Leading a Church Through Transition, Change & Crisis
At some point, every church experiences transition, change, and/or crisis. It could be a relatively minor transition, like moving to a new worship space, or a more major change, like a doctrinal or denominational change. Churches can also find themselves needing to address crisis situations, like acts of abuse, sickness and death, or church splits.
Because times of transition, change, and crisis are fraught with difficulty, it’s vital for pastors and other church leaders to exercise a specific kind of steady, intentional leadership during these “liminal” times in a church’s life.
Leading a Church Through Transition
Types of Church Transitions
There are all kinds of normal transitions churches may need to go through:
- Church leadership transitions: Churches will need to navigate changes in leadership, such as hiring a new senior pastor, adding new pastoral staff, or pastors resigning or leaving for various reasons.
- Church membership transitions: Moving from “church plant” mode to “membership” mode can be a tricky transition in a church, as well as long-standing church members leaving because of a church split.
- Church building transitions: Churches will sometimes need to change aspects of where they meet, including building renovations, moving to a new worship space, and purchasing or selling a building.
- Service time transitions: Sometimes the transition has to do with worship services, such as adding a second Sunday service, adding an evening or weekday service, or combining two services into one.
How to Lead a Successful Church Transition
When leading a church through a transition, don’t go into it haphazardly. It’s important to anticipate what will be difficult about the transition, and prepare for those difficulties as best you can.
For example, the church I co-pastor recently moved to a new building for worship after being in the same location for four years. The move represented a longer drive for several of our families, so before making it official, we talked with each of the affected families to gauge whether this would be an issue for them. They all felt deeply cared for simply because we checked in with them before moving.
Of course, you can never anticipate every challenge you’ll face, but it’s important to anticipate as many challenges as you can foresee, so you can plan for ways to address those challenges.
Set a Goal for Success
Make sure you clearly name and communicate what a successful transition will look like, and how you’ll recognize that you’ve achieved it.
For example, when we moved to our new building, our goal was that every semi-regular attender of our church would know exactly which Sunday we were moving, what time we were meeting, where the new building was, and how to get to the worship space. We didn’t want anyone to show up at the old building on the Sunday we moved.
Another one of our goals is that everyone would have a chance to weigh in on how this transition was affecting them (e.g., longer drive), so everyone felt seen and heard.
Give It Time
It’s often hard to tell immediately if a transition has been a “success,” so it’s important to be patient and give a transition time to settle before deeming it a success or failure.
After we moved to our new worship space, it took us several weeks to figure out how to inhabit it in a way that felt natural to us, but after a few awkward weeks, it felt like our new home.
Finally, once the transition has been completed, make sure to create time to review what went well, what went wrong, and whether the transition was a success. It’s important to review both the process of the transition and the result of the transition.
Leading a Church Through Change
Types of Church Changes
In addition to the normal transitions mentioned above, sometimes churches find it necessary to embrace more substantial changes, such as:
- Change in doctrine: Churches will sometimes find it necessary to discuss changing official doctrine, such as the role and expectations of women in ministry or LGBTQIA+ inclusion.
- Change in denomination/affiliation: Churches changing their denomination or affiliation with various Christian organizations can be a significantly disruptive change that demands careful leadership.
- Change in programs: Adding, changing, or dropping church programs can also bring up a lot of anxiety among congregants. (Ask any pastor who has suggested dropping any long-standing program!)
- Change in finances: Financial changes (both loss and abundance) can significantly affect the life of a church and must be led with care.
How to Lead a Church Through Change
Communicate Early & Often
When leading a church through a change like the ones above, communication is key. Make sure you’re communicating early and often with other church staff, leaders, and congregants. If you find yourself tired of saying the same things over and over, you’re probably getting close to communicating well.
It’s also important that your communication is clear and honest. Don’t hide behind jargon or vague statements. Communicate in a detailed way about what you know and what the process will be. Always be forthright and honest about things you don’t know yet.
Provide Structure for Feedback
It’s also vital for everyone in the church to know exactly how they can offer their feedback about the change, and how that feedback will be received and integrated into the decision-making process about the change.
Some people will be able to share immediate feedback in the context of a conversation or meeting, but others will need time to collect their thoughts. Some people prefer written communication over verbal communication, and vice versa. It’s important to provide a structure for everyone to offer their perspective so everyone feels heard and understood.
Prioritize Clarity Over Consensus
When leading change, it can be tempting to try and get everyone “on board” before taking a step. This impulse is rooted in compassion, but it gives an inordinate amount of power to the person most resistant to the change.
Of course, you don’t want to callously make decisions and tell people to fall in line or get left behind, but you also can’t please everyone. The tension to manage when leading change is to stay connected to the most resistant people while continuing to move forward.
Instead of seeking unanimity, prioritize clarity about what it is you hope to achieve through the change, and make space for everyone who is willing to keep moving in a posture of discernment.
Help for Churches Going Through Change
If your church is going through a transition or change like the ones mentioned above, we invite you to check out Gravity Congregational Transformation (GCT).
GCT is how we help leaders move through all kinds of change and transition by providing custom research that reveals hidden contextual challenges, as well as opportunities for mission and spiritual formation.
The aim is not merely to fix perceived problems, but to help your church move toward transformative practices that cooperate with how God is at work in your church. Check out Gravity Congregational Transformation today, and reach out to see if it’s a good fit for your church.
Leading a Church Through Crisis
Types of Crisis in the Church
In addition to minor transitions and major changes, there are also times when churches go through full-blown crises, such as:
- Criminal or abusive acts: Acts of abuse by church leaders, staff, or congregants can be devastating for a church’s life and must be handled with the utmost care.
- Violence or tragedy: A major injury or death of a church member or a tragic event, like a church shooting, can trigger a crisis in a church.
- Congregational rift or split: The fracturing of a church into different (often competing) groups is a deep crisis that has a lot in common with a divorce.
How to Lead a Church Through Crisis
Ensure the Safety and Dignity of Victims
The first and most important part of leading a church through a crisis is to make sure any victims are safe, and that their wishes for how to proceed are heard and prioritized.
There have been far too many examples lately of churches failing in this most basic step when confronted with abuse allegations. Over and over, it seems, church leaders prioritize the institution over the victims, which compounds the harm done to victims and makes real healing and transformation that much more difficult.
Jesus came to lift up the “least of these,” and as his followers, we must also prioritize the care and dignity of victims first of all.
Some tragedies are no one’s fault, but often, church leadership has at least some responsibility for failing to provide a safe space for everyone. When this is the case, it’s vital for leaders to acknowledge their failure, seek to deeply understand how it impacted victims, and make restitution when possible.
When leaders respond with repentance instead of defensiveness, it helps the whole church move toward the possibility of healing and transformation.
Take Time to Lament
Crisis often feels unbearable, and it can be tempting for church leaders to try and “move on” as quickly as possible, so as not to dwell on the unpleasant memories of the past. In doing so, we act like the unfaithful leaders that the prophet Jeremiah spoke against, who “treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing: ‘All is well, all is well,’ they insist, when in fact nothing is well” (Jer 6:13).
In times of crisis, leaders need to make time and space for the church to lament and grieve what has been lost, as uncomfortable as it may be for some. Most of us aren’t accustomed to lament, but it is a vital practice if we are going to move through crisis and find healing on the other side.
Listen and Pray
Taking extra time for prayer is important in the midst of crisis, both for spiritual nourishment and guidance.
It’s also helpful to create extra space for listening to staff, leaders, and congregants who may be able to help, and whose perspective may be invaluable.
As much as possible, leaders should take whatever actions necessary to ensure the crisis won’t be repeated.
For example, implementing a more comprehensive child safety policy, while not being able to guarantee that children won’t be abused, can help to drastically lower the likelihood of it. It’s important for leaders to take responsibility for creating a safer environment as the church moves forward from crisis.
Leadership Coaching for Pastors & Church Leaders
Leading a church through transition, change, or crisis demands a non-anxious, humble-yet-confident, spiritually mature leadership posture that can’t be learned overnight.
That’s why Gravity Leadership Academy takes 12 months. GLA is our coaching and training intensive for Christian leaders who want to learn how to live and lead with an awareness of how God is present and at work in and through their lives at all times.
If you want to grow in your capacity to perceive how God is at work in your life, and help others do the same, check out Gravity Leadership Academy and contact us to start a conversation about whether it’s right for you.
Join the Gravity Community
A space for people who want to find their way into a more generous, joyful, decolonized Christian faith together.