I have to tell my kids all the time that change is part of life.
I’m sure they’re as tired of hearing about caterpillars turning into butterflies or how seasons bring life as I am talking about them over and over, but it’s important that they get this life-lesson.
Early in my ministry career, I was idealistic. I expected to get a job in youth ministry and stay there for 20 years or so. Boy, was I wrong about the nature of the church!
And why wouldn’t I be? The same God who created those seasons I talk to my kids about also sent His son to institute the church. Why am I surprised to realize that it is also an ecosystem of change?
Church communicators may fully grasp this idea, but that doesn’t make our job any easier during seasons of change. Your church is going to have to communicate change at some point. It’s science.
A pastor is going to leave, retire, or be fired. You’re going to go through some kind of building project or capital campaign. The youth group is going to eventually blow something up and you’ll be the one with the responsibility of letting everyone know what the plan is. At least you don’t have to come up with the plan, right? (unless you wear that hat too, in which case, prayers going up)
So let’s talk about how to communicate through change at your church. In addition to what I list below, you should check out The Seminary of Hard Knocks podcast episode with Adam McLaughlin and his pastor Ryan Deaton. They came on to talk about how they kept their people motivated and the vision out in front during a renovation at their church. It’s an awesome case study!
Here’s how to communicate change at your church.
Stay Positive when Communicating Change
Not that you have to pretend, but focusing your communication on what’s going well is going to win you more support than criticism. Stay focused on how the project or change is taking you forward, not how it’s a roadblock to get over.
If you are truly trusting in God, then there are no setbacks, only learning opportunities. There are no failures, only course corrections. I’m not saying you should try and spin things for the public. One of my guiding principles for my life learned long ago is “not everyone needs to know what you don’t know.” Basically, not everyone needs a fully detailed status report every week.
Don’t stand up there and say your worship leader is resigning when you pushed him out and forced his hand. People will find out the truth eventually. When they do, are they going to still trust your leadership? Maybe not, because it feels like they just discovered that you lied to them. Find a way to say what happened without giving up all the dirty details. We want our congregation to get real with each other, so let’s lead from the top on that.
The worship leader is leaving because of a difference in opinion on the direction of the church. We wish he and his family well and want to celebrate and thank him for his service here. If you have any questions about this transition, please reach out to our elders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you don’t tell them why they’ll make up a reason on their own. So tell people what’s going on for real.
Coach Leadership on FAQ’s
When Northpoint Church in Atlanta was trying to figure out how to get all of their people into two separate buildings at the same time for the same service, the plan they came up with was…innovative.
They knew that there would be pushback, so they told everyone publicly what the plan was and coached their staff on how to answer them with positivity. I heard the youth pastor tell this story on the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast. He wasn’t present when they announced it, so when he got back in town, he asked a fellow staff member what they announced.
When she told him, he immediately started in on how stupid that plan was. She simply smiled and responded with “Really? I think it’s a great idea.” He then stopped and reconsidered his position. “You do?” he asked. “I guess it could work.”
Then he noticed she was smiling. She told him that they had coached their staff to answer resistance like that because it could actually cause people to stop and consider a position other than their first reaction to change.
We should prepare our staff to handle commonly asked questions because, buddy, people are going to ask them. It’s good to know that they know what to say and what not to say. Not that you’re manipulating them, but it does allow you to keep the vision in front of the people. Plus, it makes your staff feel much more comfortable when asked.
Communicate the vision clearly and often
When you’re tired of saying your vision for the change, that’s about the time when it’s sinking in a little with your congregation.
Hopefully, you know that just because you did a series on why you needed a new youth building or because you stood up at a business meeting to declare the church’s financial crisis doesn’t mean your people are on board.
Whether it’s a building campaign or a staff transition, keep reminding your people of what the point of your church is: your mission. What are you trying to accomplish? What are your goals? What does God want from you in the context you are in?
Focus on how God is moving your church forward, rather than focus on how you’re going to function without pastor so and so. If God wanted them to stay, they would still be there. Is He sovereign or is He not?
Communicate Change in a Timely Manner
Translation: early. Communicate that change is coming well before it comes depending on how big of a change we’re talking about. If you’re swapping out an intern or the stage set is going to be updated, get the right people on board and go.
But if you’re moving the youth pastor to a worship position or spending $500k to revamp the children’s wing, you need to have people on board.
In leadership, there are always tiers (and I guess “tears” too, but that’s another blog). We may have these tiers written down on paper somewhere or they might be simply perceived, but they are there.
Whatever your leadership tiers look like, I think it always wise to start with the top and onboard leadership tier by tier down. Especially on big projects and changes. Start with Elders and staff, then go to deacons, then lay leadership before announcing big changes to the congregation.
I say this is preferred because it allows every level of leader to have a chance to speak into the change and therefore buy in. I wrote a two part blog on how I quit my church job and kept my friends on about this topic if you’re interested.
You know who has a hard time buying into change? Those who feel like it’s being forced on them without their consent. So if you move that piano off my stage without asking me and my friends, so help me…
Communicate the Process of Change
If at all possible, give people a timeline. Of course, give yourself some space for not hitting the timeline, but giving people a window of time that they will have to deal with the transition to the change helps them persevere through it.
When you say “we’ll get there when we get there,” it communicates “Hey shut up and let mom and dad take care of it.” Which is how most adults like to be treated, right?
Prepare to Lose Some
No matter how well you communicate, prepare yourself for the inevitability that some will not stick with you afterward.
You will always have early adopters, late adopters, and non-adopters. Even after you do your very best, there will be those who just can’t get over it or just don’t resonate with where you’re headed.
Let me free you up. That’s ok.
Every time someone unsubscribes from my email list, I admit, it hurts a little. So I always tell myself this:
“That’s ok. I’m not for everyone.”
It’s true, isn’t it? Your church isn’t going to reach everyone. All we can do is decide what to do with those God has given us. Yeah, I just paraphrased Gandalf. I do that.
What else helps you to communicate through big changes? Let us know in the comments!
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