Three Powerful Components You Must Employ To Successfully Lead Change


I recently published a blog relating the story of Pastor Joe working with several congregations that seemed frozen in time and unwilling to embrace change. 

In that article, I wrote:

Do you ever feel as though people latch onto the past with a death grip when you’re simply trying to lead them towards a greater vision?  After all what difference does it really make if we change the music up? Or turn a coat rack area into a welcome center?

Here’s the one key that will help you best understand such phenomena: fear.

My friend, Pastor Eric Johnson, shared the following insightful comment about the article:

I've found in my work leading and consulting with congregations that a fear of loss is half the problem. The other half is the failure of the leader to articulate a compelling narrative that coincides with the planned changes. Leaders tend to start with the “what” and not the “why” (to borrow from Simon Sinek). What is the compelling vision that honors the congregation's history and unique DNA but will lead them into God's preferred future? That is the starting point I see leaders neglecting.

Eric, you’re spot on about the power of a compelling vision to move folks toward change.

In fact, I would like drill down a little deeper into some related ideas: the three powerful components that must be present if paralyzed congregations are to become unstuck or unfrozen.

People must see a clear path forward.

As Eric pointed out, people must be able to ‘see’ the path, where it leads (vision) and how to get there (strategy). They must see the path and believe they have the capacity to follow it toward change. (So much the better, too, if you engage them in the process of creating the vision.)

If you have compelling stories of others who have successfully complete the same change you are proposing, that can be helpful.

People must experience a sense of urgency.

As a child, I nagged my father (a heavy smoker) and even showed him pictures of smokers’ lungs! My sincere concerns did little to assuage this behavior. He knew it was true but change was just too hard.

However, after an emphysema diagnosis, the doctor issued a short, clear challenge: “quit or die”. He quit immediately!

John Kotter, author of The Heart of Change, states that “people change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings”.[i] He advises leaders to raise a sense of urgency. You want people telling each other, “We have to do something!”

Consider this example. You present an idea for a necessary “life or death” change to your board. You use a graphic to illustrate the vision of what could be. That’s good. People need a vision.

However, fact is, you may need to add another visual aid: one demonstrating a vision of NOT adopting the proposed change. Let’s say, projected budget drops and future extinction dates (if that truly could be the ultimate outcome).

That’s more likely to evoke an emotional, “We have to do something!”

In a situation not unlike the one above, I personally heard one older congregation member earnestly blurt out, “Well, we have to do this. It’s either this or die!”

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about scare tactics here, so don’t take this out of context. However, you must create a legitimate sense of urgency.

People must be spiritually stirred.   

Finally, this is spiritual work we are about.

Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it…
(Psalm 127:1 NIV)

Every “great awakening” from New Testament times until now sprang from soil watered by the prayers of believers. Movement forward toward growth and change, whether in our personal lives, churches or even at a national level, starts with and includes spiritual renewal.

The Holy Spirit must stir, call and woo us and our followers in His direction. Otherwise, what difference will it make anyway?

Those are my thoughts on ingredients that must be present to successfully lead change. What would you add to the mix?


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[i] The Heart of Change, p 1 Kotter, J. (2002). The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

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