Thinking About Transitioning a Church? Don’t Do It!

This post is a joint effort by Seth Richardson and Matt Tebbe.

By the time I (Seth) started seminary, I was well on my way to wrecking my life. It was the kind of wrecking that happens slowly, under the radar. The extent of the damage is often realized ten years down the road after you’ve built your life atop a mountain of ruin and everything crashes down with serious collateral damage.

But I was interrupted in the most troubling and gracious of ways. While I barreled toward the rocky-yet-enticing shore of religiously sanctioned arrogance, the church saved my life.

Well, Jesus saved my life. But not ideas about Jesus.

A community of people who knew Jesus – who knew, not just how to talk about him, but how to follow him in the grittiness of daily life – helped me come apart under the cross and begin the slow process of coming back together in resurrection life.

I learned how to follow Jesus because I was immersed in a community surrendered to Jesus himself – on his way, under his authority, in his power. Because the community knew this way, not just in abstract, but in its body, I learned it in my body. Yes, we talked about it, but more importantly we practiced it.

Learning to surrender to the renewal God is working in Christ was hard. It’s still hard – mostly for the same reason it was hard initially, but now also for a different reason: I’m no longer immersed in that community AND my primary vocational task in this season is cultivating that Jesus-shaped culture in an established church that needs it.

Planting and growing a new community from the ground-up has its unique challenges, for sure. I (Matt) am currently neck-deep in it. But transitioning an existing community, planting seeds of change in an existing culture, is equally as challenging and potentially as treacherous. I’ve been there too.

Leading through transition may obliterate your confidence and leave you sour and cynical toward the church. You may come out the other end with little perceptible shift in the existing culture of the congregation, or you may look back and realize change took place through force and coercion.

In fact, transitioning a church culture is a terrible idea. Don’t do it.

That is, if you don’t have an imagination for a new logic for leading toward transformation – then don’t do it.

Eager to jumpstart transition, many pastors (especially those with the leverage to make it happen) employ de-personalized, top-down, programmatic logic. We make pronouncements about where the church is headed, meet with a few focus groups, create new branding, and preach a brilliant sermon series.

People often get really excited about this stuff. It feels like something is happening. But often these efforts never truly escape the existing center of gravity. We try to use the same levers, the same logic, and the same fuel that got us to where we are. One program is simply traded for another.

The “old logic” assumes a quick transition. It assumes the most fundamental work is in the realm ideas (i.e. transferring ideas to those who don’t yet know). It assumes leaders must remain in control for fruit to be born. It assumes success can be measured quantitatively (e.g. how many buy-ins, new groups, new members, etc).

However, if we are called into this season, we need a new logic. One that is first and always personal – always seeking to cultivate deep faithfulness to Jesus from the inside-out and bottom-up through life-on-life connection. We must be willing to surrender the desire to control the process and control outcomes. We learn to measure qualitatively and invest in growth through multiplication.

If you expect to be understood, to be liked, and to keep everyone feeling good – then don’t do it.

The process of transformation is slow. It hurts. Your existing culture already has people who have bought in. There is an implicit contract with members that assumes and functions under a particular set of values and goals (which are unspoken, unnamed, and often connected to people’s emotions).

Leading for transition in a local church gets internalized as a breach of that contract. There will be people who misunderstand you and take your changes personally. The temptation then becomes to give in to the loudest voices and capitulate to complaints – or – to push forward, using power and control, by eliminating and marginalizing dissenting voices.

However, if we are called to this season, we need to calibrate empathetic understanding. We must learn not to take their feelings of hurt personally. We must learn to sit with them in their confusion, frustration, and disappointment. A posture of presence (through listening, praying, crying) is crucial to leading people through the process of change.

Calibrating connection, empathy, and understanding is paramount for the pastor who will lead transition in their church culture. We lead in this posture not to “get people on board” or “to get them out of the way,” but because Jesus wept even as he was about to bring resurrection.

If you can’t fail without identifying yourself as a failure – then don’t do it.

A good way to evaluate if you love the vision/idea of culture change more than people is to ask yourself how you feel about failing. Every leader wants to succeed, to win, to achieve, but do you HAVE to? Is who you are and how you see yourself dependent on it?

Most leaders have an amazing vision for where to lead the community. But, when leading through change, transformation of people and culture is messier and slower than we envisioned. For those who are particularly ambitious, this reality will be frustrating and exhausting. Instead of loving people in discipleship and mission, an aversion to failure often causes leaders to use people to fulfill the vision. Great vision combined with using people equals bad pastoral juju.

However, if we are called to this season, we must learn to embrace failure as good news. This looks like being open to the possibility that the best thing for the community and for us is failing in the way we wanted most to succeed. Failure is often a catalyst for softness of heart, which is a necessary condition for spiritual transformation. Failure is the gateway to learning, repentance, humility, tenderness and sensitivity.

We cultivate the character to be with people in their transformation when we have befriended our own failure. When we don’t need to succeed, we are freed to be present to people wherever they are.

If you can’t handle persisting tension with the old culture – then don’t do it.

In the beginning, the gap between the existing culture and the new is an adventure – leaders are eager to begin the work and are exhilarated by the challenge. But tension between the old and new inevitably persists. Initial gains turn out to be false positives. Other staff/elders don’t want a new culture or key members of the community find change too costly. The new vision gets hijacked under old programs.

When tension persists, leaders often become discouraged and bitter – loathing their role and fantasizing about “greener pastures” where they can start from scratch, commiserate with people who “get it,” or find a job outside the local church. Having compassion for those struggling in the old culture becomes increasingly difficult; it becomes easier to see others as enemies and problems.

However, if we are called to this season, we must learn patient perseverance with ourselves and with others for the long haul. This is not something we try harder to do – a pastoral mind trick. Patient perseverance is choosing to trust that God is forming Jesus’ image in us and in the community in and through the frustrations, disappointments, and struggles. If we don’t stick around to tend to this sacred work, we may never see it birthed.

Practicing patient perseverance looks like attentiveness to the grace God is making available. This does not mean ignoring the struggle. It means learning to feast on God’s presence – to listen for his voice – amidst the struggle rather than nurturing discontent.

Transitioning a church culture is a terrible idea. The whole process will be completely different than you imagined. But God cares about people in the community more than you do, and he wants to take you, as a leader, on a journey deeper into his life.

If you’re open to that – then go for it.  

[Photo by Rosino, CC via Flickr]

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