I know you’re tired of hearing about change. Yet, you decided to start reading this. Too often we think of change as a kind of weather thing, everybody talks about it, but no one ever does anything about it.

Well, that’s partly right. You can’t stop change. But you can do something about it.  Kris Kristofferson is credited with the quote, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

How can we get into change? How can we engage with the changes in ourselves, in our churches and in our world in ways that will increase blessing? A change leader is someone who can do that – help us engage with the changes going on around us in ways that bless our neighbors and ourselves.

I have found some help in understanding how this might work in The Innovator’s Way by Peter Denning and Robert Dunham. You’ll find some of the terms altered to make their ideas more directly applicable to church life. In this article I’m going to give you a general outline of the practices that help lead us through change. In seven more articles I will give some more detail about each of the practices of fruitful change leadership.


When changes reach a certain critical magnitude, adapting to them through small adjustments fails to help. For example, the changes in family life (double and triple vocation households, single parenthood, myriad activity choices for kids, etc.) mean that tweaking the time we hold youth group or the Sunday school hour don’t result in restoring the vitality of the program. Denning calls the problems that arise when adjustments don’t work anymore “messes.” I like that description. It matches my experience of many of the problems we have faced in the church during my years in ministry.

When we are dealing with messes, everyone has different ideas about how to fix the problem. The fixes we do try seem not to work. Frustration, confusion, conflict and sometimes despair increase. But some churches find ways to survive. Some even thrive! How does that happen? When you’re in a mess, change leadership is required to move forward.

Here are seven practices of change leaders that can help churches find new life in the midst of unrelenting change.

  1. Learn and Listen. Almost everyone in a mess sees only their little part of its difficulties. Change leaders listen to everyone who is stuck in the mess in order to begin to comprehend the scale and scope of the mess. Good leaders become experts on the mess. They learn how various stakeholders experience its breakdowns, possibilities, and concerns. They listen to what is not being said as much as to what is being said.
  2. Tell the truth. People in a mess often fail to see that they are in a mess. Some are so used to the mess they don’t even think there’s a problem. Some see struggles as “just the way things are” and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Some are exhausted with trying to fix things and are just sitting on their hands and waiting for it to end. Change leaders help their people to see the mess they are in and to believe that, together, they can find a better way.
  3. Question the assumptions. One of the reasons people in a mess can’t find their own way out is that the mess is partly the result of their common assumptions. Church happens on Sunday morning. Children are our (only) mission field. Committees are how we make decisions. All the funding of ministry comes from pledges. Pastoral care is done by pastors. Change leaders question these assumptions. They help the church begin to ask whether the way we do things is the only way they can be done.
  4. Blend. As soon as we begin to ask whether we have to do things they way we are doing them, everyone begins to fear that they will lose what they value the most in the way things have always been. Change leaders understand that this is a legitimate fear. Change leaders listen to these fears. They help the body take seriously what it may cost to engage with change. They seek to find ways to address, where possible, the concerns people have.
  5. Develop a “we.” Ultimately changed practices in a church happen only when the people in the church adopt them. Effective change leaders begin as soon as they can to build a group of people who represent the church and who see themselves as a team of people dedicated to renewing the church. They must be diverse, but they will all be willing to talk it through together. “We are, by God’s help, going to find the way to fruitful mission for our church.”
  6. Lead. One of the places the whole process often falls apart is just at that moment when there is a new unity around what must be done, but nobody steps up to see that it gets done. It is one thing to get a vision of what the future can be for your church. It is another to do the work of embodying that future. Effective change leaders do NOT do it all themselves. They DO make sure that the church actually acts to move into the new ways to which it is committed. This means challenging people, calling people and inspiring people.
  7. Inspire shared commitment. The leadership in practice 6 is evident when many people in the church have made their own specific and individual commitments to be part of embodying the ministry of the church. It works best when these people all understand that it is all of them together in the mission. Change leaders help people claim their own calling and appreciate the callings of their brothers and sisters.

In my next seven articles I will open each of these practices up a bit. We’ll see what they look like in real church situations, and how leaders can embody these practices.

Steve Ross
Rev. Steve Ross is the Director of the Oregon-Idaho Conference Vital Church Project. Previously he served as Assistant to the Bishop for the Oregon Trail District.