How the slow way is the fast way to change
When people say; “We’ve never done it like that before,” it is often disguising the feelings they have toward change. Feelings like, “Change will take more effort,” or, “I’m afraid to make changes,” or, “What if the new way doesn’t work?” If those making that statement were honest they might really say; “I’m lazy,” or, “I’m afraid,” or, “Prove it first!”
None of the above are valid reasons for resisting and refusing new steps of faith and obedience. But those statements, and the people who make them, present genuine concerns which a pastor must take into consideration when leading his flock. Essentially, the task is not leading the congregation into something “new” but something scary, something unproven in their eyes, and something they have no knowledge or experience of.
Example change: Plurality of elders/pastors
One of the things that we changed at Milwood is the structure of our leadership and committees. I had never served at a church that had a plurality of elders/pastors. I grew up in Southern Baptist churches, and the churches we were a part of never had a plurality of elders/pastors. At Milwood, none of our deacons had ever held membership in a church where there was a plurality of elders. I was leading a church to do a new thing that was new to me. We decided to make the transition to a plurality of elders/pastors and removed many committees which were not functioning. This is how we approached this important transition.
When I first arrived, the Bylaws had previously been revised to make major amendments. A special by-laws committee had been formed and then decided to wait until a new pastor was called to the church before making major revisions. After evaluating the situation and given the depth and number of changes the bylaws needed, I asked if the committee would consider handing this task to the deacons and myself. They were glad to. We then took the following approach.
4 Months – Observing and discussing related biblical texts
Retreat – Deacons retreat to pray, worship and study the subject of biblical leadership
6+ Months – Regular monthly meetings to form bylaws
3-4 Weeks – Preaching on church leadership
2-4 Months – Presentation of recommended amendments in business meeting, Q and A, amendments to our amendments proposed by the members
Overall, it took close to two years from the moment we began talking about the matter to the day we approved the new bylaws as a church. Looking at that timeline, you might think, “Wow, they must have been really opposed to plurality of elders to take that long.” Not at all, moving to a plurality of elders was relatively one of the smoothest transitions to a plurality of elders that I’ve heard of any church experiencing. When I say our church transitioned our governance, other pastor’s ears perk up, waiting for the tales of shouting matches and almost getting fired. We don’t have any of those. We had some members who were uncomfortable and some who had questions. Some of our Deacons and members changed their minds along the way, and we were unified on that matter in the end.
When it was time to vote on the change in our governance, our deacons were ready. Our deacons desired to be deacons and let others serve as elders. I had no doubt the vote would pass. Since that transition, some members have expressed frustration toward our elders. And that’s ok. But, I can’t recall any who have rejected our tranisition.
The Slow way is the fast way
When I arrived in Austin, I asked another pastor in town to meet with me once a month to talk about church, life and pastoral ministry. There were many days which he vicariously pastored our church by offering me sound advice and counsel. I think nearly every time we met, I heard him say, “The slow way is the fast way, and the fast way is the slow way.” And I thought I was doing it the slow way.
He taught me that real and lasting change in people takes time. Go slowly and seek to lead the people, and you’ll find that is actually the fast way to make change in a church’s culture. Try to do it the fast way, you may get some votes, you may change the by-laws, but you’ll come to find out later the people haven’t actually changed at all. If they have changed, they’ve left or only grown more resentful toward you.
I spoke with a pastor friend named Samuel. His church transitioned to a plurality of elders as well. Their process took closer to four years. Samuel said, “I do not regret going slow at all.” Then he added something incredible. He had one member who fundamentally disagreed with him on the matter from beginning to end but still told Samuel, “You’ve done a great job pastoring through this. You’ve done everything you can.” That is good pastoral ministry.
I have a phrase framed on my desk, and I need to be reminded of it often. It’s from Jamie Dunlop’s book, Compelling Community. Jamie says, “It took years, but over time, thousands of conversations about how to apply God’s Word really did change our church culture.”
Bylaws don’t take long to change. But cultures do. Ask yourself this question, “Would I be ok having my change implemented if everyone voted ‘yes’ even though they don’t really want it?” Do you want the structures to change or the people to change? Our change took place long before the church voted on our bylaws. To get there was a matter of time, teaching the people, multiple conversations about the same things with the same people, waiting on people, praying for people and listening to people.
Early in a revitalization members may be eager for change. In that scenario, you have a lot of pastoral capitol, so to speak, and you can make significant structural changes early. You can get the Sunday school changed to another system. You can change the name of the church. You can update and rewrite the bylaws. You can create a healthier church membership process. You can change the worship style. And you can do all that really quickly when maybe you should have gone more slowly. Do your people know whythose things matter? Are they approving them, or are they championing them? Are they permitting them, or are they longing for them? Can they help explain the reasons to new incoming members? If you’re a charismatic leader you, can get your people to say “yes.” But do they understand it? Can they teach it? Defend it?
The goal of pastoral ministry is not merely to be an overseer of structures. Pastoral ministry is tending sheep. So, for example, in his book Church Discipline, Jonathan Leeman gives some final advice on practicing church discipline. Essentially, don’t do it (yet). At least not until you have taught on it extensively and you have agreement among church leadership. Take the time to expose God’s word on every issue so that people can follow God in unity.
Published October 11, 2017