How many pastors does it take to change a Christian Reformed church? The best and right answer is probably “None.” That hasn’t kept many of my ilk from trying. Some try wisely, some foolishly. Most change-driving pastors take and give lumps in the process. Some lumps are well-deserved, others not. Saddest are times when lumps permanently wound pastors, their families and congregations.
Recently I asked colleagues about change in churches. These women and men, in Canada and the US, are pastors in churches large and small, of young church plants, of long-established churches. I know a few colleagues well, others hardly at all. Most have participated in Peer Learning Groups sponsored by Sustaining Pastoral Excellence—fine, safe places of mutual discipline and spiritual sharpening.
Their responses showed unmistakable convergences, without being cookie-cutter answers. Maybe we’re all reading the same books, filling in blanks with our experiences seen through similar cultural lenses. This isn’t science; it’s story. I pray this story reflects God’s Bible story of change that follows the stirring plot of creation, fall and redemption.
Living Organisms Change
Pastors Joan De Vries (Burlington, ON), Ken Vander Horst (Grand Junction, CO) and Karen Wilk (Edmonton, AB) all agreed the church must change in response to changes within itself and in its environment. All described the church as a “living organism.” 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 a human body never changing—all that stuff piling up inside!”
Several pastors sang harmonies about healthy and unhealthy change. Joan De Vries noted that “a ‘mall mentality’ of shopping for the best deal took hold [in the 90s]. Members began to move freely among 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 “intentionally outreaching.”
Over several years the congregation made many changes, large and small. “We built a new church, chose a new name. We trained greeters, reformatted bulletin layout and content, set up prayer walks in our new neighbourhood. We tried hard to avoid 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 traditional and contemporary blend. “We introduced changes carefully. We had competent, caring younger musicians—a wonderful drummer who accompanied, not blasted. One youth worker picked up guitar on his own, but did it well. The organist still hears 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.”
Describing her experience as a member of Sherman Street CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hospital chaplain Erika Dekker observed, “One difficult change our congregation faced was cutting staff positions because of budget shortages. Although this was a painful experience, two years later we realize by doing that we dodged a tendency towards professionalization, particularly in preparing and leading worship. Now we relish the involvement of many and diverse people in worship.”
Erika advised, “Whenever there is change, leaders must constantly communicate with the congregation. Our Council does this by circulating a written proposal about upcoming significant decisions and then holding a town hall meeting. Although Council makes the final decision, the congregation is involved and honoured throughout the process.”
Al Gelder dittoed the wisdom of such processes. Valley Church successfully navigated the shoals around women-in-office after hosting careful forums and taking an advisory vote. Soon the church was blessed with a highly competent and respected woman elder.
Even Careful Changes Founder
Not all changes sail smooth seas. For years one church owned no 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, developing 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 involvement. Two other families, including the flag donor, left because they could not belong to a church wishy-washy on patriotism. Oddly, one 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 sketched criteria for healthy change: “It's okay if change can be defended by Scripture, the Reformed Confessions, Church Order [the Christian Reformed Church’s virtual legal constitution] and synodical guidelines. No change should go past a congregation’s stretching ability. Stretches past the comfort zone need patient, wise explanations and require mutual trust that we must not abuse.” Ken claimed that such orderly changes even let him sleep well! (Maybe he’s right. Too many people say Church Order puts them to sleep.)
Benjamins also said that pastoring through change demands careful, behind-the-scenes work. He promotes unity, urges Council to own changes. “After all, getting people to change—from sinners to saints—is what we do for a living!”
The Price of Change
All change comes with a price, though. De Vries and Benjamins agreed that pastors can become scapegoats of change gone sour. Joan wisely noted, “For change to go well, pastors must 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 better options on the other side.”
Mary Ann Benjamins—Ken’s wife—warned that a pastor’s family can be ignored or disregarded, especially in times of change. “Some ministers’ spouses have no voice. Lay leaders should try especially hard to listen to them.”
Still, pastors must know their weaknesses. Ken Benjamins recognized, “We all have bad days, even bad seasons. Sometimes we question everything we’re doing. That’s a cue it’s time to go to Florida.” Ken Vander Horst offered a different solution. He suggested going to Jesus. “The pastor needs to be aware that s/he needs her/his own healing, time for retreating from pain and brokenness. Jesus regularly withdrew to renew his strength.” Are there retreat centres both in Florida and near the Sea of Galilee?
After describing one rough change, one pastor confessed 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. Retirement looks pretty good, even though the thought of leaving this community and congregation is painful.”
After processing our own and these other personal experiences, maybe we know too much about managing church changes. With a well-placed parting jab, Karen Wilk punched some New Testament sense into this discussion: “Only a Christendom church asks such questions [about change]. The missional church—believers in India and China where the church grows by thousands daily—would never ask them.”
Are we perhaps answering questions we shouldn’t bother asking?
“O Lord, who changes not, abide with us.”