The first churches Carey Nieuwhof pastored were so small, he says, they couldn’t afford a real minister. So they hired him instead.
In 1995, Nieuwhof, a former lawyer turned pastor in training, moved to the small community of Oro, Ontario, to serve three small Presbyterian congregations. Total Sunday attendance was 50 people. One church drew only six on Sundays.
“When my wife and young son and I showed up, we grew their attendance by 50 percent overnight,” he said.
Eventually those three churches merged and grew to a congregation of more than 600, with a lot of changes along the way.
Six years ago, Nieuwhof started over as founding pastor of Connexus Community Church, a multi-site church of about 900 people, with campuses in Barrie and Orillia, Ontario.
Recently, he spoke with Facts & Trends about leading churches during times of change and transition.
F&T: As a pastor, how do you discern whether or not to make a change?
Carey: The first test would be to see if a change is consistent or inconsistent with Scripture. If it is inconsistent, don’t do it.
The second thing is to realize that most of the debate in the church is about method, not mission. Almost everybody agrees on mission, but where we tend to have the most vehement disagreements is on the issue of methods. In every generation—within certain reasons—method is up for grabs.
The third thing I would say is that when you change methods make sure you are aligning along a consistent strategy—a strategy that shows some promise; a strategy that has a track record behind it.
Every once in a while, you have to go out on a limb. But for the most part the changes you are embracing should be affirmed among some wise counsel.
I always look to our elders, staff and key volunteers. Usually, you will discover most of them are in fairly wide agreement with the change. If you have that kind of affirmation, I think you have the green light for change.
F&T: Most change in a church brings some level of conflict. What’s the best way for a pastor to defuse conflict and move forward?
Carey: You are going to get angry emails. You are going to have people fly off the handle at a congregational meeting or maybe on Sunday after a service. That’s happened to me—it’s happened to every leader who has navigated change.
If you can wait even 24 hours, you almost always are better off.
Another helpful practice is one I call, “Reply relationally.” It is easiest to have conflict using impersonal media. I always say nothing good ever happens over email.
You cannot resolve conflict over email. If somebody sends an angry email, I will call him or her. If someone calls and leaves me a voicemail, I will say, why don’t we meet for coffee?
Nine times out of 10, if you can establish voice-to-voice—or better yet, face-to-face—contact with people, the conflict de-escalates.
F&T: Tell us about a change that worked well for your church.
Carey: We made a lot of changes that worked early on. One of those included a six-month process where we studied the locations of the church’s three original buildings.
When the churches were built in the 19th Century, they were about half an hour apart by horseback. Then the car was invented and all of a sudden 30 minutes became five minutes.
As we started to grow, we began to consider consolidating our resources. Prayerfully we led a study team through that six-month period and shared our recommendations to some key influencers in the church.
When we brought it to the congregation, 75 percent voted in favor of selling our buildings and starting a new church, with a new name, in a new location.
F&T: What about one that went badly?
Carey: When I went from being a solo pastor to leading a multi-staff church, I definitely made some mistakes in hiring.
I remember a church member who asked me, “Do you need any advice in terms of bringing on new staff.” Stupidly, I said, “No. I’ve got this all covered.”
That was a really dumb decision.
F&T: How do you know when it’s the right time to make a change?
Carey: I try to think of it in terms of short-term goals (what we can accomplish in a year); medium-term goals (what we can accomplish in two to three years, understanding those are some of the more long-term, wholesale changes); and then long-term goals (what we can accomplish in five years)
The mistake a lot of leaders make is overestimating what you can do in one year and underestimating what you can do in five years. You can have a long-term plan developed in a few months, but to implement all that change at once is usually disastrous.
F&T: How do you best communicate change in a church?
Carey: In his book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni talks about cascading communication. And I think that is key.
One of the mistakes we make in the church world is taking an idea from the boardroom to the congregational meeting and bypassing everybody in between.
The crowd is almost always the most resistant to change. Sharing the vision with some senior leadership, staff, key volunteers and key influencers is crucial. Letting them know here is this idea we are chewing on and asking them what they think.
If we are able to share information in cascading circles, usually by the time we share it with the congregation, there are fans of the change in place already.
F&T: Where do pastors go wrong when it comes to change?
Carey: We don’t think about strategy nearly as much as we need to. Strategy plays a big part in whether a church is effective in accomplishing its mission.
Most church leaders have the same mission and vision as the guy down the street.
We love Jesus. We love God. We believe we have a message for the world, and we believe we need to grow in our faith.
At the end of the day, it’s my responsibly to develop a cohesive strategy for accomplishing that mission.
For more information, visit LeadingChangeWithoutLosingIt.com.