How To Relationally Navigate Change

by Joe McAlpine

Names and places have been changed to protect those involved . . . but this is a true story.

Tim was a children’s ministry lifer. He was creative, energetic, and full of passion. He was so excited when he got hired at First Christian Church to be their new children’s pastor. The church was thriving and growing at an amazing rate. The previous children’s pastor had done a great job building a team and a strong program but had been called to a different church to take on a new challenge. Everyone knew things would change when Tim started, and there was a genuine excitement for the new things he would bring to further grow the ministry.

Tim came in with tons of new ideas and got to work right away. At his first meeting, he presented a list of everything that was wrong with the children’s area and timelines on fixing it. Over the next few months, he methodically dismantled the program and began to rebuild it from the bottom up. He was so busy rebuilding that he didn’t have time for dinner with people or even phone appointments. He didn’t talk much at staff meetings because he didn’t want the meeting to go long so he could get back to work. He was recluse in his work, feeling that if he brought other people in they wouldn’t do as well of a job as he would. He did let a few people closer, but only so they could run errands for him and do jobs that he didn’t want to do. They would quickly burn out.

About three months into Tim’s time at FCC, he had completely dismantled what was there when he started. Everything had changed: logos, music, teams, leadership—everything. He sat back and looked at all of the great things he had changed and thought it was good. Seven months later, volunteers were at an all time low, kids’ attendance had dropped to half of what it was, and Tim had no friends on staff. Tim was fired shortly after that, only 10 months into his time at the church.

Change. That is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. Everyone is looking for something different, something new, something that points to the future. What we often miss in our everlasting pursuit of change, though, is all of the other things that come with it. You see, true change is actually the effect of many different things. Things like relationship, patience, tact, planning, strategy and vision all play into how change moves forward in the different areas of your leadership. Over my time in ministry, I have had the great opportunity to follow leaders through change. I have also watched from a distance as great leaders have navigated change and not-so-great leaders have failed through change. I have also been honored to lead some amazing ministries and people through change myself. I have learned a lot of things about change and what brings about true, real, life-giving change. I have learned many lessons over the years in this area but one major lesson serves as an overarching theme. I want to share that with you.

“Vision drives change. But vision is best communicated through relationship.”

In other words, you can have the best vision in the world, but if you don’t have the relational buy-in from the people in the trenches with you, then true change will never happen—at least not the way you want it to.

I have seen Tim’s story so many times in ministry it is crazy. Leaders, especially leaders in a new area, often forget that it is people who make true change happen. Sure, a dynamic leader can make things look differently pretty quickly but that isn’t change. True change comes from a place deep inside the heart of your organization. When the people are on board with the vision and are excited and motivated by it—and that drives new projects and strategies—that is when real change happens.

In any ministry, it is important to invest in relationships. Relationships will become the fuel to the change that comes about. It is important to make as many deposits into relationships as possible, so that when you bring about change you aren’t standing alone in the crowd. Here are some thoughts about relationally navigating change that may help you out.

  1. It’s not about you; it’s about them. Listen, change should never be about putting your fingerprint on something. As leaders, we change things to ultimately make our areas better for the people. If you are changing things simply to make them yours rather than your predecessors you are missing the point.
  2. Be authentic. People see right through a leader who is trying to get close to them so they have access to their gifts or support. You need to genuinely want to get to know people. Remember, you are a ministry leader, not a politician.
  3. Don’t bash the way things are . . . You never know who on your existing team was part of creating something the way it is. Don’t talk about how ugly that mural is in the preschool area. Your top teacher’s wife may have painted it. Don’t talk about how dumb it was that your predecessor named the kids church a silly name—it may have been a team decision.
  4. Remember, unless there was a falling out, in the beginning your predecessor has more relationship with your team than you do. Don’t say bad things about the person in your job before you. Chances are they have many friends and relationships with people on your teams, and you don’t know who they are. Nothing will push a good volunteer out the doors faster than you bashing his friends.
  5. Don’t knock down a wall unless you understand why it was put there in the first place. Ask tons of questions like “What do you think about. . . ? Why do we do things this way? Has anything like this been tried before? How do you think people would react if we. . . . ?” Questions bring your team along with you. When you bring people along with you they are more willing to support the change that comes. Also, be a student of where your church has come from. Understand the history, culture, pace and style before you make changes.
  6. Give away important and fun jobs. Don’t reserve all the major things for you. Be willing to give away important tasks, EVEN IF they don’t get done as well as you think you would do them. When people you lead know that you trust them with major things it will draw them in.

What thoughts do you have on relationship and change? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Joe  is the Pastor of Share at Northbrook Church. Northbrook is a growing church just outside of Milwaukee, WI. He has been in ministry for over a decade, serving in staff leadership at churches ranging in attendance from 500 to 7,000.

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