How to Ignite the Fires of Change


Elaine returned from a fabulous conference with tons of new
ideas. She called her children’s department coordinators together
and laid out her new strategy.

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With each new idea, the nursery leader thought, “Oh no, not
another big idea! Things are fine just the way they are.” The
elementary supervisor was excited but unsure whether Elaine’s plan
would work. But the preschool coordinator bluntly asked, “Why is it
that when you go away to one of those conferences, we always end up
chasing a new rabbit for the next year?”

Like many children’s ministers, Elaine didn’t understand how to
introduce change that leads to successful results.

James Belasco, in his book Teaching the Elephant to Dance:
The Manager’s Guide to Empowering Change
, contends that most
organizations and leaders are conditioned to resist change-in much
the same way elephants are.

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He writes, “Trainers shackle young elephants with heavy chains
to deeply embedded stakes. In this way the elephant learns to stay
in its place. Older elephants never try to leave even though they
have the strength to pull the stake and move beyond. Their
conditioning limits their movements with only a small metal
bracelet around their foot-attached to nothing.” The only thing
that’ll break the conditioned response is a fire or something that
threatens the elephants’ very survival.

There are a lot of “elephants” in churches. But if we’re going
to reach children we must set some fires under those elephants.

Belasco offers fundamental business principles that, if used
properly, can generate a creative environment where change is
welcomed rather than feared. The following eight steps will enable
you to affect change in your church:

Recruiting Secrets From a Veteran

1. Prepare for change. Build a sense of urgency. If people don’t
recognize a need for change, change will never happen. Help your
volunteers see the problem clearly by surveying disgruntled parents
or children, videotaping and critiquing the program in question, or
revealing a decline in attendance or quality.

2. Create a clear tomorrow. Don’t just leave people discouraged.
Lead from your strengths and present your vision of the “promised
land.” If Sunday school is your strongest program, and all other
programs are limping along, put them out of their misery. Figure
out how you can make Sunday school a life-changing, exciting place
for kids. Then impart that vision to your volunteers.

Vision guides the decision-making process. It keeps us from
being tyrannized by the urgent and drives us to what’s important.
When asked why we don’t have a traditional vacation Bible school, I always say God has given us a different
outreach method. Our vision drives us to creatively seek ways of
reaching out-beyond VBS.

3. Think through the obstacles. According to Belasco, there are
five potential blockades to change. But you can bust through these

*It’s taking longer than I thought. It may take a long, long
time. Remember your vision and hang in there over the long
*These people want an instant cure. Once people get excited about
the vision, they may expect too much from it. Be honest about what
can and can’t be done with your vision.
*I’ve got too many critics. Confront critics and take their
concerns seriously-you may learn something. Then drown unwarranted
criticism by celebrating short-term progress.
*I’ll do it tomorrow. Break large tasks into manageable small
pieces. And get people started on those small pieces.
*We’ve made a lot of mistakes. If you’re trying something new, you
will fail at some point. But failure isn’t fatal. Prepare yourself
to fail and learn from it.

Volunteer Notebook

4. Develop your vision. Get input from three different sources
as you craft your vision. Pull together your children’s ministry
leaders and bounce your vision off them. What do they think? What
changes would they make? Then take your refashioned vision
informally to parents, volunteers, and children. Get their input.
Next, ask the professionals: co-staff members or other children’s
ministers. Stay flexible and be willing to change your vision based
on the input.

To accomplish this, I laid out what I believed were the biblical
imperatives for children’s ministry. We held several parent forums
and leader vision-casting sessions, asking adults how they felt
about children’s ministry. Surprisingly, we found adults very
willing to talk about their vision for children.

5. Focus resources. Put your top-notch people in positions of
influence. For example, if you’re introducing new, innovative
curriculum, have your best teachers demonstrate it. Also, cut
nonessential expenditures to ensure adequate funding for new
programs. As I mentioned in step 2, cut second-rate programs. Then
focus all your resources on the main thrust of your vision.
Afterward, work on the other areas.

6. Model the change. Present a clear picture of what it’ll take
to reach the vision. Model the desired behavior or program you
envision. If it’s introducing active learning into the classroom,
use active learning-not lecture-in your teacher-training meetings.
If it’s visiting your children’s homes weekly, take a different
teacher with you each week to visit children. Encourage your
volunteers to try the new behavior and give them permission to

7. Expect change. Set specific expectations and then check on
progress. Give immediate feedback to reinforce the behavior.
Belasco says, “What gets rewarded, gets produced again.” Heartfelt
thank yous and affirmations will let your volunteers know they’re
on track. Periodic evaluations will also help your volunteers stay

Recruiting Gen Xers

8. Empower people. Give volunteers decision-making authority
related to the vision. If volunteers have to clear everything with
you, they’ll never own the vision. Celebrate individual
contributions that affect the vision. If someone tweaks a program
well, use “good gossip” to talk it up to other volunteers: “Wow,
Jean had the greatest idea for children’s church!” You’ll encourage
others to contribute, also.

Once the change has taken hold, mark the passing of the old.
Keep promising a better tomorrow. Celebrate when the new way is the
only way. Use the vision God has given you to guide your

A very wise pastor once told me if I ever wanted my ministry to
have an eternal impact, I would have to set it on fire. Because
when a church is on fire, people come from all around to watch it
burn. He was right!

Steve Hopper is a children’s minister in North

Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change. Originally published in March-April,
1993 in Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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