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How to Lead Change Effectively

I research, write, speak, and generally encourage the church towards joining Jesus on mission. Obviously, my understanding is that there are a large number of churches that are not engaged—at least, not engaged well—and my hope is that this will change.

There are two aspects of this process of change I would like to address in this post: one encouragement and one caution. These can be rather tricky waters to navigate, and there may be a couple of paths that seem right and easy.

The Encouragement

A few years back, I did some labor relations consulting with one of the top three home improvement warehouses. As part of that process, we would set up survey calls to every employee in every store, and each would answer a series of questions regarding the health and culture of the workplace.

The information was gathered anonymously in order to encourage honesty. Once the information was gathered and compiled, a rating was given to each store based on the information gathered from all the employees at each location.

Stores in the “red zone”—the bottom ten percent of all the stores—would be separated out and marked for further study, and perhaps intervention. We would then send representatives to each store in the red zone to host listening groups and garner further, more specific feedback from the employees and find the variables that created the less-than-stellar work environment.

The company certainly had their reasons for employing the practice—they did not want to be unionized. As such, they worked hard to provide stable, positive workplaces and opened themselves up regularly for feedback, whether positive or negative.

The reality is, in a company that size, they expected to hear a good bit of negative feedback. Still, they invited it for the good of the company. Being a general manager in a store that fell in the red zone was certainly an uncomfortable thing; but there was also a sense of togetherness in order to really figure out and correct the issues.

The leaders of this secular organization acted with intentional humility and maturity in order to enhance their effectiveness as a company. Sadly, they acted with a humility and maturity the church often lacks. The ability to honestly step back, look deeply at the church, and ask what is working and what is not is rare.

Churches Need a Level of Self Assessment

Honest dialogue leads to adjustments, which enhance the life and work of the church.

Churches and leaders have the tendency to develop turf wars and hold on to things, working or not, out of pride. Real change, however, requires not a one-time assessment and a new course to follow, but a constant and consistent measurement and real-time course correction.

Businesses sometimes use something they call Total Quality Management, which is a set of measurements employed to constantly assess goals, production, efficiency and the like. (That term is a few years old, but many people would be familiar with the idea.)

Now, I realize the church is not a business, and I am not suggesting we should act like it, however, the idea of humbly assessing the effectiveness of the church in fulfilling her mission seems to be a useful and productive thing.

Honest dialogue leads to adjustments, which enhance the life and work of the church, and should simply be a part of our regular rhythms. Pastors and leaders should create an environment where assessment is welcomed and treasured, not as a lip service, but as a very real manner in which to more effectively engage on God’s mission.

Invite the feedback of your people and expect some of it to be negative. You’ll have to weigh the good with the bad, and you’ll have to throw some of it out as useless. But the gain from the input is nearly invaluable when a culture of assessment and growth is built for the good of the mission.

The Caution

Quite often, when a church desires change, the first place the leadership looks is to the bylaws. I hear often, especially from younger pastors, “If we want to change the direction of the church, we are going to have to first change the bylaws to create an environment for change.”

No, you don’t have to…

Bylaws are the worst place from which to take your leadership strategy, generally, because bylaws are created to keep things from happening. They are not created to make things happen. Their intent is to stop the wrong things from happening.

Forward motion comes from a clearly communicated and skillfully executed strategy, vision, or mission. Assess your situation and move forward—don’t think that changing the bylaws helps with that.

If I may use a metaphor, bylaws are brakes on the car. They are not an engine. When you’ve come to the place where your bylaws are driving, you’ve stopped moving. You need the bylaws; don’t misunderstand. Don’t despise the bylaws, they are good things, but they don’t create motion, they slow it.

Quite often, when a church desires change, the first place the leadership looks is to the bylaws.

Bylaws have a particular function. They set up a guard for missteps, because we will have them in our churches. Without them in place, we stand in grave danger of veering completely off mission. So that is their purpose — to keep us on mission by keeping us well organized.

It is only when the bylaws become a hindrance to the mission that they should be changed—that that’s not usually the problem in most churches.

Let me paint another picture here for clarity. The vision and mission of the church are what should be clearly seen within the church. The bylaws are meant to undergird them and create a stable environment for them to be carried out. The people rally and organize around the mission, and the bylaws keep them from getting off course.

Skeletons are Needed, but not Visible

Another metaphor that may explain it better is the picture of a person. The mission and vision is the external appearance that people see. It’s the skin, the hair—the outward parts that are visible.

The bylaws are the skeleton. They give structure and keep the outside from falling apart. They give the strength necessary to move forward.

It is a bad thing when our skeleton is on the outside, right? It means something is wrong. So, too, is it unhealthy when the bylaws are talked about more than the mission and vision.

Change When Needed, Not on a Whim

There are certainly times when the bylaws do need adjustment and tweaking, but they should not be our go-to for change. And, it seems strange that I have to write that, but it is needed—trust me on this.

Assess your church to get on mission—and make the needed changes as you go. Don’t think that’s the fix—it’s not. Getting a church healthy, on mission, and in community is the right path. Assess to that and then adjust bylaws later (if even needed).


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