By Jeff Iorg
Deciding when major change is needed is a weighty responsibility. It is one of those “the-buck-stops-here” aspects of leadership.
Since major change impacts the mission, vision, values, and long-term viability of a church or ministry organization, a senior leader cannot abdicate or delegate this responsibility.
These decisions have the most far-reaching impact on current constituents as well as future effectiveness. In addition, they have eternal consequences for people depending on ministries to spread the gospel and facilitate disciple-making and Christian service.
For all these reasons, decisions about major change require thoughtful, prayerful, courageous leadership. Asking questions in the context of submissive prayer before God and collegial humility among your leadership team makes answering them a spiritual quest, a path to discovering God’s direction.
“Is the change essential to the mission?” is the most important question because it gets to the heart of the reason for major change.
It is easy to be confused and forget the only legitimate reason for leading major change—advancing the mission of your ministry organization as it serves God’s mission.
There are at least three problems clouding the issue when answering this question.
1. The reason for change could be self-serving.
Leaders can initiate major change to meet their ego needs (all the while using “mission language” or “God talk” to validate their decision).
For example, a pastor may want the accolades given to large church pastors, so he insists on erecting a worship center his church cannot afford—all in the name of evangelism and missions.
In some cases, a new building may be essential to reaching more people with the gospel. But when the project straps people financially with unreasonable debt or depends on the preaching gifts of one person, the facility serves ego more than mission.
The decision may be described in high-sounding spiritual verbiage, but it is really about satisfying the leader’s needs.
In my first pastorate, when our attendance was still less than 200, I decided we needed a television program on a local public access channel. I envisioned a talk show/Bible teaching format, with me hosting interesting interviews followed by a riveting Bible message (by yours truly, of course).
We spent months working on this project, the church spurred on by my insistence this was a forward-thinking strategy for reaching more people with the gospel. Finally, good sense won out of over youthful ego. We pulled the plug on a project that was dead on arrival, only driven forward by my out-of-control ego. Ouch!
2. The reason for change could be for personal comfort instead of mission.
A second issue about the priority of mission in major change is initiating it to make people (leaders and/or followers) more comfortable. Most legitimate major change does the opposite.
Still, it is tempting to increase compensation, streamline organizational practices, or even add staff members to care for constituents rather than fulfill the ministry’s mission.
These decisions are often popular and earn kudos from followers, making them more appealing than decisions that produce major change aligned with God’s mission.
One pastor wanted his church to add an associate pastor to alleviate some of his workload. He did not understand adding staff increases workload for supervisors, not lessens it.
He was challenged to think about hiring someone who could train more lay leaders (thus advancing their mission)—not just pick up the slack on onerous tasks he did not want to do. The major change he wanted was about his comfort, not his church’s mission.
3. The reason for change may be in line with mission, but at an unjustifiable cost.
Finally, another problem related to prioritizing mission when deciding about major change is making changes that actually serve the organization’s mission—but without improvement commensurate with the expense and effort it takes to accomplish the changes.
Although we moved the seminary, we always had the option of remaining in our former location. We could have stayed and continued to fulfill our mission in ever-diminishing ways as more and more resources were diverted to maintaining a legacy property.
Redevelopment (just like relocation) would have been a major change, just not one that would have produced enough mission advancement to justify the cost—human or financial.
Major change must be made for one reason—advancing your ministry’s mission as it aligns with God’s mission. Some might bristle at the emphasis on organizational mission instead of purely advancing the mission of God.
Advocating advancing the mission of your church or ministry rests on the assumption its mission is within the larger mission of God. If not, aligning your organization’s mission with God’s mission is a step you must take before initiating any other major change.
Stop reading and get that fixed before attempting anything else.
Every church or ministry organization needs a short, one-sentence mission statement (written without commas or conjunctions) that succinctly declares its reason for existence. For example, our mission at Gateway Seminary is shaping leaders who expand God’s kingdom around the world.
We adopted that statement several years ago and use it frequently in organizational planning. When we were deciding whether to continue our development battle or initiate the relocation, our leadership team often debated which decision would best fulfill our mission (not which decision was easier, more comfortable, or less costly).
Over the years, an additional phrase had become important to our seminary community—the mission matters most. We often challenged our students to remember that slogan as they graduated and moved into ministry leadership.
As our executive team and board discussed the development/relocation options, we challenged ourselves with the same phrase—the mission matters most.
We had to sell the campus and relocate, not because it was easy or financially lucrative or would solve our community conflicts, but because that was the best way to fulfill our mission for the next 50 years.
The main reason for the seminary’s remarkable unity through the entire process was the communal ownership of our clearly articulate mission statement (initiated and cultivated long before the relocation was contemplated).
The seminary community did more than “join me on the journey.” They embraced the relocation as an essential strategy for fulfilling our mission and sacrificed personally and professionally to make it happen.
When people genuinely believe something must change to accomplish a mission they are committed to fulfilling—when the change really is essential—they will move heaven and earth (and a seminary!) to get it done.
JEFF IORG (@Jeff_Iorg) is the president of Gateway Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Leading Major Change in Your Ministry, from which this article was excerpted and adapted with permission from B&H Publishing Group.