background img

A Dying Church, A New Roadmap, and the Stages of Change

6 years ago written by

A church down the street from ours was facing some major challenges recently. The congregation and pastor were aging. Attendance was dwindling. The pastor finally retired. The church board hired a new pastor, but as soon as the new pastor began to implement change, the congregation and church board resisted. So they hired another pastor. Same story. One by one, each new pastor left. With no consistent pastor and ongoing strife, the congregation got smaller and smaller.

Finances became so tight that the church board was forced to decide whether to pay a pastor or pay utilities. They chose to forgo the pastor to pay utilities. With no pastor, the church attendance dwindled even more. The board began to realize that they could sell the property, purchase a new, smaller building and still have enough money in the bank to pay a pastor for the rest of their lifetimes. But instead they decided to hold on to the comfort of the building they had been meeting in for over 60 years.

Eventually that church closed its doors. They sold the property. The church died.

A friend, who was involved in the whole closing process, told me, “We were determined to hold on to what used to be, thinking if we just kept doing the same thing we’d eventually see a comeback.”

But they didn’t. Unfortunately, they made a mistake that many leaders and churches make. They held on to a framework that they knew and was comfortable, but no longer worked.

The world is changing faster than ever. It’s only normal to be uncomfortable with this change. The fact is, most of us refuse to acknowledge these changes because it requires facing come cold realities. Society has changed. Technology has changed. People change.

God never changes (Malachi 3:6), but He regularly works in ways that are new and unfamiliar to us. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). Too often we confuse God’s truths (which never change) with His ways (which are always on the cutting edge of creativity). God is the most creative being in the universe, and He knows exactly what needs to happen to see His will accomplished on earth. But the problem for His creation is, we want control. So we establish systems and security that give us a consistent framework we can trust. But God never asked us to trust a framework. He asked us to trust Him.

A New Roadmap

Uri Levine and his friends had a dream. They wanted a better kind of traffic application for your smartphone. They wanted an app that kept you up to date with changes in road conditions — traffic accidents, construction, slow-downs — as they were happening. He wanted to help people save time and resources while driving. Levine and his team ended up creating an application that gives accurate traffic information based on user feedback. He called it Waze. The app is constantly sending feedback to the central server showing slowdowns and what routes are clear. The app can save you major amounts of time in getting to where you want to go, even if it means taking some roads you never would have thought to take.

The interesting thing about Levine’s story is how he got started. When he and his partners set out to build their app, they didn’t have access to any maps or satellite information. They had very limited resources. So they simply asked friends to install the app and drive around Tel Aviv, Israel, where their headquarters were located. The app sent back each user’s driving information and tracked it. Slowly but surely, Levine and his partners began to see patterns — one-way streets, major thoroughfares — as the data came back from users driving around. They began to build their maps based on this data.

Levine said that whenever he was off work, he would just drive around, exploring and looking for new roads. If he found a road that wasn’t on his map, he’d drive down it so the data could be sent back to the server to mark a new road. Slowly but surely he built his entire map system from user feedback. Then he sold his company to Google for $1.1 billion.

Nice, eh?

Change requires a new roadmap. What got you here won’t get you where you really want to go. I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus was talking about when He said, “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins” (Mark 2:22).

When it comes time to build new roadmaps and embracing changes in our lives and churches, I think we can learn a lot from Levine and crew.

First, we must be willing to ask for outside help. We are too close to our own personal biases and prejudices. We need someone to point out our blind spots. We need people who are always asking why we do what we do. Find people who are willing to push you and ask questions you may be ignoring. Get an outside perspective on your own personal strengths and weaknesses. We often think we are gifted in an area that we aren’t. We would do a great service to those we lead by relinquishing control in that area. We also need someone who can identify our strengths. You may not even know your own strengths because you are so close to them. You think everyone has what you have, but they don’t. When someone can help you identify your strengths, you’ll be able to figure out where you bring the most value — particularly as you implement change.

Second, we have to be willing to explore. Make everything an experiment. And let those you lead know you are experimenting. Bring them along on the adventure. Let them know that you are taking the journey together. “This may work, it may not. But either way, we’ll learn together.” This will give them a sense of belonging in the change, taking some of the uncertainty away as they feel like they are part of the action. Don’t be afraid to question everything. Try new ways. Try new roads. Do this in your personal life, and let it flow into your leadership life.

The exploration process is extremely important because, as the leader, you need to have a vision for where you want to go. You need lots of perspective and exposure to new ways. You may not have all the details, but you must have some sort of picture of a general direction. Find something close to what you are seeking and do what you can to emulate it. Most importantly you must be crystal clear about the purpose for the change. If you don’t understand the purpose clearly, it will be far too easy to go back to what’s familiar.

In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg points out our brains process so much information that they are always looking for ways to save energy. One of the ways the brain does that is to establish habits. Duhigg says, “About 40 percent to 45 percent of what we do every day sort of feels like a decision, but it’s actually habit.” Habits help us develop a sense of predictability in our lives. When life gets overwhelming or stressful, we will revert to ingrained patterns. Change will be stressful. You’ll have to overcome your tendency to go back to old habits by having a clear understanding of why change is needed. Old habits become a major problem when the habit leads us down a path that limits us.

This is part of the reason the Pharisees had such a hard time accepting that Jesus could be God in the flesh. God had never worked this way before. Even though He had hinted at this possibility throughout the Old Testament, the Jewish leaders just couldn’t fathom that God would change the way He works. God knew the blood of lambs wasn’t going to be a lasting solution. So He sent his Son. His Son’s purpose was clear: Solve the sin problem once and for all. But the Pharisees were too locked into their traditions and habits. Tragically, they missed a defining moment in history because they couldn’t see past old roadmaps.

The Stages of Change

Psychologist James Prochaska has studied human change for years and has concluded that change happens in stages:

  1. Pre-contemplation: In this stage no one sees a need for change. They are unaware that any problem exists. If they do see problems they ignore them.
  2. Contemplation: This is when people start to realize there might be a problem. Attendance is dwindling, there is an unusual amount of strife in the organization, etc. People begin to wonder if there might be a problem that needs to be addressed.
  3. Preparation: This is the moment when people decide action needs to be taken to bring change, even if they aren’t sure exactly what action it needs to be. They may start an exploratory committee or hire a consultant or personal development coach (like me).
  4. Action: This is the painful part. In a church context, this is the moment when the pews get replaced or the organ gets moved or drums get introduced. It’s when people realize, “Oh no. This is really happening!” The change is implemented, and we start to feel the effects.
  5. Maintenance: This is when those who have implemented change do whatever is necessary to maintain the change – even if it means losing some things they hold dear.

It’s important for leaders to be aware of these stages and be able to identify where they are in this process. Are you ignoring the facts, thinking there is no problem? Have you identified the problem, but aren’t sure what to do next? Are you in preparation phase, scared out of your mind about what the implications of making a change could be? Are you in the throes of action, fielding the complaint calls and angry letters?

Each stage brings a unique challenge. A good leader knows that change is hard. As the leader you will always be out front. You will be the one who is a stage of change, or even two, ahead of those you lead. It’s important to be gracious and patient. Few people like change. Even those who claim to like change only really like change on their own terms. Change upsets our security. Your job will be to bring them along the journey of each.

In moving those we lead from pre-contemplation to contemplation, we’ll need to convince them there is an actual problem. We need to help them feel the pain and how the problem directly affects them.

From contemplation to preparation, we help those we lead to engage in embracing the fact that they are required to be part of the solution. As the leader, we must encourage them to be part of the solution. Give them time and space to consider the role they need to play in bringing the change. This is key, because if they don’t feel that they have a role in the change, they will feel like they are being pushed and resist.

From preparation to action the leader casts a vision for what could be different if change was implemented. Ideally, the people you lead will have seen the need and understand that they are part of the solution. Now the leader’s job is to present a compelling vision of what change could look like. It will be unique for each organization and church.

From action to maintenance, our job is to repeat the vision – ad nauseam. Vision doesn’t stick. It must be presented over and over and over. The vision is always on your mind (or it should be), but it isn’t necessarily on the minds of those you lead. The action phase will be uncomfortable. Leaders must constantly remind themselves and their followers why the change is needed and worth it.

God loves to work in new ways. Seeking familiarity and security is a natural human response. We all want it. We want a sense of predictability in our lives. Our job as leaders is not only to lead the change, but to give a vision to those we lead of why it’s needed. We need to present new roadmaps that stretch ourselves and those we lead. When we are open to new things, we are open to God’s new ways.

Lead boldly. But do it with wisdom. Above all else, we are called to love those we lead through change.

Joël Malm is an entrepreneur, communicator, and personal development coach. He has started everything from a business to a not-for-profit, and he even started a church. As founder of Summit Leaders, he uses outdoor adventure and personal coaching to help people find their calling and pursue a vision for their lives. His book, “Vision Map,” is published by Moody Press. Read more at

Article Categories:
[Discipleship] · L + L June 2017 · Web Exclusive

Comments to A Dying Church, A New Roadmap, and the Stages of Change