Can You Spare a Little Change?

They did it again. I went into my neighborhood grocery store to buy shampoo and my brand wasn’t there. In fact, none of the shampoos were there. They moved the entire shampoo section to a completely different place in the store. I don’t get it. Is it someone’s job to move items, whether they need to be moved or not? There must be such a position, and if products don’t constantly move around, that job would be eliminated.

Grocery stores aren’t the only places where things constantly get changed, while consumers wonder why. For instance, every time my phone has a new update, I find major changes in the primary functions I use: maps, Siri, emails, etc. I’m not sure I’ve ever said, “Oh, I’m so glad they changed the way that works.”

And then there’s church. Probably the most common conversation I hear from pastors concerns change—or the inability to produce change. There are books and seminars galore to learn steps to change an organization (note: I did not write to “successfully” change an organization). Could I offer a different word? A word of caution? A word about how change upsets the typical system? Let me begin with a quick observation.

During this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses, much has been written about the story’s authenticity. Sure, maybe he didn’t pound a nail, in anger, into the door of the Castle Church. Some, however, ask if he even posted them at all? No written record from the immediate time frame says Luther nailed the document, but tradition has said nothing but that he nailed the theses to the church door—until recently. Even though the common method—the accepted tradition—for announcing academic discussions was to post items on the bulletin board door of the church, some argue that a less-likely scenario, an abnormal routine, is more likely to have happened. Maybe no one knows for certain, but what compels us to reject the traditional story? I have a wicked theory, and it is not about the desire to seek the truth. Instead, what if the inner desire is to change history because telling the same old story doesn’t sell new books!

What is the inner desire of a pastor who wants to change things in a church? I’ve noticed many pastors are bent to an opioid-type addiction to change. For them, even a slight tip of the hat to tradition, or to predecessors, is frowned upon. Meanwhile, some run slavishly to the newest Avant Garde fad. This includes the way they treat theology, polity, and programs. My personal observation is that many pastors are motivated by the need to “make their mark on the church,” that is, to leave something behind that will prove they were there in an important capacity. Perhaps a new building, or a major renovation, will satisfy the pastor’s ego. Maybe a new program will do the trick.

One pastor arrived at a healthy church that had just finished a major building project during the last pastor’s tenure. The new pastor immediately started pushing for the next building project. The church was fatigued by multiple moves into temporary spaces, and fundraising, and the accompanying stress. Nevertheless, the new pastor bad-mouthed the sacrificial accomplishment and pressed for something new and different. This pastor unwittingly pushed the church into conflict, and the pastor’s tenure was abruptly over. Another church spent considerable time and energy to find a united plan of action to reach their community in the days ahead. The pastor moved to another church when he saw the members creating a dream that was beyond his personal giftedness. The new pastor shelved the whole new ministry plan the first week of his revival, even though it was a plan dreamed and created by the church body. His superior plan was the one he had used at every one of his prior churches. It went nowhere (same place it went in all his previous churches).

Pastors are particularly tempted by the idol of change when:

  • They are fresh out of seminary, full of energy and ideas, and passionate to change the World
  • Every time they go to a new church
  • Whenever they feel intimidated by the shadow of a former pastor
  • When moving towards retirement and threatened by the idea that a new pastor will change, or improve upon, what the retiring pastor has accomplished

I am certainly not saying that churches shouldn’t build, remodel, reorganize, move, contemporize, etc. I’m simply suggesting that church leaders, primarily the pastor, need to ask why they want to change a church. The first question might be to check and see if it’s all about the pastor’s ego, the need to change for nothing more than the sake of change itself, and the anticipated glory it will create for the pastor.

“Behold, I’m [God] doing a new thing.” [Isaiah 43:19a]

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