Making Major Changes While Church Planting

I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, pressure steaming through my eyes. I wasn’t mad. Fear gripped me. This wasn’t an isolated incident. I went to bed this way every night for weeks. The situation reached a point I could no longer ignore. I knew what needed to be done, but I avoided the decision as long as possible. I felt the difficulty of the decision and was broken for the church. The results were unpredictable and uncertain.

The church was only five and a half years old. I knew there was a good possibility this decision could cause it to fold. My wife’s words were good counsel: “You either have to act on what you believe is right or we have to get out.”

The next two years were very difficult. I approached other lead elders for counsel. In agreement, we charted a course of action and moved forward. Almost a year of difficult conversations and action steps led to a conclusion nobody wanted. The following year was brutal for me personally. But since that time our church has grown stronger and healthier in every area. Hard decisions and changes have a way of purging and refining.

The Church champions the greatest message of change, but is so quick to resist change within. The luxury of stopping everything to allow everyone to hear, consider, emote, decide, and resume may sound wise, but it is a deceptive façade. The church is a people on mission. Just as she labors in the gospel to bring change for people, so too will she experience great change. Some will be painful and difficult. Leading change can be scary and uncertain, magnifying fears and multiplying insecurities.

The best place to repair an airplane is on the ground. This minimizes moving parts, leaves less room for error, and removes the almost certain fatal result if the repair goes wrong. But mission never stops and in the real world this is often not an option. Preparing vision, values, and strategy early is most beneficial, but not always possible. Planting a church demands constant attention and correction to give vision lift and momentum thrust. Church planters typically hold a strong vision for the church. This does not mean they know how to accomplish that vision. Vision takes shape as it gains momentum. Missional movement reveals cracks and flaws that were unknown. Visional changes and development are inevitable. I offer five encouragements to prepare for those mid-air repairs that are unavoidable, but valuable.

1. Have Clear Vision

Clarity of vision in the lead planter is essential for visionary leadership in the church. The value of clear vision cannot be over-stated. Mid-air adjustments will  likely be more the norm rather than the exception in the first three to five years of a new church plant. Clarity of vision among the core group or congregation begins in the lead planter.

A clear vision establishes values that define the vision. Values determine priorities to shape vision and a strategy to accomplish the vision. There is usually more than one way to accomplish what you desire, but you must choose the way you will accomplish your vision. Values, priorities, and strategy lay a foundation to determine, justify, and explain changes. A clear vision enables the planter to lead change. Clarity in the lead planter’s mind enables him to recognize needed changes. A clouded vision makes it difficult to convince people that change is necessary.

If change is not necessary the discomfort and inconvenience it causes will not be worth the sacrifice to change. The lead planter’s clarity of vision reveals the value of change to fulfill vision. A clear vision guides the planter to lead while change is communicated and implemented. Change creates complexity. Like a news report on space shuttle repairs, vision may sound simple and the work easy, but the walk to get there is hard. “Today the flight crew completed a successful space walk, rotating each nut four full quarter turns.” People get lost in change when complexity confuses and clouds the vision. Clear vision maintains focus to stay on mission.

2. Communicate

Communication that is wise, considerate, timely, and regular shepherds faithfully and disciples people to grow through change. The planter often needs to define and articulate the problem in order to initiate change. This can be difficult and requires great grace and wisdom in the right choice of words. Context makes all the difference for what words mean and how they are received. A few wise words spoken at the right time and in the right way prove more effective than countless words spoken without context. Context makes words real. Clear vision becomes a right solution to problems and a help to people when communicated with wisdom and grace.

When changes are needed, make them without apology. Instead, clearly communicate how changes more accurately align with vision. Help people to connect the dots between the values and priorities of vision and the strategy of mission and resources. Continue to encourage greater commitment. Some people will immediately get on board. Most will follow initially but not become fully committed until they begin to see positive results and vision taking shape.

3. Overcome Personal Fears

Personal fears and insecurities often create bigger challenges than change. The discomfort of change will often be greatest within the planter. No one else may know repairs are needed, while at other times everyone will appear to be a personally certified expert with the best solutions. If making people comfortable, happy, and confident is a high value for the planter, leading necessary change will not be a priority. This is true even for obvious changes because the comfort of the congregation will become a greater value than the correction of missional direction.

Mistakes seldom kill church plants. Pride left unchecked always kills God’s work. No one will make all the right decisions or all decisions right. Give grace and get on with mission. It is okay to be wrong. It is not okay to fail to practice repentance. Vulnerability in the lead planter will create a culture of humility for the congregation to follow.

4. Embrace Accountability

The lead planter must wear a safety harness of accountability that tethers him to people who will hold him. This harness provides safety for the planter and the church and gives stability for mission. Church leadership is never solo or performed in isolation. Qualification and competency demand accountability. The lead planter needs to know his leaders will support him. He needs the freedom to lead without constant questioning and speculation over every minor point. He needs the confidence to know that when turbulence hits, he’s protected. He needs to know people care enough about him not to let him hurt himself or his family as he serves the church. Accountability provides greater freedom to lead and follow vision.

5. Evaluate

Finally, mid-air repairs serve as an evaluation tool. If you never make mid-air repairs you are probably forsaking mission to protect programs, systems, or structures, hesitating to act and lead for fear of making mistakes. On the other hand, if everything is a mid-air fix then you likely allow mission to drive you. In this case clarifying vision proves beneficial to bring stability. Regular evaluation and adjustments help to avoid many major changes.

Leaders too often avoid leading change, as I described my own actions above. Change makes a great canvas to recast vision and revive life among God’s people. Change for the sake of change is useless. Change that strengthens, focuses, and energizes God’s people is powerful and worth every sacrifice. Let us pray and labor for the greatest change, revival, and awakening to the mission of God through Jesus Christ.

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