The exasperated voice on the other end of the phone was a young pastor trying to lead a nearly dead church back to life. He had proposed a number of badly needed changes. He had taken time to meet the gatekeepers in his church and earn their trust. He had carefully crafted his ideas to make them sound like positive changes instead of merely bashing history and tradition. In short, he had done everything right. But the church had a business meeting the night before and voted down a significant number of his ideas. The ideas they did accept, they stretched out the implementation over such a long period of time that they would be significantly less effective than if they were done all at once. The young man was understandably frustrated. His church was clearly in a long downward death spiral and without change they probably had less than twenty-four months left in their existence. The young man simply wanted to lead them back to a place of health and vitality.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But sadly, I find that many churches, para-church ministries, and denominational agencies are resistant to change. While there are many reasons for this resistance, I think three rise to the top; pride, fear and ignorance.
Pride definitely plays a big part in resistance to change. Change implies that what we are doing right now is not working as effectively as it could be. For those who created the current system, that attacks their ego. If they take it personally, they feel like whoever is pushing the change is saying they are a failure or their ideas are not valid. While some leaders may be trying to say that, good leaders are simply realizing that the situation is different and therefore it requires a different response. A once great idea, great program, great ministry, or great system for leading a ministry can simply run its course. And when the end of that course comes, it is time to change. That does not mean it was a bad idea or that the people who put it together were failures. On the contrary, it means they successfully accomplished what they were trying to do with that idea and now the situation has changed and the ministry must change as well. Instead of allowing our ego to keep us from embracing change, we must remind ourselves what the mission of our ministry is all about. Is it about preserving our ego or about advancing the kingdom of God?
Fear is also a factor in resistance to change. People are not sure what the new way will look life. They are not sure where they will fit in the new system. They are not sure if their voice will be heard. These uncertainties produce fear. The bottom line is that many people fear change because they fear the unknown. They find it easier to just keep doing what they have always done even though it is no longer working as effectively as it once was. It has often been said that people will keep doing what they have always done until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. But sadly, sometimes by the time that happens, tremendous opportunities have been lost. When situations change, instead of cowing in fear at the unknown, we are called to walk in faith, believing that God knows the future and that He has our best interests at heart.
Ignorance is also a factor in resistance to change. Many people simply have not been educated enough to realize there are other options. This does not mean those people are dumb or stupid, it simply means that no one has told them that other options exist. People cannot choose an option they do not know exists. When the ministry we love is struggling, it is time to go to conference, or read the latest books, or research things on the Internet, or perhaps get involved in a different network. There are many options out there and one of them will work in our situation. We must educate ourselves so that we understand all the options possible and then prayerfully select the one that will work best in our situation.
The only thing constant in life is change. Culture changes. Fashion changes. Learning styles change. Organizational structure changes. In order to be healthy, churches and other faith-based ministries, must learn to navigate those changes. Leaders of those organizations must not let pride, fear or ignorance force us into a box that eventually kills the very ministry we love so much.
Lord, help us give up our ego for Your will. Help us replace fear with faith. Let your Spirit be our teacher to help us realize there are many options for effective ministry. Amen.
Dr. Terry W. Dorsett serves at the Executive Director of the Baptist Convention of New England. He has been a pastor, church planter, denominational leader and author in New England for more than 20 years. He is a happy husband, a proud father and adoring grandfather. He is a cancer survivor and believes that God works powerfully through times of suffering. He writes extensively and you can find all of his books at: