One of my early readings on church transformation was Dan Southerland’s book “Transitioning: Leading Your Church Through Change.” In one of the 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, the people become anxious, and trust disappears. This miscalculation can seriously erode the credibility of a leader. So, how does this happen? We don’t see reality clearly.

Misdiagnosing Point “A”

We hosted a visioning workshop with Mike Foss, and he made a point that is strongly related to Southerland’s. “The reason most leaders do not realize their vision, Point B,” Foss said, “is that they misdiagnose Point A, their starting point. They make the mistake of assuming the gap between the aspiration and the current reality is smaller than it really is.” In my work with small to medium-sized churches, I find there is often a strong aversion to acknowledging and speaking about reality. Some seem to fear that the prophetic voice (truth-telling) will erode trust.

We are most susceptible to this challenge when we enter into a new community as leader. Some actually believe what they read in the Congregation Profile and hear in their interviews with a Call Committee. Now, I’m not saying that people are intentionally misleading in the Call Process, but these documents often contain what is called in the advertising world puffery; claims which gloss over the challenges and overstate the strengths. The process a Call Committee goes through in studying and praying often leads to new understanding, and openness to ideas that are proving themselves elsewhere. The congregation as a whole is often at a different place, and does not share the Call Committee’s perspective.

Launching a New Vision

A good friend recently entered a new call and assumed the church wanted him to launch right into the initiatives he discussed with the 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 emerging boundary issues were papered over, but quickly emerged. He found himself three steps ahead, and the slings and arrows proved quite painful.

Churches take on characteristics, values, and even the personality of the leader. At a previous church, the pastor’s preference to avoid conflict led to issues being submerged for a decade. When I stepped into the presidency, I surfaced several long-simmering issues and began to work through them. Very soon, people said, “We didn’t seem to have any conflict until Gregg came on the scene." We were complicit in the avoidance, in the name of “keeping people happy.” These are not the things churches usually highlight in call documents.

Leading Change without Fracturing the Place

In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins profiles what he calls Level 5 leaders. His description syncs up very well with what I’ve learned of servant leaders. In fact, Collins and his team considered using the term, but discarded it because it seemed too wimpy. Collins describes the approach these leaders followed upon entering a new organization. These leaders did not immediately begin casting a vision. Instead, they first built a strong leadership team. In Collins’ words, “They got the wrong people off the bus, the right people on the bus, and the right people into the right seats. Then, with the people on the bus, decided where to drive the bus.” In other words, visioning followed the development of a strong leadership team.

Surrounding oneself with a diverse team will insure a clearer picture of reality. No one person can see all the facets of reality. A healthy Body of Christ is centered on trust. That foundation of trust allows us to hear differing views without becoming defensive. Reality emerges in the divergent views. As my friend and mentor Charlotte Roberts said to this former pastor of mine, “How will your people believe you can take them to this better place unless they see you are clear about where you’re starting out?” In other words, what if I say we’re going to Denver, but seem to think we’re in Birmingham, when we’re really in Atlanta? How much faith will the people have in my directions? A clear grounding in reality is critical for a leader to stay one step ahead.

Begin with Spiritual Leadership

John Kotter, in his seminal book, “Leading Change,” describes the steps in a change process. First you build a sense of urgency. Then you create a guiding coalition. Third, you cast a vision. A great sense of urgency would come to the majority of churches today if they could just see a clear picture of reality. The disconnect allows churches to persist in unhealthy choices. Before you can move, you must gain the trust and authority of the spiritual leadership. Then, with the leaders, cast the vision. Spiritual leadership is the starting point and cornerstone of a healthy change process in churches. Begin there, and they will keep you from moving too far too fast. Start without it and you’re dead in the water, another martyr for the cause.