How Town Hall Meetings Can Help You Lead Well Through Change
March 1, 2023
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This article was originally published at Church Juice. Church Juice is a production of ReFrame Ministries, the media missions agency of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
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The word “change” carries a lot of emotion. Change means something ends while another thing begins. And whenever something ends, someone’s life is affected—often causing fear and anxiety. People don’t resist change simply because they are against anything new. We resist change because we are averse to hurt and the unknown. Change is inevitable, so how we communicate and lead through change is essential.
Wise leaders know the importance of helping people understand change. A great way to help people embrace the future is to create space for the congregation to ask questions. To underscore the value of engaging people well amid changes, author Patrick Lencioni wisely said, “If people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in.”
One time-honored way to create this space is by scheduling a town hall-style meeting. Town halls provide dedicated time for people to hear about change and to ask questions that may be troubling them. A town hall forum allows leaders to share their vision and creates space for everyone to share their concerns.
While the concept of a town hall is simple, conducting a forum well is a lost art among many church leaders. To get people to embrace the coming changes, there must be a well-planned strategy that involves before, during, and after the meeting.
Whenever a significant change is on the horizon, the church’s leaders should be involved in the process early on and well before a town hall meeting takes place. Unity among the leadership is valuable when answering questions and revealing a new direction. Whether your church is announcing a building project, canceling a moderately attended service, or revealing budget adjustments because of a financial shortfall, there should be unity among the church’s critical leaders regarding the coming change. The town hall is for the people, not the leadership.
Don’t let the coming change linger. Get the town hall on the calendar as soon as possible, and start communicating it. Everyone in the congregation should know the town hall is coming (and why), so utilize your church’s communications strategy to ensure the right audiences are informed. The leader’s goal is to allow everyone to participate in the conversation.
People should know the town hall’s topic when communicating about the upcoming meeting. Springing a surprise announcement on people gives them no time to think through their feelings. By revealing the issue beforehand, people can talk at home and see where they are concerning the change.
At the church I pastor, we began telling people about the topic in the weeks leading up to our most recent town hall. The message started out cryptically, “we will talk about a building.” People knew only the most basic of details. The following week, we revealed more: “A building has been gifted to our church, and we want to share what this means for our future.” People didn’t know the how, the when, or the where, but they knew the what. That allowed people to come to the town hall meeting with insightful and helpful questions.
Story is a powerful thing. Jesus understood the power of storytelling and often answered doctrinal questions not with direct answers but with parables—earthly stories with heavenly meanings. These stories are famous and known both inside and outside the church.
You give time to tell the story well when leading change through a town hall. While in a church gathering, the goal is to worship the Lord and proclaim his word, the purpose of a town hall is to tell the story of change. Why is the change needed? How did the change come about? How is God at work in it?
Some basics on telling a story: stories need conflict.
Conflict is what gives stories their power. When we announced Flint City Church’s new building, we talked about being in seven locations in six years. The leadership walked people through the highs and lows of being a mobile church and constantly setting up and tearing down. It was a story of not having roots in a dedicated space.
But you can’t leave it there. Every story’s conflict needs a resolution.
Then we told the story of how the church received a gift—a building. One for Flint City Church to call its own. A facility to grow roots and establish a permanent base in our community. The story then flowed into the practical facts: Who is giving it? Why would anyone just gift a church to another church? The elders were in unity—agreeing this was from God—and the church would accept this building and move into it. The change, and all that led to the need for it, were now out in the open.
After you tell your compelling story, it’s time to listen. Give ample time for questions. This part of the town hall is not for winning an argument or even having all the answers, but for empathetic listening. Leaders with low emotional IQs will focus on selling the vision and will therefore be defensive. But this forum is not a fight with the congregation; It’s a conversation. The town hall meeting usually happens AFTER the leadership makes a decision, and that decision is allowed to be examined by the people of the community. Strong leaders recognize the importance of listening to their people and hearing their concerns and worries.
When someone asks a question about facts, please give them the facts. Answering questions is an excellent opportunity to be open, transparent, and honest. Even these facts are chances to tell little stories and anecdotes. Revealing the decision-making process is often helpful for people to accept the new reality.
The real opportunity to shepherd is when people raise their deeper concerns. At Flint City’s most recent town hall about the new building, we heard questions like:
How will we afford the ongoing costs? Will moving from this location leave the current building’s owners in a challenging financial position? How will the church interact with the LGBTQ+ neighbors of that community? While it’s important to speak openly and honestly, remember: the town hall is not the time for grandstanding. It’s a time to rely on the Holy Spirit and remember the church’s mission. Speak to the concerns, but don’t be a politician. Be a shepherd and a person of integrity.
Only some people will attend the town hall. Soon after the town hall takes place, send out a communication from the church telling people what you discussed during the meeting. If you recorded the town hall, send a link so people can watch it and get up to speed. Call them if crucial people are absent and see how they are doing. Use the opportunity to shepherd the flock of God well. The following Sunday, repeat vital elements of the town hall’s message. Keep the coming change before the people so it’s a public reality. People still need to be engaged and reminded throughout the process of whatever is changing.
Town halls are not for every change and may not work for every church. But a forum like a town hall meeting is valuable in casting vision and leading through change. One of their most significant benefits is allowing people to speak and be heard. With God’s help, a town hall can be essential to unity during big and little changes. If you find town hall meetings work well, you may want to consider scheduling them regularly. These can be opportunities to give updates on long-term transitions or keep everyone abreast of the constant changes happening in the church's life.
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