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Making Waves: Here’s How to be an Agent for Change

Making waves and creating change can be tricky. Here’s how to be a change agent in your ministry.

Your children’s ministry has a problem — one you don’t plan to live with much longer. It’s okay — every children’s ministry has its issues. Yours might be a volunteer shortfall, an antiquated check-in system, or anemic outreach efforts hampering your growth. Whatever the problem is, it’s peeved you long enough. It’s time to make waves and bring about healthy change.

Making Waves: Here’s How to be an Agent for Change

Making waves, and creating change, can be tricky, though. Remember, the same waves that guide a boat ashore can capsize it with equal ease. Here’s how to generate powerful, change-producing waves without capsizing your ministry — or career.

Brain Waves

Effective change begins with an inner-cranial tsunami. Don’t unleash powerful change forces on others until you’ve carefully analyzed the dynamics at play in your situation.

Define the change.

Grab a pen and write exactly what you hope to accomplish. You can’t lead anyone into your preferred future unless you can recognize it when you get there. Write a one-page, specific description of the desired change and the necessary resources. Be journalistic — include the who, what, why, and how. Your physical description might include a statement such as, “By summer 2007, all our nursery rooms will be equipped with state-of-the-art systems and care to protect infants and toddlers…”

Now be scientific.

Grab a second sheet of paper and describe the desired change in terms of a measurable objective. There are three ways to measure change: speed (think deadlines), quality (think excellence), and quantity (think volume). Your description might include: “All nursery and toddler rooms will be equipped with two security cameras. All staff will be first aid and CPR certified by June 1, 2012.”

Understand the status quo.

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed a time-tested way to conceptualize change. Lewin believed the status quo (in this case, the problem you’re stuck with) is the equilibrium between forces promoting change and forces resisting it. If Lewin consulted at your church, he’d say that forces working in your favor are stalemated by forces working against you. Your job? Break the status quo by strengthening the forces that support change and weakening the forces blocking change.

Check your motives for change.

Check your heart before you start making changes. Why do you really want change — to serve your congregation or to meet your ego’s needs?

When I was fresh out of college and at my first secular job, I decided to challenge and ultimately get rid of the workers union. And I succeeded.

Why did I do it? I could spout my beliefs about economics and opinions about how an adversarial relationship between management and labor hurts everyone. But that’s only part of the truth. I also had a personality clash with the union steward. I was young, energetic, and unappreciative of what I perceived to be a domineering leadership style. So really, why did I fight to change my workplace? It was a cocktail of testosterone and pride.

Think of it this way: A baby makes waves in a tub. It’s fun for the baby, but not productive. So test your heart. Congregations don’t exist to meet your — or my — ego needs.

Sound Waves

Now that you’re clear on the what’s and why’s of your change, you might be tempted to start changing your programs and structures. Don’t. Lasting change always starts with the invisible and progresses to the visible. Change minds before structures. Leading change implies creating a following, so set about making some noise and building a consensus. Here’s how.

Craft your pitch.

My wife worked as a telemarketer between teaching jobs. Amy quickly discovered she had about two sentences in which to sell change (convincing the customer to consolidate a loan) before the customer hung up on her.

Can you make a compelling case for your change in two sentences?

Go back to those paragraphs you wrote detailing your desired change. Condense them. Craft a statement that demonstrates the superiority of your change over all competing options. “Let’s implement state-of-the-art security and safety measures in the nursery and toddler rooms to ensure they’re a place where children feel secure and loved, and where parents feel totally at ease leaving their children. It’s going to cost us time and money, but imagine how the entire church will blossom if our children’s ministry experiences growth.”

Remember two truths as you build your pitch.

First tune into WII-FM (What’s In It For Me?). Be able to discuss the change by highlighting how others will benefit from it. How do you sell a curriculum change to reluctant volunteers who’ve used the same curriculum for the past 10 years? Explain that a new, compelling curriculum will engage children’s imaginations and reduce discipline problems (that’s a benefit for teachers!).

The second truth: Selling others on change is really convincing them that your proposed future state is superior to the current state. If the trustees respond with a no to your request to paint the kids’ wing, it’s not because they don’t value children or evangelism. They just value their stewardship of the church’s brick and mortar more. Don’t tag the trustees as opponents; instead, get them to dream with you about the beauty of a burgeoning children’s ministry. Help them understand that they’re stewarding the building for a goal — the advancement of God’s kingdom.

Identify change cheerleaders and curmudgeons.

You’ve honed your pitch. Now sell it. Identify the two groups of people you’ll be selling to. List your potential cheerleaders — those who are likely to be enthusiastic and share in the heavy lifting. Then make note of the curmudgeons-those inclined to resist or even oppose the change.

  • Cheerleaders: Schedule meetings and lunches to share your vision. Meet with cheerleaders in groups; enthusiasm is contagious. So is grumbling — meet with your curmudgeons individually. Meet with cheerleaders with the goal of converting them into change champions.
  • Curmudgeons: Meet with curmudgeons to acknowledge their influence and ego needs. Your goal here is to move them into a “live and let live” posture. If they offer criticism, you might learn the weaknesses of your idea and have the opportunity to adapt before you start unrolling your change. Don’t try to convert a curmudgeon. It’s not going to happen.

Light Waves

You’ve changed your thinking. You’ve changed the minds of those around you. So now you’re ready to change your ministry in a visible way. If you’ve generated sufficient brain and sound waves, this phase should come more easily.

Execute change with excellence.

Work your plan with excellence. The best plans, when executed poorly, look like bad ideas. Getting your loving but timid volunteer base to implement that new curriculum requires them to trust you. Earn their trust by getting the curriculum in their hands early, stocking the supply room with the materials they need, and providing excellent teacher training that shows them how to properly use the curriculum.

Evaluate together.

Build in regular checkpoints for your team to assess the success of your plan as it’s unrolled. Be transparent about any miscalculations or missteps along the way. Be prepared to make midcourse corrections when necessary. It’s better — and builds your credibility — to own up to a mistake or miscalculation than to ignore it or hope others don’t notice.

Celebrate success.

The change is complete — so celebrate! This can be as simple as thank you cards or as big as a party. A well-done celebration not only affirms your hard-working team, but also elevates the core values that provoked your change in the first place. Celebrate your volunteers, but also celebrate ideals such as servanthood and evangelism.

Shock Waves

Several years ago, I heard Harvard Business Professor Leonard Schlesinger say, “By accomplishing anything of value, a whole segment of the population will not appreciate what you are doing.” If you lead change long enough, you’ll discover that you aren’t the only one making waves. Someday you’ll be rattled by shockwaves of discontent. Here are survival skills for dealing with resistance.

Listen graciously.

Honor anyone who’s mustered enough courage to confront you. The most helpless position you as a leader can experience is sitting in your office knowing you’re being gossiped about by the congregation. If someone comes to you directly, thank the person and listen.

Lead with strength.

Nothing breeds confusion faster than a wavering leader. When you’re under fire you might be tempted to acquiesce and give in to your critics. Everyone wants to be liked, right? Don’t do it. If you’re convinced the change you’re leading is God’s will, then keep marching. Your team needs your consistency — chances are they’re enduring the same criticism you are. Momentary waffling on your part will feel like betrayal to the volunteers who’ve stuck by you.

Stick to Jesus.

A few years ago, I led change in the form of an outreach program that proved to be controversial in our community. A few neighboring pastors learned of my outreach program, bypassed the Jesus-style communication process in Matthew 18:15, and ran straight to the press. I instantly had to deal with dozens of phone calls from strangers who questioned my spirituality, my credentials as a pastor, and even my salvation. The criticism hurt. If it hadn’t been for my devotional life and my circle of ministry friends, I might’ve buckled under the pressure.

When the shock waves come, be healthy. Pray, turn to Scripture, exercise, eat right and get adequate sleep.

You can make change-producing waves. God doesn’t give any of his shepherds a vision for change without also giving them the ability to make a splash.

Finding Authority to Change

Part of the consensus-building change process is being perceived as having the proper authority necessary to make a significant change. Leaders in most church cultures draw their authority from one of three places:


In many churches, the authority to create change lies with an influential, long-tenured leader-usually a lead pastor or a prominent church member.

Act: If you’re in a personality-powered church, you need this person on your side.

Legal Documents

In some churches, power is manufactured by being aligned with the church constitution and bylaws.

Act: If you’re in one of these churches, know your constitution, know Robert’s Rules of Order, and be prepared to work the system. Your ability to work within the system will lend you a sense of authority to advance your cause.


In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of core-value driven churches. These fast-paced churches hold a handful of ideals, such as evangelism, servanthood, or excellence, as crucial.

Act: If you’re in a value-driven church, appeal to one or more of these core values to give your change initiative authority.

Larry Shallenberger is a pastor of children and student ministries and is the author of Lead the Way God Made You: Discovering Your Leadership Style in Children’s Ministry (Group).

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

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