Thinking About Transitioning A Church? Don’t Do It! UNLESS…

0626e12db9ad5b4e82f028d82e16bdefThinking About Transitioning A Church? Don’t Do It!

This post is one I adapted/structured from a blog post that originally appeared on the Missio Alliance website in July 2015


1.  You have an imagination for a new logic for leading toward transformation.

A Failing Strategy – Top down, Compliance change – Eager to jumpstart transition, many pastors employ de-personalized, top-down, programmatic logic. We make pronouncements about where the church is headed, meet with a few focus groups, create new branding, and preach a brilliant sermon series.

  • This strategy assumes a quick transition.
  • This strategy assumes the most fundamental work is in the realm ideas (i.e. transferring ideas to those who don’t yet know).
  • This strategy assumes leaders must remain in control for fruit to be born.
  • This strategy assumes success can be measured quantitatively (e.g. how many buy-ins, new groups, new members, etc.).

New Transitional strategy:

  1. First and always be personal or person-centered – always seek to cultivate deep faithfulness to Jesus from the inside-out and bottom-up through life-on-life connection.
  2. Surrender the desire to control the process and control outcomes.
  3. Learn to measure qualitatively and invest in growth through multiplication.
  4. Become an expert in change dynamics and the realities of organic systems.

2.  You expect to be understood, to be liked, and to keep everyone feeling good.


  • The process of transformation is slow.
  • The existing culture is based on an implicit contract with members that assumes and functions under a particular set of values and goals (which are unspoken, unnamed, and often connected to people’s emotions).
  • Leading a congregation through transition gets “internalized” by the people as a breach of that contract.
  • There will be people who misunderstand you and take changes personally.
  • You will face the temptation to give in to the loudest voices and capitulate to complaints – or – to push forward, using power and control, by eliminating and marginalizing dissenting voices.

New Transitional strategy:

  1. Calibrate empathetic understanding.
  2. Learn not to take their feelings of hurt personally.
  3. Learn to “sit” in the midst of confusion, frustration, and disappointment.
  4. A posture of presence (through listening, praying, crying) is crucial to leading people through the process of change.
  5. Lead not to “get people on board” or “to get them out of the way,” but because Jesus wept even as he was about to bring resurrection.

3.  You can fail without identifying yourself as a failure. 


  • Evaluate if you love the vision/idea of culture change more than people
  • Ask – “how do I feel about failing?” Every leader wants to succeed, to win, to achieve, but do you HAVE to? Is who you are and how you see yourself dependent on it?
  • When leading through change, transformation of people and culture is messier and slower than we envisioned.
  • For those who are particularly ambitious, this reality will be frustrating and exhausting.
  • Instead of loving people in discipleship and mission, an aversion to failure often causes leaders to use people to fulfill the vision.

New Transitional strategy: 

  1. Learn to embrace failure as good news.
  2. Be open to the possibility that the best thing for the community and for us is failing in the way we wanted most to succeed. Failure is often a catalyst for softness of heart, which is a necessary condition for spiritual transformation. Failure is the gateway to learning, repentance, humility, tenderness and sensitivity.
  3. We cultivate the character to be with people in their transformation when we have befriended our own failure. When we don’t need to succeed, we are freed to be present to people wherever they are. 

4.  You can handle the persisting tension of having to deal with the old culture/DNA.


  • In the beginning, the gap between the existing culture and the new will be perceived as an adventure. 
  • Most often leaders are eager to begin the work and are exhilarated by challenges.
  • But tension between the old and new inevitably persists.
  • Initial gains could turn out to be false positives.
  • Some won’t want a new culture or will find the change too costly.
  • New vision often gets hijacked under old programs and old DNA/paradigms.
  • When tension persists, leaders often become discouraged and even bitter often loathing their role and/or fantasizing about “greener pastures” where they can start from scratch or commiserate with people who “get it.”
  • Having compassion for those struggling in the old culture becomes increasingly difficult; it becomes easier to see others as enemies and problems.

New Transitional strategy: 

  1. Learn patient perseverance with yourself and with others
  2. This transition will be something that only can occur over the long haul.
  3. This is not something we try harder to do – this is not a mind trick.
  4. Patient perseverance means choosing to trust that God is forming Jesus’ image in us and in the community in and through the frustrations, disappointments, and struggles.
  5. This is a sacred work but remember and realize (accept) that you may never see it birthed.
  6. Be attentive to the grace God is making available.
  7. Don't ignore the struggle.
  8. Learn to feast on God’s presence – to listen for his voice – amidst the struggle rather than nurturing discontent.

Bottom line – Transitioning a church culture is probably a terrible idea. The whole process will be completely different than you imagined.   But God cares about people in the community more than you do, and he wants to take you, as a leader, on a journey deeper into his life.  If you’re open to that – then DO IT!    

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