People hate changes and surprises!
We can argue with the idea if we like, or just try a change to surprise everyone at home. It’s just plain true. People do not just get shocked—they get negative.
Yet at the church we easily surprise our people with a change in mood, presentations, style, or schedule. And when the reaction is negative or factions arise, we easily blame the people for being stubborn.
But maybe we can simply learn the lessons of life and of incremental change, lessons learned the hard way too many times at church.
Good or bad, there is a special ownership that people have at church. Everything there is connected with their deep emotions and their spirits—therefore the issues become very important. Sometimes too important we could say, but nevertheless…
Here we try to say some of the principles and steps that have helped the three of us and our friends to make healthy changes at church. Obviously, some of these lessons have been learned the hard way, and some took more patience than we thought we had. But God is good, and helps us “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” as we seek to help the church make good progress; and He “works in us that which is pleasing in His sight” (Phil. 2:12, 13).
We all know changes must be made as part of good growth or just plain progress. It is true personally. It is true at church. But how to lead them is the issue.
Make some of these goals yours, please!
With high hopes and patience for each of us,
Knute, Jeff, Jim

Why do people hate changes and surprises? What is the art of change?

Jeff Bogue

  • Some people hate surprises because they are people of routine and structure, and when that routine or structure is thrown off it throws them off.
  • They may hate it because they feel safe and connected. The church may be their only place of social connection or acceptance. Bringing other people and different ideas into the church disrupts that and makes them feel unsafe.
  • The art of change is tied heavily to communication, so you must be patient and walk change through the right channels.
    • When introducing a change we always start with leadership. We flush the idea out with the elders and then do the same with the church staff.
    • After leadership we take that idea to a group we call the prior and privileged group. For some churches this may be members. For others, it’s a list of “influencers.” We’ll take the ideas and sit down with some of those people one-on-one and some of them in small groups. Basically, we’ll make sure our influencers are in the mix. They need to understand the change and support it in their conversations with others.
    • Next we go to groups of people (e.g., small groups, ABF’s, maybe a volunteer youth staff, etc.) and we walk them through that change or idea.
    • Finally I’ll announce the change from the front and put it out publicly, letting the congregation know. Then schedule town halls to give people time to ask questions and process through the change.
    • Communication is everything and the art of it is taking your time, allowing for input, not compromising but certainly accepting good ideas, and then giving time for people to adjust to them.
  • A lot of times when I make changes as a leader, I’ll think about the changes for months, or even years. I will converse a lot with other people about them before it ever goes public, so to me it winds up being something I’m very familiar with. I need to remember that this change is being introduced to the congregation for the first time. They have not had the same ramp-up time to get their heads around it.
  • Of course, the deliberateness of this process directly corresponds to the size of the change. Sometimes small changes can be made very well and easily. Big changes certainly need to be walked through. As a leader you need to decide what is a big deal to the congregation and respond accordingly.

Jim Brown

  • People love to be in control of their lives. Any time they feel like they have lost control it hits them hard!
  • Many people feel a measure of fear when change surfaces on their doorstep.
  • Most people love comfort and routine.
  • If the change doesn’t benefit them they can become resistant towards it instead of seeing how it will benefit others.
  • They hate it because it might push them to live differently.
  • Because it might require personal sacrifice.
  • Because a prior change didn’t go as planned and they have a pain file.
  • It might require a period of frustration and add extra time to their schedule.
  • Sometimes they hate it because they have not been shown the reason why it is a win for them and others, or the vision behind the change was poorly executed.
  • Communicate, communicate, and communicate!
  • It requires time and ownership from all the groups of people involved.
  • Make sure it doesn’t have a surprise element to it.
  • The larger the group of people it impacts, the greater the need for information and meetings to explain the why.
  • People must know the reason why the change is taking place and see how it will impact people.
  • When making a huge change we communicate through these channels: pastors, elders, members, volunteers, groups, then Sunday morning.
  • Make sure an ample time of fasting and prayer has taken place prior to the change.
  • The presentation must be compelling, heartfelt, life-changing, and God-breathed!
  • Make sure you believe in what you are selling, and you are willing to sacrifice too.
  • After the change has taken place give testimonies as to how it impacted lives. Let them see the connection between their sacrifice and the people benefitting from the change.

Knute Larson

  • They just do! 🙂
  • But it is not just at church. Most of us react with doubt or negativity when someone changes something around us. When I asked the great church coach Lyle Schaller about changes at church he told me, “Sit at a different chair at your kitchen table the next time your family eats together.”

I did and got questions and protests from both daughters. Change is hard.
And when it is linked to the most sensitive or emotional issues of life, tied to our spirits at church, it really causes reactions. Many people connect everything at church to the high spiritual truths which we would never try to change. So sometimes this affects slight changes in methods or procedures too.
We can argue with all that, but it will not alter the truth, or we can learn to make changes carefully.

  • The art of change is to follow this pattern:
    • Love the people first. Earn the right to lead and make changes by working hard and showing love to the people in your charge. Trust and connection must precede changes.
    • Pray for wisdom, patience, and unity.
    • Work out hopes and dreams and progress with the appropriate teams of leaders and influencers. The last thing any of us should do is surprise the co-owners of the vision of the church. Instead take time to get their input and help them to nuance the changes and make them their own also.
    • Let it leak in writings, sermons, and meetings. This is not devious. It is to help people consider and get used to something, as well as to get reactions and suggestions ahead of the “final product.” I remember saying when we were doing two morning services, “Someday when we go to three services…” just to alert people to what might (would) be coming.
    • Help various leadership teams—children’s and youth leaders, group leaders, and church influencers who are not holding positions right now—to be informed and have input. Compliment them by informing them and getting their opinions and concerns.
    • Preach and teach on the biblical issues behind the changes when those are involved. But don’t try to show that because Solomon, with David’s help, built a temple “so we should enlarge our worship center.” That is called manipulation not exposition.
    • On major issues that take membership votes and embrace, have workshops and fact-finding sessions until even you are tired of them! A constitutional revision workshop should have anywhere from three to a dozen forums where people can ask questions and give input (and get used to the changes while considering the important reasons to make them). At the last one you will be glad only a few came!

As soon as you think this is all too much work for a unified acceptance consider how much you need their support and financial gifts and enthusiastic support. Those are good motivations.

  • Pray some more. Pray in public meetings of worship and community.
  • After all this, when a membership vote is involved (as in a building program, property purchase, or constitutional change), 10-60% of the members voting will be sitting there shaking their heads (up and down as in yes, I know all about this and it is not a surprise). The board members or main ten leaders and architects of this change are standing up front with you to answer questions and show their support.

All of us must work to be masters of incremental change for the good of the church and the glory of our Lord.

Does the lead pastor need to lead the significant changes?

Jeff Bogue

  • Yes, certainly. The leader needs to be out in front of the changes. Sometimes you can rally a leadership team around you (like a group of deacons or elders); but, yes, you need to be the voice and the one who has his head around what’s going on, so you can answer the questions.

Jim Brown

  • Absolutely yes! His voice carries great power!
  • Make sure your leadership team is on board with you. It is imperative that they are with you too.
  • People must know that you believe in the change and are willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

Knute Larson

  • Yes

Have you ever made any mistakes in this area? What are some good helps to make strong changes to avoid common mistakes?

Jeff Bogue

  • I have certainly made mistakes in this area. A lot of my mistakes are tied to moving too fast and communicating too little. A saying we have on our staff is, “You cannot over communicate so communicate – communicate – communicate and when you think you’ve done a good job communicate some more!”
  • Depending on the change, you must feel the pace.
  • If I’m going to change the color of the mulch, that’s a change that will go very fast and does not require a lot of communication. 🙂
  • A couple of years ago we totally reworked our statement of faith and our constitution. Those two documents were very important to our church, especially the statement of faith.
    • The statement of faith was antiquated in its language and some items we wanted to emphasize differently.
    • The constitution was just purely outdated. It was set up for a church of a couple hundred people, and it didn’t work for us to govern that way anymore.
    • This change took almost two years to process through because we have multiple generations of people at the church—people who were at the church when things were very small and then newer people as well.
    • The end result of that change process was a unanimous yes (approval) across five different campuses of Grace Church.
  • So take time, communicate, hear input, and sense when to push past someone and when to draw them in close to you.

Jim Brown

  • Make sure you know how many people the change will impact. That will often determine the speed of change.
  • Under-communicating is often the pitfall of change attempts.
  • It is imperative that the structure of your church governing system fits the size of your church. Too much structure for approval can squash forward movement and even cause you to miss the move of God.
  • Make sure you have the right people on board to make the change.
  • There will always be some level of pain experienced. Be ready to take some personal hits and do not take it personally.
  • Any good leader must recognize that he is not in it to please man but to please God.
  • Don’t do it alone. You can go faster alone but you will go farther together!
  • Most of my mistakes stem from being too impatient and moving too quickly.
  • Return to your pain file often. Let it help guide you through this present change.
  • I never had anyone hate me until I became a pastor.
  • Always realize that no matter how good the change looks for you, it won’t look that good to everyone else. Patiently, humbly, and boldly lead through change.
  • Pray, pray, and pray some more that God will unify the church through the change.

Knute Larson

  • About the good helps first: see the steps in the last section. They really are important.
  • My mistakes have been when I tried to skip one or some of those steps.

One time I surprised our board with a change, proposing that we vote right then to change the statement in our constitution that said, “Our building shall be used for gospel purposes only.” That was written in 1934 by the founding pastor with pure intention, of course, but it meant that we would have to stretch to allow our facilities to be used for a high school graduation by a local school, a bloodmobile by the Red Cross, a send-off for the National Guard in a national emergency, or for an emergency classroom need by the university next door when one of their buildings was flooded by a water pipe disaster.
They turned it down that evening just because of the emotional “slippery slope” argument by one of the good leaders who was surprised by the change. My fault, totally. Even city councils do not vote on anything at “first reading”!
Later, after both logical and scriptural considerations, the change was adopted unanimously, and the building—called bricks and stones and iron and steel by God—was used for many community events.
Footnote: I and fellow leaders followed the steps noted in the second question answer to make these changes in two churches: two total constitution revisions and oversight boards, five different additions of worship services, eight major building programs, three additions of worship venues, three church plants out of the main congregation, and a few smaller issues—all with near unanimous approval because of God’s grace and the care taken.

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Jeff Bogue, of Grace Church, in several locations in the Bath-Norton-Medina areas of Ohio; Jim Brown, of Grace Community Church in Goshen, Indiana, a church known for its strong growth, family and men’s ministries, and community response teams; and Knute Larson, a coach of pastors, who previously led The Chapel in Akron for 26 years. Pastorpedia is brought to you by CE National. Visit for more issues and to read the bios of our contributors.