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How to Lead Change Like a Pro

Here’s what you need to know to successfully lead change through your ministry.


A Tale of Two Changes

As a ministry leader, you know what change is about. Whether it’s a big change established by your leaders or a smaller vision God placed in your heart for your ministry, change is something almost every ministry leader will eventually need to navigate. After all, if we aren’t changing, we’re stagnating.

That said, there’s a right and a wrong way to implement change. While change can be good and necessary, the process can create chaos, confusion, and uncertainty within our teams.

I sought out two very different perspectives on change: a leader of change and a team member who experienced change. Their insights are a springboard for how we can approach change with our teams.

A Leader’s Take

Cheryl McMurtry, the associate pastor at World Outreach & Bible Training Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has led her team successfully through change.

Cheryl:  We had a season when change became necessary. I listened to the heart of our volunteers who were still serving. They felt they were always being reprimanded instead of empowered. They felt unappreciated and that we weren’t hearing their concerns. We had a lack of communication and resources. And because ours is a shared-space ministry, we needed more help for setup and break-down. We were in trouble all around.

Andrea: What steps did you take to change what was happening?

Cheryl:  I began by listening to all their concerns. I spent time in prayer, asking God for direction. Something as simple as providing an age-appropriate curriculum with activities that reinforced the lesson made our team happier. This small step began the process of rebuilding their enthusiasm and trust. I promptly answered questions and always thanked people for serving. Little, immediate changes made the team feel valued and more connected as we embarked on larger changes together.

A Team Member’s Take

This anonymous team member had a very different experience with ministry change.

Team Member: Our church had been nondenominational. One day I was in the workroom using the copy machine. I saw bulletins for our upcoming conference that showed our church affiliated with a denomination. This unexpected news led me to my leader’s office to get answers. To my shock, my leader confirmed that the ministry where I was employed as a full- time leader had adopted the statement of faith of a different denomination without disclosing the information to the staff. I felt blindsided because there weren’t any indications this was coming. I felt betrayed because a few of the staff members knew while others didn’t. Since I didn’t agree with the new statement of faith, I knew it was best for me to resign.

Andrea: How could church leaders have handled this better?

Team Member: Whenever a change is coming, there must be a process in place to inform teams. Even if our input isn’t necessary, it’s considerate for leaders to explain the changes to everyone instead of just a few. We need to hear the purpose and reasoning behind the changes to gain understanding and to support leadership.

Change Checklist

Your team’s support is critical as you implement change. Keep in mind that leaders are usually aware of the need for change before their teams are. Because of this, it’s important to honor the past before presenting options for the future. Honor what your teams have done well, and show your appreciation for their hard work and dedication. Then offer the big picture of what you want to accomplish. If your team agrees that the end goal is worth striving for, you’re off to a great start.

Here are key steps to ensure your change process is as effective and painless as possible.

  1. State the problem.
  2. Validate what teams have done before outlining what needs to improve or change.
  3. Offer the solution.
  4. Outline your vision to reach the goal.
  5. State your support for the solution or end goal.
  6. Give examples of how your outlined approach will obtain the change.

Communication Cascade

It’s important to identify how you’ll notify people. When you tell each group of people, such as your team leaders
or teachers, you’ll gain their support. Continue to present the information to all groups. Remember to communicate to everyone—not only a select group—even though you may vary how much you communicate or when you do so. Consider following this communication cascade.

  1. Children’s ministry leaders and other leaders within your church
  2. Key people leading areas of ministry, including paid and unpaid staff
  3. Frontline ministry volunteers
  4. Parents

If the changes will impact kids and families, decide on three different ways you’ll communicate the changes. Emails, video emails, postcards, and web page updates have worked well for our ministry.

Andrea Hopgood is associate pastor of children’s ministry at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

Lead the Way

Just last week a volunteer said, “Gloria, I’m so glad we’re making some changes. But when I start whining about the changes we’re going through, just remind me why we’re doing this.”

She couldn’t have said it better. Even people who love change still struggle with doing something that’s outside their norm. The bottom line: Many people want to experience the benefit of change but rarely want to go through the change because it takes effort and it’s uncomfortable.

I’ve had my share of transition in ministry. Teams usually meet it with anticipation and excitement. However, that mood easily shifts to resistance when you actually implement the change. About four years ago, we made a big shift to start a large/small group format at our new campus. While some volunteers quickly embraced the idea, others struggled with the decision. Some attacked the changes in a passive-aggressive manner, saying they supported the change but then doing things that would undermine it. Some went with the flow begrudgingly but made it clear they weren’t on board.

Leading change with volunteers can be particularly challenging—because they’re volunteers! This isn’t a job where they have to learn to live with the change because they’re paid to do so. They may be committed, but they can easily leave—and most of us can’t afford to have volunteers quit. Here are the key points I’ve learned about successfully leading change without alienating your team.

Explain the why.

You must clearly communicate the vision and philosophy driving the change. When volunteers see what your desired end goal is, they’ll start to appreciate the purpose behind the change. Change can’t just happen for the sake of change. Once you’re able to paint the vision of the desired end goal, volunteers will be a lot more open to enduring and supporting the change. In my situation, I gathered all my volunteers together to share the vision of our ministry that was in alignment with the overall church vision. I painted a picture of where we could be. I also let volunteers know that I was open to discussion and new ideas.

Involve the resistance.

I invited those who were still resistant to the change into an honest, open conversation. Then I took the time to understand their reasoning, which was often due to past experiences, assumptions, personal reasons, or fear of the unknown. I worked to help these volunteers understand that the change would propel us all toward our common goal. We found ways to involve these volunteers in the process. We worked to carefully navigate through upcoming changes together with lots of communication and opportunities for discussion. When you involve volunteers in the process, they’re more likely to own the change.

But remember: Change takes time. It’s not easy. I’ve had volunteers decide that they were no longer a fit in children’s ministry because of change, and that’s okay. Take care not to damage your relationships with people, but stick to your commitment to the change—even if you have to be flexible as to how you get there. Over time, as my volunteers started to experience wins from the change, I found they were all in—and they eventually became the change’s biggest advocates.

Gloria S. Lee has been committed to children’s ministry for more than 20 years. She’s a speaker, writer, and children’s ministry director.

5 Surefire Ways to Derail Change

Change.

Go ahead, let the shiver run all the way up and down your spine. That’s the natural response to change. So many change efforts have failed for so many people that even the mention of change sends many into a cold sweat.

I’ve been managing change for 25 years across multiple disciplines and industries. I’ve failed—a lot—but I’ve succeeded a lot more because I learned what not to do. Knowing what not to do is often more important than knowing what to do. If you know what not to do, then you have more time to evaluate, analyze, and plan the right activities to get to your desired result.

What follows is my go-to “DO NOT DO THIS EVER List” to help you successfully lead change in your ministry.

Don’t: Plan a change without a realistic timeframe.

Change doesn’t magically happen just because we will it to. And all the best intentions in the world won’t make change happen without a plan.

Invest the time it takes to plan the change, and don’t try to lead it alone. This won’t work and will take years off your life from the stress of trying to manage the whole change by yourself.

There’s a theory that it takes seven days to create a new habit and 28 days to change a habit. These are good estimates, but establishing change is really about the frequency of the behavior, not calendar days. Church staff lives in the church world every day. Congregation members spend on average 1.79 percent of their week at church (three hours out of 168 each week). What takes a week for church staff to develop into a new habit will take seven weeks for the congregation—if they all show up every week and have opportunities to live with the change. The math on changing a habit is over six months if everyone shows up regularly. You need a plan for change in writing just so you can keep it going for six months or more. Stay realistic, and share that realism with your team.

Don’t: Overlook your team’s real-world talents and skills.

You probably have CEOs, school administrators, consultants, and all sorts of other leaders who lead change in their “real jobs” who’d be more than happy to assist you. People feel honored to be recognized and have their skills utilized. They can also bring new dimensions, ideas, and approaches to your efforts.

So ask for help. Look for these skilled people in your church, go to them (at home or work), and ask for help. Don’t do the “Oh, by the way,” recruiting conversation after services. Every time you show people you value them enough to come to them, you increase their sense of worth and the likelihood they’ll join your effort and help lead it to success.

Don’t: Forget that motivation moves people.

Every decision we make is related to the WIIFM. That is, the “What’s In It For Me?” question. Each individual has a different WIIFM, and it’s worth it to find out what motivates that person. Consider these examples of possible WIIFMs:

  • We’ll increase attendance. (WIIFM: “More kids means our church is growing and thriving. I’m motivated to contribute to the health of the church.”)
  • We’ll streamline our processes and keep kids safer. (WIIFM: “I’m frustrated by the current processes. We could do it in half the time and I’d be able to catch most of the worship service that way.”)
  • We’ll change the carpet in the nursery. (WIIFM: “I don’t have to worry about my toddler getting sick from that nasty, sticky, smelly carpet.”)

The WIIFM has to be clear to your team members if they’re going to embrace the change.

Don’t: Miss opportunities for your team to “do” the change.

Change means you have to “do” before you “are.” Plan specific, safe, high-success events for your team to have the opportunity to “do” the change multiple times. “Doing” the change develops your team’s confidence that the change is realistic.

For example, if your goal is to be more focused on people in your neighborhood, a first step might be to rake neighbors’ yards. Participants experience the relative ease of “being” a community-focused church by “doing” the activity of raking leaves. The next activity might be singing at an assisted-living facility, and then hosting a neighborhood barbecue. With multiple successes under their belt, those “doing” the change will begin to look for opportunities to serve those in the community. That’s moving from “doing” to “being”—and that means you’re changing the culture.

Don’t: Ignore successes—even small ones.

Celebrate wins publicly. Tell everyone. If something goes wrong, tell everyone. But don’t assess blame. Instead, talk about how that failure will move the change in the right direction. You build trust from honest communication. Allow grace when things go wrong (“We had a couple of issues at the last event” versus “The raking team didn’t bring rakes or trash bags.”). There’s no benefit in pointing out individuals for failure.

Once the change is fully implemented, schedule checkpoints in the future to ensure it’s what you envisioned. If it’s not, step back and see where the gap is. Then adjust your efforts to correct it.

Change rarely happens as quickly as we’d like, but if you manage your team’s expectations from the beginning, communicate effectively, and give them the opportunity to participate, you’ll facilitate the change you seek.

Michael Huss is the operations and planning manager for Group Publishing. 

For more great articles like this in every issue, subscribe today to Children’s Ministry Magazine!


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How to Lead Change Like a Pro

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