjoyed reading your blog.

  2. Dave says:

    Folks, especially seniors, are resistant to change. Those are the very people who have prayed, worked and sacrificed for the congregation. Make sure that the contemplated change is worth the disruption that it will surely cause. Perhaps the Quail Springs change was just too drastic for the congregation.

    That said, a couple of words from a Christain Church brother. Our congregation has changed from a rather traditional instrumental service to a loud, drums pounding, guitars twanging , seven eleven song service. Praise team members sometimes wear sandals and ragged jeans. Something over one third of the congregation has left. Perhaps the change was worth it. Perhaps Jesus was leading Quain Springs to adopt instruments. Perhaps Jesus was leading our congregation to rock. Perhaps.

  3. Charles McLean says:

    Jay, I really respect your heart in this, but I think that elders in this kind of situation have to expect serious attrition. If the change does not create attrition after the fact, you probably waited too long and it has been creating attrition already. While each of your recommendations has merit, each has limitations. "Waiting" cannot be forever, or until people die. Teaching only works for those who will accept that they may have been wrong. And rebuking the selfish leads more often to attrition than to repentance.

    Casting the vision is critical, but forthrightness is equally crucial. If the Quail Springs elders made any mistake, it was dragging this out for almost a year, giving some people the mistaken impression that instruments would stay marginalized and never breach the holy-of-holies that is the Sunday service.

    I think every step you recommend is well-considered. But in the case of an entrenched doctrine that tells people to divide from those with whom they disagree, a split is unavoidable. Instruments did not split Quail Springs. Hermeneutics and tradition did.

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Charles,

    I heartily agree that a false hermeneutic and false theology led to the split for many. However, it might also have been about power — people leaving because they didn't get their way. I've seen it happen in plenty of churches, even outside the Churches of Christ. Long time members get upset not at the decision but at the fact they weren't given veto power over the decision.

    The only possible solution to bad hermeneutics and bad theology is good hermeneutics and good theology. But even if these are taught and taught well, many will reject them. You're right: not everyone is persuadable. We sometimes love our traditions far more than God's word. It's that humility thing I mentioned in an earlier post.

    I do wonder why the elders delayed acting on their decision for a year. I have to think maybe they announced their decision and then decided to do some teaching. If so, that was a serious mistake. You really have to teach first and make changes later. People will not listen as well once they've taken entrenched positions — and if you announce a change they aren't prepared for, they will certainly take entrenched positions.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Dave,

    You raise an important point we on the a cappella side of the aisle often ignore. We talk about whether to go instrumental as though that were the only decision. Once you go instrumental, there are a zillion musical styles to pick from — far more than for a cappella music.

    We struggle between traditional and contemporary hymns. Add to that the disparities in taste between country-western, CCM, pop, rock, rap, soul, etc., etc. and you have a lot to disagree over.

    Those who campaign for instrumental music are likely campaigning for their favorite style. Some may find themselves disappointed when the music is either too loud, too fast, too slow, or too something for their taste! And I've heard lots of complaints along these lines.

    People who love each other should be able to sort it all out, but it can't be easy.

    Some days, I'm glad I just have to stand firm against Stamps-Baxter to be happy with the song selection! At least, I'm not battling against disco and techno!

    This is not an argument against the instrument — just a word of caution for those considering the change. You'd better ask your music director just what kind of instrumental music he's going to offer!

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