Chapter 8: Leading Change

Jeremiah 17:7-8- But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

One of the first books I read on church transformation was Dan Southerland's Transitioning: Leading Your Church Through Change. In one of the book's most memorable lines, Southerland writes, "The difference between a leader and a martyr is two steps. A leader stays one step in front of the people, and a martyr gets three steps ahead and is shot in the back."

I have painfully experienced this phenomenon, both in my business and in my church. When a leader moves too far, too quickly, people become anxious, and trust disappears. This can seriously erode the leader's credibility, and it often happens because the leader doesn't see reality clearly.

TAKE A MOMENT    Have you found yourself too far in front of your people? How did that work out for you? What did you learn?

We are most likely to fall victims to this when we enter into a new community as leader. A good friend recently entered a new call and assumed the church wanted him to launch right into the initiatives he discussed with the church leadership during the call process. So he embarked on a path to start a new worship and institute several healthy changes.

Within months, he was embroiled in deep conflict. In retrospect, he misjudged the landscape. A history of unhealthy choices and boundary issues had been papered over, but they quickly emerged. He found himself three steps ahead, and the slings and arrows proved quite painful.

We often use the words "pastor" and "leader" interchangeably, but the truth is that many congregations have never seen a pastor who exhibits the courageous leadership that was commonplace in the early church. A new pastor who tries to shift the culture before developing windfirmness will pay a dear price.

So, what does it mean to be windfirm?

Windfirm is defined as "the ability of the root system of a tree to withstand wind pressure and keep the tree upright."

Our cabin in Colorado is in a montane zone (8-10,000 ft. elevation). Ponderosa and lodgepole pines predominate, with scattered aspen groves. Each of these trees has adapted to the environment, with specific strategies to withstand fire and storm.

Lodgepole pines live and die in a dense stand together. "Lodgepoles want fire," a specialist from the forestry service once told me. "Their cones lie dormant for years and only open when the temperature exceeds 700 degrees." Fire in a lodgepole forest is a "stand-clearing event," as the foresters say. The lodgepole pines on our mountain are all about 90 to 100 years old. They are so dense no light reaches the forest floor, and very little wildlife lives in such a place. Then fire comes and wipes out the entire stand, and the cones open and another cycle begins.

Because the fire cycle was interrupted over the last century, the forests aren't healthy. Every fire becomes catastrophic because there is so much fuel on the ground. So the forestry service wants to thin the forests to restore health. The problem is, when you take out two-thirds of the trees, the ones left behind aren't strong enough to withstand the wind. Windfirmness for lodgepoles is in the stand. Each individual tree has shallow roots, and little capacity to withstand the storm.

Ponderosa pines, on the other hand, are scattered sparsely in open meadows and hillsides, growing tall and standing majestically against the backdrop of the mountains. Ponderosas survive by growing a thick bark, letting the lower branches die off and fall from the tree. When fire comes, the bark protects the tree, and the fire stays on the ground. We found one in our meadow that had survived a fire many years ago that took out all the lodgepoles nearby. It had a scar where the bark had been burned away, but the tree survived. Ponderosas stand alone, with deep roots, taking the full force of the wind. As long as they remain healthy, they can withstand winds that top 100 mph.

One winter afternoon, as my wife Genie and I skiied back to our cabin, we saw a large lodgepole pine that had blown over. It had probably fallen during a storm because I had removed a dozen close-by conifers the previous summer as part of our fire mitigation plan. Its roots were too shallow to withstand the full force of the wind.

The sight of that majestic tree, fallen over but not yet dead, started me thinking about the roots pastors put down as they start life in a new community. It takes time to put down roots. Slowly, the roots deepen. Over time, you develop windfirmness. In the meantime, turbulence in the community brings great risk to the pastor.

But there is another way. If you surround yourself with lay leaders and build their trust, you won't stand alone when a storm blows in. Lay leaders already have deep roots. Earn their trust, and they will shelter you in the storm.

TAKE A MOMENT    If you are a pastor, are you windfirm? Have you surrounded yourself with a strong support system that will shelter you when storms hit?

As one  begins to move toward permission-giving, gift-oriented ministry, trust is a key variable. To empower people requires trust. Many churches, as in the example mentioned earlier, operate at a trust deficit. Trust must be rebuilt before significant change can happen without sparking conflict.

Many current church structures are organized around control and permission-granting. In the traditional church council structure, any new initiative must go through several layers of bureaucracy before it is approved. First, a proposal needs the support of one of the standing committees. If it arrives on council's doorstep without first being vetted, it typically will be tabled until the appropriate committee can pass judgment. Then, with the committee approval, the initiative comes before the council, which has the right to approve most initiatives. Some initiatives require congregational approval before being enacted. These steps can drag the process out six months or longer. Oftentimes, the person who proposed the idea gets frustrated and gives up long before he or she is granted permission.

In the permission-giving model, when an initiative surfaces, Mike Foss suggests asking the person proposing the idea three questions. First, what does this do to move us closer to our vision? Second, what does this do to involve you in the accomplishment of our vision? And third, are there two or three people who will team up with you to make this happen?

If these three questions can be answered satisfactorily, then the person is unleashed to create his or her new initiative.

The stark difference in these two systems is the level of trust, and clarity of mission and vision. We write rules and regulations when we can’t trust people to act in good faith on their own. We spell things out in constitutions and bylaws to make sure people don't stray from the accepted course. Instead of coaching, equipping and empowering people, we give them a rulebook. Where is trust in all this?

TAKE A MOMENT    What is the state of trust in the core of your church community?  How could you strengthen trust? Is there a clear vision that would support moving into permission-giving structures?

As I began my journey into church leadership, I was totally unprepared for the storms. I simply never saw them coming. At that time, in my church, a deep spiritual life wasn't a requirement for those asked to join the church council. I hadn't yet been challenged to discipleship. But that didn't stop me from taking on a lay leadership role in our church.

When my first serious thunderstorm blew in, I was stunned. I was trying to do good for the church, and suddenly I found myself under attack. What shocked me the most was that the attack came from people I had counted as friends. I was blown away.

At my church, trust was not evident. The two pastors could not find common ground, and by the late ‘90s the church began to polarize. The vision and the contemporary service created tensions with the traditional Lutherans. Once we committed to a nearly $2M building campaign, I saw a financial trainwreck coming if we could not grow the community. I was still in the mindset of counting “butts and bucks” as the measure of success in a church.

A few years later, when I was asked to become president of my congregation, I was a little more prepared. We had sickness at the core of our church, and a culture of avoidance had prevented us from dealing with conflict in a healthy manner. Things had festered for years. I pledged to change that culture and move to a place of health in our staff and leadership.

At the beginning of my term, I told Genie that I expected to come under attack before my term was complete. Still, when it happened 10 months later, I was once again stunned by the vicious, personal nature of the attacks. It took me months to regain momentum and start moving again.

TAKE A MOMENT    Have you ever been knocked off course when a "storm" hit? How did you get moving again? What did you learn from it?

By the time the storm blew in, I had deep roots in the church, and good friends with even deeper roots. Our synod had adopted a vision of becoming a Great Commission Synod. I was naive enough to believe the Bishop was serious about this vision. Little did I know that he was great at articulating a vision but had no skills to put legs under it. I find this true of many of the church leaders I’ve met.

I began a push for healthy change in the church. I was able to pull together a strong guiding coalition and build consensus for us to engage in mission to reach out to the unchurched. What I learned, painfully, is that change of this nature requires strong support from the pulpit. A lay person cannot lead transformation in a church, because there is not enough trust. Without reinforcement from the pulpit, the changes will not feel legitimate to the congregation.

To build a sense of urgency, I brought the conflict that had been swept under the rug out into the light of day. Our daycare was crashing and burning. Its deficit consumed most of the program budget of the church. The Sunday school teachers hated sharing space with the daycare, and vice versa. Here we were building a $2M education facility, and we had a broken school.

TAKE A MOMENT    Many churches avoid conflict, even though that approach is unhealthy and unbiblical. How do you deal with conflict in your community? Can you think of a time when conflict was handled in a healthy manner in your church?  How was that done?

During my time away from leadership, I had encouraged our leaders to either fix the school or shut it down. Once we embarked on building a bigger school, we’d all look like fools if the school crashed. So Genie and I set about righting the ship. Genie had worked at the school for five years before moving to a church preschool closer to our home, where she taught for 15 years. She joined the board and began pushing for improvement. The old director left under pressure, and God blessed us with a new director who had 20 years of experience and a true gift for leadership.

With Genie working to strengthen the board and me working to improve the relationship between the school and the church, things turned around. In three years, the school went from running a $40K deficit to a $100K surplus. Once we settled into the new facility and rebuilt the staff, the school earned a reputation as the best daycare center in the neighborhood.

The first three steps John Kotter lays out in his seminal book, Leading Change, are to create a sense of urgency, to gather a strong guiding coalition, and to cast a vision. What have you done to take these first three steps towards healthy change in your church?

I learned an important lesson from this experience. I once heard a quote, attributed to H. Edward Wrapp: “Change happens best in corridors of indifference.” With the school, I found this to be true. We made massive changes and saw very little push-back because so few people in the congregation had a deep stake in the outcome of the school.

Around church matters, and especially around worship, there were no corridors of indifference. After months of pressure, the senior pastor announced that she would retire at the end of my year as president. I then learned that my friend, Associate Pastor Ted Coleman, had what’s known as a co-terminus call, meaning that he would resign when the senior pastor left.

By now, a fight for the soul of the church had emerged. I had observed the power structures of the church. I knew where the levers were, and I took hold. This church had brought me to faith, had baptized and reared my kids in the faith. I couldn’t stand to see the church run aground. I could see a healthier path, and I had formed a strong coalition that could keep change moving forward.

One thing is certain. Church leadership will either make the church healthier or less healthy. I was intent on health, but the surgery to remove the infection was quite painful.

Around that time, there were stirrings in the church. “What’s the hidden agenda?” I would hear. This infuriated me. I was trying to bring a sick church back to a place of health and move us beyond being an upper-middle-class country club. I didn’t realize until much later that I was making this about me. I was not willing to accept that people are free to say no, and that churches are free to continue in their dysfunctional ways even until their death.

Through the ensuing conflict and transition, we lost a third of our worshiping community. We were also struggling to find a new pastor. Despite a generous compensation package, we found few qualified candidates through the broken call system used by the synod. A fatal flaw in my change strategy was the assumption that we would be able to find a leader capable of growing a healthy church. But there was no transparency in the call process, and Lutheran churches are at the mercy of the call process.

Since there was no way for us to find qualified candidates on our own, we acquiesced to the synod process. The pastor who came caused further division and drove away most of the leadership, and a decade later, the church still hasn’t recovered.

In 2007, Genie and I sold our house in the suburbs and moved downtown. Around the same time, a close friend of mine was called to be the pastor at the big Lutheran church in Atlanta’s midtown neighborhood. The new pastor at Apostles had made it clear he didn’t want my leadership at Apostles, so we left and joined my friend’s church. I had been battered and bruised by the battles, had lost many friends, and had blown up the church. Conflict stains everyone. It was a humbling experience.

Through my life in the church, I have come to believe in the concept of spiritual warfare. I heard it said that many Christians have not grown spiritually since their teenage years. I think that as long as we live our lives content with the status quo, going to church and not rocking the boat, the evil one leaves us alone. I think his most powerful tactic has been to convince us he doesn't even exist. Hence, the great majority of our churches that are on a plateau or in decline don't need much of his attention, because they don't engage in growing the Kingdom, and never see spiritual warfare.

When we begin to take the Word seriously, to engage in discernment about gifts and calling, to move off the dime and really do something for Christ and the Kingdom, watch out. Attacks will come. So, how do we prepare?

In Ephesians 6:10-18, Paul writes:

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

As I spend time in the Word, I find it strengthens me for the difficult times. I learn more of Jesus' nature as I drink from the living water of scripture. I am better able to live the servant leadership to which he calls me. Time in meditation allows me to better grasp the lessons God wants me to learn from the difficult times.

I've learned to pray for people in the situations that are tormenting me at the moment. Often the still, small voice leads me to act in ways I would not have been able to do on my own. Fasting provides clarity of thought that I’ve rarely experienced otherwise. Focusing on the suffering Jesus experienced, although blameless, helps me see that any unfair suffering I encounter is insignificant in comparison.

All in all, practicing the spiritual disciplines gives us the energy, persistence and perseverance to endure the difficult times, the storms of our lives. Through tests and trials, our faith is strengthened. God promises us He will accompany us. He gives us strength to survive anything that comes our way.

However, we cannot hear or believe these promises if we don't spend time listening to His word and the still, small voice of His Spirit that comes when we make time for quiet reflection, meditation and prayer. So, put on the armor of God, and it will prepare you and give you courage for any difficulties you may face.

TAKE A MOMENT    How do you best hear the voice of God? Do you spend time in meditation, listening for the still, small voice? Time in other forms of prayer? Reading the scriptures? Serving the poor?

Unfortunately, when I started my change effort, I was not steeped in these disciplines. I had never been challenged to embrace discipleship, so I was working from my own strength. In later years, I could look back and see my errors. I had failed at the starting line.

A year after the great conflict, I was at a conference with Bill Easum, one of the best-known church consultants in denominational circles. I heard him spend half a day explaining how churches move through transformation. At lunch, I came up to him and asked, “I’ve been trying to bring transformation, but all I did was bring conflict. I think I started in the wrong place. Where does this start?”

Bill replied, “Transformation always starts with spiritual leadership. Without spiritual leaders at the helm, the effort will ultimately fail.” I remember thinking, “I wish I knew that a year ago.” As I look back, I see tremendous pain in the wake of my early efforts to bring change to church. At the root of much of that pain was my own need to be important and do something significant with God’s will for the church. But that revelation didn’t come until much later.

What have you done to make spiritual leadership an expectation of those in formal leadership at your church? Do you have a process to make sure spiritual leaders are drawn into your formal leadership circle?

Bonus Material:

You can't problem solve your way to success

Credibility of a Leader

It's not about Me

Discipleship Communities: Where do we Start?