11 September 2013

The Pains of Change in Church

This blog post is first and foremost for the members and attenders of First Baptist Church, Hazard.  If others benefit from it as well, that's just icing on the cake!  What follows here is a short reflection on the process of leading a church through a long-range strategic planning process for the purpose of bringing revitalization.  This has been the most challenging endeavor to date in my five years as pastor of FBC, Hazard.  And like many of my church members, I am a mixture of excitement and nervousness.  At times I feel unbelievably hopeful and sure, and at other times I honestly feel somewhat overwhelmed at the scope of the task.  I want to address what I'm calling the pains of change in leading a church toward revitalization.

Change is hard.  Change in the church is really hard.  Change in a church that is over one hundred years old is really, really hard!  But with God, change for the good is possible.  Change is typically what we only embrace when we feel not changing is the worse alternative.  Change is what we make ourselves do when we feel certain that the end result is improvement.  Church is no different.  Typically, a church member will not want to cooperate with change unless a compelling reason is presented for why the change is necessary for a better future. 

Many churches need revitalization, including mine. The case for the need for revitalization doesn't take long to make.  The quantitative evidence of the last 50 years shows decline and growing ineffectiveness.  If you talk to people who have been in the church for a few decades, they qualitatively feel that things are not as good as they used to be.  Overall, everyone knows that the church is stale, lacks a clear vision, and has no plan for improvement.  Revitalization is needed.  If you are a member of FBC and you don't see the need for revitalization, then stop here and go back and read my post from June 19.

Once you determine revitalization is needed and the church needs to get on a trajectory of health and growth and off the one of decline, then you must look change squarely in the eyes and say, "It's on!" But here in comes the rub.  Change is painful, even when it's good.  There are really two kinds of pain.  One kind of pain let's you know that something is wrong - like when you're sick.  Another kind of pain you endure to reap a reward - like studying for the test, pushing your body to get in better shape, or practicing a skill to master it.  A church feels the first kind of pain when there is conflict or decline.  A church feels the second kind when it takes steps toward revitalization.  Here are five pains of change we will be experiencing as we move toward revitalization.

Pain #1: Trusting Your Change Leaders

Some of us by nature are not trusting.  We've been burnt too many times by politicians, bosses, co-workers, other church members, and sadly even our pastors.  The uncomfortableness of change can be alleviated somewhat by learning to trust your leaders.  If being skeptical and untrusting is your default setting, then you're going to have to work on this.  I'm not suggesting a blind trust in your pastoral and lay leadership.  I am suggesting an informed trust that allows the leaders to lead as long as they maintain trustworthiness.  Trust in your leaders will greatly increase if you take the time to be informed and engage in opportunities to dialogue with them.  I always welcome phone calls or visits from those who want to talk, ask a question, or even express a concern.  Most of the time the conversation ends with greater clarification and an affirmed cooperation.  Or at least we understand each other better even if there isn't total agreement upon an issue. 

Our Long-Range Planning Team has consisted of 12 people.  All of us together as leaders have been praying, discussing, researching, learning and growing in understanding about where and how to lead our church.  It would be unwise as your pastor to go at such a task alone.  Proverbs 15:22 says, "Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed."  Proverbs 27:17 tells us that, "Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."   I have found both these verified in our process!

Trusting God with change, and in turn trusting the leaders that God has given the church, is imperative.  Without a healthy degree of trust, doubts about leaders' motives will rule the day and create a climate of distrust that will frustrate true revitalization.  Church, trust your leaders!

Pain #2: Leaving the Familiar

Implicit in any kind of change is the understanding that some of what is currently familiar is going away.  Leaving the comfortable, familiar way of doing things is painful.  Many folks are significantly invested in the ways things have always been.  They know how things work and what to expect from years of familiarity.  Change threatens to strip that away.  However, if a church is to experience true revitalization in a new day, then it must come to the realization that it cannot keep doing the same things with the same approach and expect different and better results.  What may have worked then, simply may not work as well now.  Change is always occurring all around us in our culture and in our local community.  But the church is notoriously slow in responding to this change because we don't want to change.  Eventually, however, you must take your head out of the sand and see that the pain of change is worth it.  Giving up some of the familiar to embrace something more effective is a short-term pain we need to endure.

Pain #3: Living with Uncertainty

The reason we love the familiar is because we can be certain about what to expect.  We like to know what to expect in worship.  We like to know that VBS will still work the same way that it has for years.  We like to know that the administration of the church will still be the same next week as it was last year.  We like to be in that comfort zone of familiarity.  However, when we embrace revitalization in the form of a 5-year long-range plan, we invite a much higher level of uncertainty into the life of the church.  We determine to head out in uncharted waters.  We are charting a course with a specific destination and methods of how to get there, but the waters are uncharted nevertheless.  We haven't been here before!  Furthermore, we cannot predict with certainty if all will work just the way we envision.  That means we have to be flexible and willing to modify and grow as the needs present themselves.

Fear of an uncertain future is normal in our sinful, human condition.  The opposite of fear is faith. Therefore, the best antidote for our fear of an uncertain future is greater faith in the God who is in control of that future.  If in good conscience we know that we are moving forward on sure biblical footing, then we should trust God with the results.  We can set goals and lay out a plan, but ultimately we commit all we do to the Lord and trust Him. 

Pain #4: Elevating Expectations of Leaders

I like to think of this pain as a growing pain.  Some of us remember experiencing those physically as children.  And when we grew faster the pain was worse!  In order for the church to be effective and grow, it must expect more from it's leaders and members.  Everyone expects certain things from the pastor, who is paid.  He needs to preach a good sermon every week.  He needs to visit the sick and home bound.  He needs to visit the prospects and be out in the community.  He needs to keep watch on the church's finances and facilities.  He needs to always be available for counseling, weddings and funerals. He needs to supervise the staff. He needs to be the model example of a husband and father.  And I don't begrudge you having such expectations of me - you should.

However, a pastor can only do so much (even as a paid employee).  The pastor is the tip of the spear on the spiritual leadership of a church, but a church must understand that it takes a village of lay leaders committed to the vision of the church and to the time and sacrifice that it takes to see it accomplished.  Under our new organization in the Constitution & By-Laws, more is expected of our leaders.  There will be three groups of key leaders that you'll be learning more about: deacons, directors, and ministry teams.  These leaders will be charged with providing spiritual care, oversight, and coordination of ministry.  Our ministry teams especially will be the hub of ministry evaluation, strategizing, planning, and recruiting volunteers.  I'll be calling on these folks to commit more and stretch themselves by providing greater leadership.  This might be a little scary. These leaders will be asked to do more, but also be empowered to do more.  They will be asked to grow themselves as leaders, which might be a little painful at times.  But the rewards for our church far exceed the growing pains.

Pain #5: Expecting More of Volunteers

There is simply no way around the fact that an essential ingredient for a healthy, growing church is hard work.  I've heard it said that success is spelled w-o-r-k.  It's imperative that the expectations of our designated leaders be raised so that they actually provide leadership.  However, it is equally important that all our membership understand the importance of being involved.  We know that God expects all His children in His church to work together. (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12).  There are no bench warmers! 

Let's be honest.  Making the commitment to serve and be faithful is painful for some of us.  We feel bad when we weasel out of our church commitments, so after awhile we just stop making them.  It's easier to just be a taker; it's harder to be a giver.  Our money is so tight that we only give when we have some extra,  It's harder to give to the Lord first and make due with the rest. 

It's time for all of us at FBC to re-evaluate our commitment level.  Do you expect your church to be better, but yet you sit on the sidelines and do little to nothing to help make it better?  You might need to overcome the fear of this pain and re-prioritize a few things to make yourself more available to make volunteering in ministry more doable.  You may need to make financial adjustments so you can begin to give to the church.  Sometimes our priorities as Christians are simply out of whack.  We all have the same amount of time; it's just a matter of what we do with all of it.  We all have a certain amount of money; it's just a matter of how we choose to spend it.

Adjusting your life to put more devotion to God into it will be a painful change. You will have to say no to some good things, so you'll have time for the best things.  A church that collectively works hard and is willing to sacrifice for the God-sized vision at hand will experience a kind of fellowship and effectiveness that can't be attained otherwise. 

Change comes with certain pains.  But if we are willing to endure the pain of change then we will reap gain of change.  Paul wrote, "And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary" (Gal. 6:9).  It is absolutely clear that it is time to move aggressively toward a revitalization effort.  In order to accomplish this, our church must embrace a significant amount of change concerning what we do and how we do it.  If we walk together hand-in-hand we can encourage each other through any fear and doubts and strengthen each other when we grow weary.

In all the talk of change, however, some things don't change.  God Himself does not change.  His Word does not change.  His purpose for His church does not change.  His expectations of how we live our lives does not change.  It's nice to know that with all the change that can bring fear and pain, we can be firmly anchored to the most important things that don't change, which give us ultimate security, courage and hope.         

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