A shorter form of this was published in The Christian Courier and was first written on commission from Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.
How many pastors does it take to change a Christian Reformed church? The best and right answer is probably “None.” But that hasn’t kept many of my ilk from trying. Some try wisely, some foolishly. We all pray we’re faithful to God in building up the church and serving in God’s world.
Yet most of us change-driving pastors have taken and given lumps in the change process. Some lumps may have been well-deserved, many not. Saddest, though, were time when lumps permanently wounded pastors, their families and congregations.
Maybe you wonder, “How can I trust he knows what he’s talking about?” Well, for one, I’ve been a CRC pastor for almost 33 years, 24 of them in parish ministry. I’ve taken my share of lumps in the process of church changes. Regrettably, I’ve have given lumps too. For some of the giving and taking we all need Christ’s forgiveness and healing.
But this is not only my story. Recently I’ve hustled some colleagues via email and phone--women and men, in Canada and the USA, from churches large and small, some recent church plants, others long-established. I know a few of these folks well, others hardly at all. All have participated in Peer Learning Groups sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church’s program of Sustaining Pastoral Excellence. Those peer groups offer fine, safe places of mutual discipline and spiritual sharpening.
I asked several questions about change in churches. All who responded were willing to be quoted. I won’t name all congregations when doing so could cause more hurt. Nor will I call any of my colleagues “Reverend”; don’t think that’s irreverent. They’re all ordained, but believer even without an official title is ordained too--in the office of believer. That’s surely the most important office in the church except the office of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The responses to my queries about change showed unmistakable convergences, without being cookie-cutter answers. Maybe we’re simply all reading the same books, filling in the blanks with our experiences viewed through similar cultural lenses. This isn’t science. It’s story. I pray it in somehow reflects God’s story where change in the Bible is marked by the stirring rhythm of creation, fall and redemption.
Living Organisms Change
When I asked the first question, “How is change in the church a good, healthy thing?” Joan De Vries, Ken Vander Horst and Karen Wilk all described the church as a “living organism.” They agree it must change in response to changes within itself and in its environment. Karen claims, “Living things are dynamic. If not, they’re dying.” In unsurprising, albeit earthy Canadian fashion, Ken added, “The church is like a living body. Imagine if a human body never changes! All that stuff piling up inside!”
Several pastors sang harmonious tunes about healthy and unhealthy change. Again, Joan DeVries noted that “a ‘mall mentality’ of shopping around for the best deal took hold [in the 90s]. Members began to move freely among various church options.” Her congregation couldn’t count on old patterns of loyalty to keep the church alive. So as pastor she encouraged conversations about such trends and helped the congregation become “an intentionally outreaching church.”
Over several years the congregation “made many large and small changes. They built a new church with a new name. They trained greeters, reformatted the bulletin layout and content, set up prayer walks in their new neighbourhood. They tried hard to avoid using in-house acronyms—all to become as welcoming as possible.”
Al Gelder, pastor of Binghamton, New York’s Valley CRC since 1994, recounted the largely happy process of change from all traditional music to an intentional blend of traditional and contemporary. He wrote, “We introduced the changes carefully. We had competent and caring younger musicians—a wonderful drummer who accompanied, not blasted; a youth worker who picked up guitar on his own, but did it well. The organist still gets the compliment, ‘We sure miss you when you’re on vacation.’ We continue to receive young families, partly because of worship style. The older group sees the need to use younger generations’ music for the church’s future.”
Speaking about her experience as a member of Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hospital chaplain Erika Dekker observed, “Change has been good, especially when we were between pastors and, of all things, when our pastor was on sabbatical. One difficult change we had to make was to cut 1.5 staff full-time-equivalent positions because of budget shortages. Two years later we realize we dodged a tendency towards professionalization, particularly in worship preparation. Now we appreciate the involvement of many and diverse people in worship.”
Erika concluded, “Whenever we change, leadership must constantly communicate well with the congregation. Once Council put a proposal in mailboxes three weeks before a town hall meeting. The Council Chair led the discussion. Although Council made the final decision, the congregation was involved and honoured throughout the process.”
Al Gelder testified to the wisdom of such processes. Valley Church successfully navigated the path to female elders and deacons after holding several careful forums and taking an advisory vote. Soon the church was blessed with its first highly competent and respected woman elder.
Even Careful Changes Founder
Not all changes sail smooth seas, however. Even carefully planned decisions can raise damaging storms--especially when a highly emotional issue confusing patriotism and worship arises. One pastor recounted a long, drawn-out issue about a flag in church.
For years one church owned no American flag. A seniors’ community group using the building wondered why they had to provide their own flag for the Pledge of Allegiance. Council accepted a World War II veteran’s offer to buy a flag and developed a policy why the flag would be kept in the fellowship hall and not the sanctuary.
Occasionally the flag was moved to the foyer for Memorial or Veterans’ Day observances, where it stayed for a while. Someone moved it back to the fellowship hall, saying that was “policy.” Smelling trouble, Council reviewed the policy and asked two military veterans to explain reasons for not displaying the flag permanently in the sanctuary; it could be brought in for council-approved occasions.
Two families opposed to flag display noticeably decreased their attendance and involvement in church life. Two other families, including the flag donor, left because they could not belong to a church appearing to be wishy-washy on patriotism. Oddly, man had worshipped for more than ten years without a flag in the sanctuary. Now he says, “I really can’t worship God if the American flag isn’t in view.” The baffled pastor commented, “This change was very painful. Although we twice articulated our position, rational arguments don’t come near answering emotional feelings.”
Fostering Healthy Change
Ken Benjamins of Hope CRC in Brantford, Ontario clearly expressed his criteria for healthy change: “It's okay if change can be defended by Scripture, the Reformed Confessions, Church Order and synodical guidelines. But no change should go past the congregation’s stretching ability. Stretches past the congregation's comfort zone need patient, wise explanations and require mutual trust that we must not abuse.” Ken even claims that confidence in such orderly changes even lets him sleep well! (Maybe he’s right; many people say Church Order puts them to sleep.)
Ken also said that pastoring through change demands much behind-the-scenes work. He promotes unity, urges Council to own the change. After all, he claimed, “Getting people to change—from sinners into saints—is what we do for a living!”
The Price of Change
All change comes with a price, though. Joan DeVries and Ken Benjamins agreed that the pastor can become the scapegoat of change gone sour. Joan wisely notes that for change to go well, “pastors need to preach deliberately about faith versus fear, about trusting God in seasons of change.” She added, “Psalm 23 provides good metaphors about leading THROUGH the valley to the better options on the other side.” Right on! Always trust the Word.
Mike Borgert, of 1st CRC in Muskegon, Michigan, is well aware that change in the church can sometimes make the pastor’s family a lightning rod for criticism. Mary Ann Benjamins—Ken’s wife—warned that a pastor’s family can be ignored or disregarded, especially in seasons of change. She suggested that lay leadership be more cognizant of this subtle but important dynamic. “Some ministers’ spouses have no voice. Lay leaders should try especially hard to listen to them.”
Still we pastors must know and honour our own weaknesses. Ken Benjamins recognized, “We all have bad days, even bad seasons. Sometimes we question everything we’re doing. That’s a cue that it’s time to go to Florida.”
Ken Vander Horst, now of Grand Junction, Colorado, offered a different solution. He suggested going to Jesus rather than heading south. “The pastor needs to be aware that s/he needs her/his own healing, time for retreating away pain and brokenness. Jesus regularly withdrew to renew his strength.” Well, maybe there are pastor retreat centres both in Florida and near the Sea of Galilee.
After describing several change processes, both good and bad, one pastor admitted to weariness. "It’s hard to see people I thought were spiritually mature revert to ‘my way or the highway.’ No matter how often I preach about the body, family life, caring for others and looking to future generations, it's really frustrating. It makes retirement look pretty good, even though the thought of leaving this community and congregation is painful.”
Bouquets or Brickbats?
So, now do we know all there is to know about planning and managing church changes? About self-examination and analysis? Maybe we know too much. With a well-placed parting jab, Karen Wilk knocked some New Testament sense into this discussion by punching out this email: “Only a Christendom church can ask such questions about change. The missional church—like believers in India and China where the church is growing by the thousands every day—would never ask such questions.”
If we really want the church to thrive and follow our Master, maybe we answer questions we shouldn’t be asking. “O Lord, who changes not, abide with us.”
Thanks for posting this and the feedback you got from pastors.
I was part of church that was going through immense change. Though it was all approved by Council there was a lot of confusion and missed communication. While being very frustrated by the process I read a book "Loving the Church You Lead". I know it is obvious that we should love those we are leading but in all truthfulness I knew that part of my motivation was to change the church so I could love it in its new state. Taking the time to learn about the different people and to listen to their motivations and love for the church taught me much. It also changed my persective of success - the process has to be loving but firm and must be given the time to form trust and relationships. I imagine pastors already know this but as a lay person this was a tremendous growth in my spiritual formation. I ended up being caught between two unhappy camps of people trying to work as a reconciler by first meeting with and learning about people I only knew from angry comments in meetings. It also meant that when, sadly, the pastor moved on, I still had a body of believers that I was part of which crossed against the different dividing factors. It helped me to stay in the church for a longer season.
For the laity out there maybe this is a role you are called to play. Leaders need help in getting communication and understanding out to everyone. This helped me love the people and the church and to see my own sin in my own motivations.
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