As my family and I drove through New England this past summer, the need for today’s Christian churches to learn how to change was tragically brought to mind. Virtually each town had an old church steeple towering above its houses. But at the bottom of the steeple we too often found an old church building now a museum or a store or an office. The vibrant Christianity that at one time was housed in that building faded away over time and the only evidence left was the steeple.
Even the most resistant of us are being forced to realize that in our churches change isn’t optional – it is a given! A change process that honors the past and engages the present while embracing the future is a reality that we all need to learn how to handle. The evidence for the necessity of change is starkly displayed in the steeples above museums and stain glassed windowed country stores.
How to handle that process, however, is the challenge that each of our church communities must face. The pace and process of change can take a myriad of different forms with results that range from magnificent to disastrous. Some communities have attempted to face radical change quickly in order to get the pain over with. Results have varied from exciting revitalization of ministry to swift and painful devastation. On the other hand, some attempts to change slowly and patiently have brought healing in divided communities while others have slowly sapped the life out of a church like a slow bleed. Each community must face the question not will we change, but how are we going to handle the change process?
Churches and pastors together must meet on the dance floor of change and be completely honest with each other there. The change process, big or small, in any church is a dance between the congregation and the pastor. And it is here that they will move forward beautifully or, too often, stumble awkwardly. If pastors and churches have learned to dance well together through the change process, the change, although challenging, can bring joy and even pleasure not just at the end of the dance, but all through it as well.
“Pick your Partner”
Churches and pastors must pick their dancing partners well at the very start. Already in the call process, honest discussions on the topic of change are vital. Too often the pastor is trying to land the job and the church is trying to land the pastor so challenging discussions on volatile topics such as change are avoided. But honest communication on key questions at this very early stage in the dance will avoid great pain in the future.
Churches must honestly evaluate their own dance style and share that with their prospective pastors. It is fine to talk about future vision, but also talk about how you want to get there. Is change a monster or a friend in this community? Are they ready for a little tweak or a major overhaul? How fast do they want to change? How has change been received in the past – with eagerness or reluctance? What kind of dance partner are they looking for – someone to take the lead or someone to simply support in the process? Too often churches get the wrong partner because they aren’t honest at the start. They do their best to portray what they think the pastor would want them to be instead of who they really are.
And too often pastors get the wrong partner because they aren’t honest at the start either. Pastor’s must know their own change style and be honest with their prospective partners. Tell them what kind of leader you are. Let them know if you enter change eagerly or reluctantly. Tell them if you like to move slow or fast when it comes to change. Pastors may share the vision of the church but too often impose their own style and schedule of change on a church without considering the willingness of their potential partner.
If we are going to have churches and pastors that are able to succeed in this rapidly changing culture, then at the very start we need to make sure that we are choosing the right dance partner.
But simply choosing the right dancing partner doesn’t ensure smooth sailing. Even after choosing the right partner there is the process of learning to dance together. The early years of ministry together can be the most challenging as both the pastor and the church take the dance floor. The dance starts a little bit awkwardly. We don’t get too close to each other. We clumsily hand the lead back and forth. And we often step on each other’s toes, sometimes causing real pain.
The early years of ministry together demand grace for each other. As we feel the awkwardness of the change process and the hurt inflicted on each other in our missteps, the temptation is to leave the dance floor all together and to simply give up. Many pastors and churches do. Sometimes they agree simply not to face the reality of change. And sometime they decide that they simply can’t dance together and part ways in their in life-long search for the perfect pastor or the perfect church.
The pastor-church relationships that lead to vibrant ministries are the ones that are willing to work through the challenges of change and learn to dance together. They get to know each other and appreciate each other for the specific gifts they possess. They learn when to dance fast and when to dance slowly. They learn what moves cause them to stumble and what moves cause them to shine. And they learn, maybe most importantly, to apologize, forgive each other and then try again.
Two Steps to Learn
There are two steps to the dance of change that both pastors and churches need to learn if they are going to survive the dance together. Healthy change begins off the dance floor with communication. Make the time to talk with each other and get to know each other. Find out what style of change suits your pastor best. Find out what kind of change the church is willing to try and which voices are important to hear. Until these kinds of honest conversations happen, pastors and churches are going to continue to step onto the dance floor together and suddenly find out that they aren’t dancing the same dance with disastrous results!
Secondly, surviving change, and thriving through it, demands trust. Good dancers sometimes take the lead and other times move at the impulse of their partner. And that takes trust. Until churches believe that pastors really do love them and want what is best for them and until pastors believe that their parishioners love the church and want what is best for the kingdom of God they will dance with hesitation and fear.
Learning to dance well together through change takes time and grace. The question isn’t whether we will have to step onto the dance floor of change or not. The question is will we dance well or will we dance poorly?
Some churches send their pastor to dance alone while they sit on the sidelines and watch. It won’t take long before that pastor moves on exhausted and frustrated. Some churches are ready to dance but their pastors, afraid to risk their own safety and security, afraid to possibly fail, prevent them from stepping onto the dance floor and their dreams soon die. Some pastors and churches are sitting on the dance floor together. They’ve tried to dance and failed, and rather than try again they’ve given up.
But others are dancing. Some are dancing fast and some slowly. Some of their dances are still awkward and halting and some are moving with grace and power. But they are dancing together. They are facing the reality of change and learning how to handle it together. They are honoring the past and engaging the present while embracing the future. When a church and a pastor make those moves together on the dance floor of change, our Audience of One, God himself, applauds. He applauds his Church that has learned to dance together beautifully!