The telephone call happened a while back. But it was representative of dozens of similar calls and emails I receive in the course of a year. The pastor was deeply frustrated. He was considering leaving his church, but was also dealing with the reality that the congregation may push him out as well.
He is a faithful pastor. He is doing all he can to lead his church to become a Great Commission congregation. But many members in the church believe their congregation has changed too much too quickly. They no longer recognize the church they loved.
Looking for Answers, Looking for Hope
The pastor was waiting for me to respond. Even more, he was desperate for some type of hope. He was tired of dissension, tired of criticisms, and tired of hurting. What I shared with him was not a magical formula for fixing the change resistant church. To the contrary, my comments were so basic that he likely felt disappointed.
But I have heard from thousands of pastors in over two decades of research on American churches. And I have served as pastor of four churches myself. The four principles I offered are therefore not theoretical. Nor are they limited to pastors of change resistant churches. In many ways they are principles for leadership in all churches.
1. Love the People
I remember the first time a mentor told me that I should love everyone in the church where I served as pastor. I told him that I could love most of the members, but there were a handful that was just too mean and too evil to love. He then asked me if they had done anything more harmful to me than I had done to put Jesus on a suffering cross.
His words stunned me. I guess I was stunned because they were so true. If Jesus can love me after I sent Him to the cross, I can love others who hurt me. I may not feel emotions of love for my critics, but I can pray that Christ’s love will work through me.
2. Focus on the Basics
Another pastor recently told me that his church had resisted almost all the changes he had tried to implement. Instead of continuing the battles, he and a few other members began spending their time praying and sharing the gospel with others more fervently. Now the church is seeing people become followers of Christ every week. And the congregation has grown over 20 percent in less than two years.
“I still would like to see the church make some desperately needed changes to better contextualize in our community,” he told me. “But, I have to admit, God is doing a great work despite the obstacles we face.” The pastor is also spending 15 to 20 hours per week in sermon preparation. “The congregation is definitely responding to my preaching,” he said. “Almost everything we’re doing is just getting back to the basics.”
3. Stretch the Rubber Band
Every congregation has an “elasticity factor.” When you stretch a rubber band, one of three things happens. Stretch it far and will snap back on you. Stretch it too far and it will break. But if you stretch it slightly, it will become just a little bit longer. The increase in length is almost imperceptible, but nevertheless the rubber band has transformed slightly.
A leader of change resistant church must stretch the church to change. But, many times, the change is almost imperceptible. Still, it can be less painful than the congregation “snapping back” or, even worse, breaking altogether. A wise leader will know the church’s elasticity factor, and lead the church toward incremental change.
4. Pray and Trust God
The fourth principle is so obvious that I almost did not post it. But we who are leaders need to be reminded again and again that our clever devices of leadership and change are worthless unless we are people of prayer who trust God. Sometimes we become too enamored with our own leadership abilities and the latest methodological approaches. Sometimes we need to relax a bit and let God be our strength and power instead of trying with our own means.
It’s amazing what God can do when we relinquish our will to His. Many of us leaders need to trust less in our own devices and spend more time in prayer listening to and speaking with God. It is, after all, His church that we are leading.