Reading: Start in the Shallow End: How to Make Changes Without Sinking Your Church
Change is hard.
Don’t make it harder than it has to be.
If I could only give one piece of advice to pastors who are struggling to turn a dying, unhealthy, static church into a fresh, healthy, innovative one, this would be it:
Do the easy parts first.
It’s a basic principle of life that we sometimes forget in the church. You don’t start elementary swim classes in the deep end of the pool. There’s too much unnecessary risk. Pools have shallow ends for a reason.
Your church has a shallow end, too.
No, I don’t know what it is, because I don’t know your church. But you know. Or you should.
If you don’t know, find out. The future of your church and your time as its pastor may depend on it.
Here are four of the steps that helped me find and make changes in the shallow end of the church I pastor:
1. Define the Shallow End
The shallow end is the place where things are easiest. Where everyone, including the pastor, feels like they have a solid footing beneath them. Where young and old, believers and seekers, innovators and traditionalists stand on common ground and can still keep their head above water.
When a church is in crisis, it may be hard to believe such a place exists. But it does.
Start looking for it by asking this question. What do all these people, despite their differences, find in common that makes them want to call this church, their home church?
That’s the shallow end. It’s the part of the church where everyone finds common ground. The reason you’re all there to begin with.
2. Embrace the Common Ground
Once you’ve identified your shallow end, divide what everyone holds in common into two categories: the stuff everyone loves and the stuff everyone hates.
Then strengthen the parts everyone loves and change the parts everyone hates.
The biggest mistakes most pastors make when starting the turnaround process is to begin by changing the things they hate, even if everyone else loves them and wants to keep them.
Wise pastors know how to delay their own gratification for the common good.
When you’re starting a change process, you may need to lay your own desires and opinions aside for a while. You may be right about the kind of change that’s needed, but if you start the change process by getting your way at the expense of everyone else, you will divide the church into “us” and “them” camps. Often with the pastor sitting alone on the “us” side.
Instead, start the process by doing things that reinforce the idea that “us” means “all of us”.
3. Touch Bottom
Start by reminding everyone what they’re all here for. You know, the Jesus parts. The common heritage. The scriptures. The relationships – with God and each other.
Remind church members that these core issues are what really matter. Assure them that any potential future changes will only be made if they strengthen those essentials, not erode them. Let them know they’ll always be able to touch the bottom, no matter how many waves are in the pool.
4. Make Waves Together
When a group of kids are timidly learning to swim, there’s always one older kid who thinks he knows what real fun is like. So he decides to do a cannonball in the middle of a crowded pool. Don’t be that kid.
A pastor should never make the congregation feel like they’re being splashed in the face by a bully. That’s what happens when you impose your change on them before they’re ready to get their faces wet.
You may be having the time of your life, innovating to your heart’s content. But if the people getting splashed aren’t ready for it, hissy fits will be thrown, parents will be called and the bully will be thrown out of the pool, pleading “what did I do?”
Instead, after defining what everyone hates, start creating minor waves by making changes together.
Peal off the torn wallpaper and paint the wall. Clean the musty bathrooms. Replace the buzzing, flashing, yellowing fluorescent light tubes.
Once the lights have been turned on, literally and figuratively, you might start hearing things like, “hey, that carpet looks really dingy next to the freshly-painted wall, doesn't it? We’ll need to pull out the pews to re-lay the new carpet. This might be a good time to replace the pews with portable seating. We wouldn’t want to drive bolts through the nice, new carpet, right?”
It’s a Start
No, it’s not that simple. Church changes never are. But it’s a start.
Enforcing what everyone loves and replacing what everyone hates isn’t easy. But it’s the least difficult way to start the process.
And if anything goes wrong, you can still touch bottom.
An article by Karl Vaters