The Elements of Change

by Scott Lumsden

There are essentially three movements in making meaningful, intentional change in a congregation: the insight movement, the action movement, and the progress movement. In the insight movement, trust is established which brings forth new ideas, new identity, and new purposes, around which new actions are taken to embody a new goal. In the action movement, the emerging new identity and purpose is put into meaningful, actionable steps that the leadership takes in order to achieve change. In the progress movement, leadership is supported and equipped to pursue new goals, communicating and learning the results of their action steps, so that the congregation can experience transformation. Another way to say this is that in order for a congregation to change it must do seven things: establish trust; understand itself anew; embody its new identity in concrete ways; act in ways that support that new identity; support the leadership as it leads in new directions; communicate, learn, and talk about who they are becoming; and participate and grow into their new identity and purpose. The seven elements of change are described below in the three movements: Insight, Action, and Progress. 




Trust is a foundational element of change. Trust must be high for there to be any movement toward a new identity or purpose to emerge. Assessing and building trust are important tasks the leader can do to encourage honest reflection and new insights into the congregation, its identity, and its future. 


New insights are essential to establish new identity and purpose. An new insight can come in a variety of ways: through intentional discussion, unprompted conversation, casual comment, or even critique. The leadership however must be open to discern them and act on them in order for there to be any hope for change. 


Defining (or redefining) purpose is the work of taking new insights and molding them into achievable actions. Renewal of a congregation's identity is at the heart of living out new purpose. Setting a new direction must have actionable steps that move the congregation toward new goals.  





Action is the lynchpin of the change process. It's the catalyzing event. It's such an important element of the change process, it is its own movement. Without action, it's all just talk, meaningful talk to be sure, but talk. Most congregations and leadership groups are pretty good at talk, some are even good at meaningful talk, but talk doesn't get anywhere without action and this is where most change efforts fall short. Acting on an emerging identity or a new direction takes real effort from the leadership and buy in from those whom they lead.




Leadership is another foundational element of change. Leaders must be empowered to make the necessary decisions to move in a new direction. New identity and purpose will not emerge without leaders who are committed to pursuing a new vision.    


Communication is the free flow of information for the building up of the body. It comes both from the leaders and to the leaders, and is best focused on the ways the changes are affecting the overall life of the congregation and the pursuit of its goals. 


Making small incremental progress in the direction of a congregation's emerging identity and purpose is true progress. Progress does not have to be large or dramatic, but some movement toward the "new" is an essential element for continued growth and renewal.  



A foundational element

Trust is the necessary confidence people have in their leaders and each other that allows them to live, move, and be in such a way that they are willing to put the purpose of the group above of their own. Leaders who demonstrate and instill trust build the capacity that is needed to take risks and endure failures that come with change. As trust grows, so do the opportunities for creative thinking to emerge that will allow the congregation to better understand who it is, what it does, and could do, and what might be need to do in order to change something about itself or its ministry. 

In Practice

Every congregation has enough trust present for it to keep doing what it's doing. However if one hopes to address anything meaningful about the life of a congregation or even try something new; the trust level will have to increase. It's not enough for the pastor to be trusted, trust needs to be present at all levels -- among the leadership, staff, stakeholders, and even the community -- for real change to take place. Most pastors underestimate the importance of building trust and instead settle on their role, rather than their reputation, as the basis for change. This doesn't work because in the change process everyone has to sacrifice something for the good of the whole, and some more than others. To rely on role alone, is to neglect the investment the pastor must make in order to build trust in their ability to lead change.  


Trust is earned. Pastors who want to lead change should always be attentive to the trust level in the congregation and actively assess whether there is enough trust present to do something new. In order to lead change, the pastor will need to demonstrate that they are worthy of the congregation's trust. 

Reflection Questions

  • What is the current level of trust in your congregation?
  • What are the reasons for your assessment?
  • Who/what does the congregation trust the most/least? 
  • What is the history of trust in your congregation?
  • What are some things that have eroded trust?
  • What are some things you can do to increase trust?


Trust & Culture by Jacqueline Oliveira 

Brené Brown on Trust & Leadership



The first Movement toward Change

Insight is any new idea that adds understanding, perspective, depth, dimension, or deeper awareness to an issue or challenge in the life of a congregation. Gaining insight is an experience whereby our field of vision is expanded and opened up to learn something new. It's a journey toward becoming more aware, gaining deeper understanding, making new connections, and seeing things more clearly. It's not about solving problems or fixing things, it's about being open to discover something new about the identity and purpose of the congregation together. 

Most pastors and congregations approach change as a problem to be solved rather than as a call to an adventure. Whether it's declining attendance, budget problems, low participation, or low energy, we all face these problems pretty much the same way: we try to fix them. We may not say it like that, but in the end we call ourselves together, lay out the problem, examine the reasons, brainstorm possible solutions, then find a way forward. This may temporarily relieve the symptoms, but within a year, we call ourselves together, only to do this exercise all over again. The names and faces may change but that's about it. I call this a "symptom loop." Treating the symptoms, rather than the dis-ease. But what if there was another way.

What if we thought more deeply and holistically about our challenges? What if, instead of trying to fix our problems, we explored them and their relationship to other issues. What if we went deep with our problems and listened to them, tried to see it from all sides. What if we looked for more patterns and more problems. More importantly, what if we asked more questions instead of laying out more answers. And what if we let the insights we gained surprise us, inform us, even question us. (What if we even laughed at ourselves a little?)

The challenges we face today in our congregations has more to do with our being than our doing. It has more to do with our approach to these challenges than the challenges themselves. We know how to do, even fix, but do we know how to be? What would happen if when we encounter challenges in the church, instead of rushing to judgment, we paused for just a little longer? What if we asked questions, and pondered instead of plowed forward? 

If we hope to see change in the life of the congregation, we ourselves need to be open to learning new things about who this congregation is that we serve. We need to give up on our preconceived notions and be open to surprises. Whether we've been there 10 days for 10 years, we have to be willing to go on a new adventure of discovery in order to see a new future. Insights help get us there. But it means leading from the balcony, not from the balance sheet.

Insight & Understanding

In some cases, insights into the life of the congregation come in the form of deeper understanding of a congregation's history. Especially during interim times, an interim pastor may guide the congregation through an exploration of its history. When it is done well efforts like this can yield insights into longstanding patterns of dis-ease that need to be addressed. Though it may not feel good to talk about, these new insights nonetheless bring about opportunities for change that may lead to healthier congregational life. 

The key in both of these efforts, whether as the pastor or as the interim, is to eschew to role of expert and adopt the role of researcher. In the insight and understanding mode, questions, ponderings, and puzzlement are your ally. Ask the who, what, where, when, and how (leave the why question for people to work through on their own if they want to) so the complexities can emerge. 

Welcome unexpected, off topic conversations. Be willing to be surprised about what people want to talk about. Be inquisitive when listening to and reading about the past, or reviewing minutes, or budgets. To do insights well, the pastor must want to lead an adventure of discovery more than apply the ready made solutions to known problems. For many pastors, the adventure mode is in constant tension with the manager mode that many people expect pastors to provide in times of uncertainty and change. (Resist!)

In Practice

Adopting the role of researcher, learner, or curious pastor may sound kind of new and interesting to try, but it's more challenging than it sounds. In practice, pastors may at first ask a few questions, but sooner or later, the questions become leading questions (searching for agreement rather than seeking the truth) and are less concerned with new insights and more concerned with finding a way to relieve the symptoms.

The question of vision also arises. Isn't the pastor supposed to provide the vision for the congregation? Isn't this a mission/vision problem? Isn't it the pastors job to "teach" us a new mission/vision? Isn't it their role to lead us in the pursuit of it? Shouldn't we just go on a retreat and all get on the same page? 

The flip side of this question relates to elders. Isn't it the role of the elders (session) to articulate the vision? Aren't they responsible for the vision casting and its pursuit? Isn't the role of the pastor to equip them and cheer them on? 

The truth is that leadership in a congregation is a partnership -- each having their own role and responsibilities. The vision to carry out this mission comes from God and is discerned by the congregation in the context of its community. Insights into this mission can come from anywhere and anyone. Neither the pastor nor the elders should shy away from sharing their own insights on the overall mission of the congregation. The pastor however, by role, does have a great influence in establishing the tone, perspective, and process of rediscovering the way a congregation will live this mission out now and in the future. Leading with questions and curiosity is a better approach than providing well rehearsed (seminary inspired) answers. 


In times of transition, leading with questions and curiosity is a far better approach than providing solutions to solve problems. Being willing to take the congregation on an adventure of self-discovery may be only way new information and insights can be gained that have the potential to inspire new hope. 

Reflection Questions

  • What questions do you have about your current congregation?
  • What unresolved issues seem to keep coming to the surface?
  • What are some resolved issues that are not talked about? 
  • How might you begin to ask more questions? 
  • How willing are you to be surprised with new information?




The element of meaning Making

Every successful change effort wrestles with the deep question of purpose: who are we, what is our purpose, if we did not exist, what would be this community be missing? Retreats are meant to get at deeper levels of purpose but often fall short and settle for tweaks or restatements of mission in order to fix the real problem. But what if the real problem was the lack of clarity around the very being of who the congregation is -- today, now, in these times? What if the "who are we" question really was the deep question that begs to be asked. 

The questions of purpose -- who we are and what we're called to do -- are the natural outgrowth of a leadership team who trusts each other enough to go deeper into the challenges that face them. 

Purpose is the inspired motivation, plans, and potential actions that are born of a renewed hope for self-understanding and service. In the change process, the pursuit of deeper clarity and understanding is so that our insights about who we are can turn into actions about who we can become.

New insights invite new actions and behaviors in the life of a congregation as they necessarily reveal clues into the character of a changing church. Making connections that lead to potential actions is the pursuit of purpose.

Pastor and leader together are encouraged to ponder the deeper meanings in the pursuit of purpose. The key here is to focus on the identity and being questions first before potential actions are considered.

Questions and statements like: Is this really who we are and what we stand for? Do we really want to keep doing that? It doesn't seem to agree with who we are anymore? I never thought that if we changed this, we could do that. What would it mean if we did this? I agree that's not working anymore but what else can we do? I never saw the connection between ... and ... but now I better understand how this could happen. Why don't we try...? Maybe we could experiment a little? Let's try to test run. These ideas all get at living with new or renewed purpose. 

Turning Why into How

Talking about purpose can tend to focus on the past. Questions of why something happened, or why we didn't do something sooner, or why we always do it this way, are well meaning questions but tend to present us with unsolvable problems. 

When we're pursuing purpose, the why we're concerned with is the why of meaning (not the why of past). It's the why don't we ..., rather than why did we, that we want to pursue. We're interested in what something says about us, our beliefs, our identity, our being as a congregation today and what it might open up for us tomorrow. 

This is where it helps to turn the why question into a how question: How might we change this to accomplish that? How might we approach this differently? What are our options? What does this say about who we are? How can we change it?

Asking how questions -- about how we might now change or act differently -- redirects the energy from the unsolvable questions of the past and get us to focused again on the issues of the present and the possibilities of the future. How we might do something (with the necessary related questions of who will do this?, what will we do?, when will we do it?) gets us focused on the agency of what we're doing -- it reminds us that we have options -- and that we can, with God's help, respond in a way that is faithful to the challenges before us.  

In Practice

The question of why we do what we do is a purpose and meaning question that points to our potential for change and reorientation. It's a future oriented question that gets at the way we want live as a congregation. It's not a blame question, or a question to be solved -- if we only knew why we did something in the past, it will somehow change the way we live in the present. 

In practice, both questions will always be present -- the future oriented questions of how we can do something new, and the past focused questions about why this or that happened (and how bad it was). The challenge for leadership when this happens, is to shift the question to what we did to how we might respond and what that means for us today. 

Sometimes the question about how we might respond and what it means to us today, remind us of characteristics of the congregation that have long been dormant -- strengths and muscles that have not been used in a long time. (Eureka! What a truly serendipitous moment!) Finding new strength and resources to take action gives hope.  


Those who have the courage to ask deep questions about meaning, purpose and identity will not be disappointed. Putting the focus on the next step -- taking action -- is the way to use these questions as a catalyst for change. 

Reflection Questions

  • What conversations about purpose are happening now in your congregation? 
  • What issues are being discussed? 
  • How can the leadership take these questions deeper? 
  • Take a why question that is being talked about now, and turn it into a how question. 




The element of movement 

The rubber meets the road when the leadership of a congregation decides to act. As leaders begin to understand and embrace the journey of change, having listened more deeply to the issues, and having struggled to find the meaning and purpose in it all; they now put their trust in each other to the test by taking an action step.

Inward growth of deep awareness and understanding, now gives birth to the outward growth of action. Insight, understanding, and renewed purpose are meant to be acted upon and taken up in ways that can be seen and felt in the life of the congregation. Action is the outward change of a desire to live with renewed purpose. 

An action is a heart-filled, consensus based leadership decision to apply what has been learned into practice. The hope is that by acting, the congregation will begin to experience God do a new thing. Putting purpose into action is a first step in a continual process of inward and outward growth. 

Doing Something Different

There are a number of challenges in the action phase. To begin, there's discerning what action to take. Second, even if the decision is clear, it may be hard to get the consensus needed to take action. Third, people may wonder is it really worth it. Leaders should review these questions and take their time thinking their actions through: who will this affect, have we given them a heads up, how do we phase out of this and into that, what objections will people have, how will we respond, what are we hoping for, what is a win, etc?  

In Practice

Many people think change means doing something big. On the contrary, even small change feels big to a congregation in transition. This is why leaders should start small. Don't get hung up on making big change all at once, if possible find a small change that (nearly) everyone can get behind. Look for low hanging fruit. As best as you can, prepare the congregation for change by making the courageous easy decision instead of planning for some big new thing. This way the leaders can experience the effects of the change process once or twice before making the more challenging decisions that still need to be made. This builds trust in the congregation that will be needed i the future.

As actions are discerned and made, be courageous enough to talk about change and how people are thinking and feeling about it. Be open in your communication about the range of emotions that these discussions have caused within you. Acknowledging the emotional impact of these decisions with each other is good practice for dealing with the emotional reaction of the congregation.

It's better to slow down a decision in order to talk about it more with the congregation, than it is to compromise in the face of pushback.  


Progress toward the vision God has for a congregation begins with taking actions steps that pursue that vision. There will be resistance to change, but leaders should be ready to listen and to point to the vision that these changes are meant to bring about. 

Reflection Questions

  • When was the last time your congregation took a courageous step toward a new vision?
  • What was the hoped for outcome?
  • What was the process used to discern those actions/changes?
  • Who led the process?  
  • What was the real outcome/result? 
  • What discussions might you start now that might lead to important changes in the life of the congregation? 
  • Who will join you in this effort? 
  • What actions might be taken to embody that vision?


A Foundational element for Change

Leadership is the necessary functioning of persons to discern, guide, act, and communicate progress toward a new vision. Leadership refers to the dynamic of leading others in the pursuit of a goal. It is both a function of formal roles (structural) and informal power (reputational). 

The bible is full of stories about God calling people to take risks to trust God with their future. These stories inform us of the way God is at work in and through the world to bring about God's purposes. Often times, God's leaders are reluctant at first -- questioning, fearful, terrified even of the possibility that things might never be the same. Sometime they even try to bargain themselves out of the call to lead. 

God is ever faithful and patient to deal with our fears and failures, providing more than we could ever ask or imagine as we follow. Jesus' own disciples prove to us that no matter how close to the "source" of our faith, we never really truly "get it." 

Somehow this is enough. Somehow, our mustard seed of faith is enough to cover over a multitude of reservations about our ability to lead God's people. 

Leaders who are called, and grasp this dynamic, can lead change. Leaders who are called, and grasp this reality, can discern and communicate the vision God has for a congregation.   

Leadership & Culture

Part of the discernment process that is going on in a change effort, is the discernment of the congregation's culture. Along with it's identity -- who it is and what it does -- a church also has a culture. 

Some churches have a culture of status quo -- a kind of "we're happy with things just the way they are." Though there is talk about doing something different, the highest value is homeostasis. On the other hand, some congregations have a culture of adventure or risk -- a "sure, let's give it a try, we can do it" kind of approach to life. And all in between.

Leaders set and can reset the culture of a congregation just by the way they do their work. If leaders feel free to be who they are while also being a part of the group, the leadership may be more open to change. If the leaders feel like information is withheld, or decisions are made without their input, a culture of mistrust can emerge. 

The culture of a congregation is an important dynamic for leaders to be aware of. Noticing their own functioning and behavior, and even the history of experiences within the leadership body, can help reset the culture from one of resistance to change, to one of hope for the future. 

In Practice

Once leaders have discerned a new way to be and have taken some action to make this vision a reality, change begins to happen. They may not have signed up for this, and It may have even taken them a while to come to terms with things themselves, but these are the people God has called to lead.

John Kotter says that to make real change there needs to be a guiding coalition -- a group who gets it and is willing to take this thing wherever it leads. Sounds good in theory, but in reality it's hard to do -- even for big corporations. And often times the failure is at this level -- the leadership level. 

Even though they are voluntary organizations (not corporations), congregations may have an advantage here. Most leaders I know who have answered the call to become elders have already demonstrated a high commitment level to the cause. Getting these elders to buy into change may take time, but once they get it, they usually stick to it. 


Leaders who focus on the vision, stay engaged with the congregation, communicate and receive feedback well, and accept responsibility for success (and failure), provides the necessary leadership that produces change. 

Reflection Questions

  • Who are the (real) leaders of the congregation?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the elected/called leaders?
  • What is the role of the staff in decision making and change?
  • What is the staff's tolerance for discomfort?
  • How might you better equip and prepare the elders for change? 




An Element of change

Communication is the means whereby the insights, plans, actions, and progress are freely shared across all levels of the church for the purpose of garnering input, support, and participation toward its goals.

The element of communication is present in all aspects of the change process, but it most important as the new directions are contemplated, considered, planned, acted upon and reviewed.

Despite the church's mandate to share the good news of Jesus Christ, congregations are not always good communicators -- let alone communicators of change. Patterns of communication are primarily aimed at Sunday mornings, where expectations are already highly geared toward the reliability and (divine) maintenance of church's main focus, worship. Talk of change can be heard as off key and dissonant when compared to normal melodies of the church's Sunday gatherings.

Leaders may also encounter problems in talking about change for other reasons. As anxiety increases about the potential for change, latent patterns of miscommunication may come to the fore. Subversion efforts start easily by spreading misinformation, withholding information, or exaggeration. 

As leaders discern new directions and potential next steps, time should be set aside for how these new directions will be shared. A communication plan that includes critical information about what's changing, why (rationale), and how, are the basics of any communication plan. Attention should also be given to the timing of sharing the message, the order (priority) of sharing (are their people who need to know first like staff?), and confidentiality.

 Communication & Learning

As changes begin to be made, another important aspect of communication opens up: learning. Leaders should always be attentive to the input they are receiving about what's changing. This happens in the insight and discernment phase, but as actions are taken, the input comes from all areas of the church -- both positive and negative. This is not just feedback, it's a prime opportunity to learn how about the congregation as a whole, which in turn opens up new learning that gives new insights into even more possibilities for growth and change. In other words, the communication about change is a two way dynamic that if fostered, opens up new learning about the congregation and its mission.  

In Practice

Communicating change is always a challenge. To paraphrase John Kotter in his book Leading Change, "whatever your communication efforts, times them by 10! And that may not even be enough!" Churches aren't the only institutions that underestimate the value of communication when it comes to change. It's a struggle for everyone.

In light of this leaders do well to make an effort to overcommunicate. As new directions are contemplated, look for efforts to share things you are learning about the history and the present challenges of the congregation and invite reflections. Have listening and brainstorming sessions. 

Read the bible with your eyes open for the stories of transition and change (they're there! but we don't always see it!). And when you see them, preach them! This doesn't mean use your sermon to explain why you're going in a new direction with the children's program -- it means talk about the dynamics of change -- how God called, equipped, and led God's people on a new adventure, and how God's people struggled to get it, but how God was faithful. 


Communicating change is a difficult but necessary part of moving in a new direction. Leaders should communicate early and often throughout this process -- inviting participation and feedback, and then continuing to be open to learn from the changes as they begin to take shape.  

Reflection Questions

  • What is the history of communication in your church?
  • When was the last time your congregation talked about change? How did it go? What was the outcome? 
  • What strengths/weaknesses do you see in the flow of open communication at your church?
  • What challenges do you foresee in communicating a message about change?
  • How could your leadership address these challenges and set itself up for success?  




An Element of change

As the desired changes begin to take shape in the congregation, new opportunities for growth come to light. Leaders must be ready to tend to these opportunities as they represent progress toward an emerging identity and vision of the congregation that needs to be nurtured. 

Making a change, however small, is not a singular venture. Whatever success (or failure) achieved is part of a larger process toward growth. Change is an inherently risky proposition that, even if it fails, yields possibilities for future action. 

To achieve progress is make slow, steady progress toward a goal or objective. It is not a focus on an specific outcome, but rather an attentiveness to the process of continued growth. 

Most churches think of change as something to be endured every once in a while (say every 40 to 50 years whether we need it or not), but growth, even small, incremental growth, toward a stated goal is a healthy expectation for any congregation. 

Leaders should be attentive to the ways the congregation is: progressing in its mission; carrying out its vision, and achieving its goals. This is vital expectation for all congregations -- whether they've begun a change process or not.    

To seek progress is to invest in the future of the congregation. It is inherently an act of hope.  

Progress is infectious: it motivates people to press on and to have courage to fight through disappointment. All congregations go through difficult times, but the ones who risk trusting God with a new thing, put their faith into action and inspire faith, hope, and love from generations to come.   

Progress & Results

To invest in the progress toward an agreed upon change or goal requires that we evaluate the results of this effort. In general churches shy away from such clinical efforts (and terms) like "results." But leaders must find some agreed upon way to evaluate the results of its process to move in a new direction.

Though there is no sure fire way to do this, at the very least time should be spent at leadership meetings reviewing how things are going, what did and didn't happen in the change, and what could be done differently to improve the changes.

Often times churches receive informal feedback -- a comment here or there about what people think about the changes. This can be helpful, but caution should be used about how this type of feedback is weighted and communicated. 

In Practice

Leaders should look for multiple ways to evaluate the changes they've led. Conversations among leaders and feedback from the congregation can be helpful getting a general impression of how things are going, but leaders should strive to add find other input. 

In reality, evaluating progress toward a congregational goal is an inexact science that relies pretty heavily on impression and intuition, but some organizations offer evaluation tools that provide an overall view of the health and vitality of the congregation and its ministries. If this is done, these tools should be used at the beginning and end of these change efforts. 


Progress is the expectation that things will change. It is not just evaluating the changes that were planned; it's looking for the new, unexpected possibilities that the change effort has created. 

Reflection Questions

  • When was the last time the congregation evaluated itself and its ministries? 
  • What were the reasons for the evaluation? What methods were used? What was considered, not considered?
  • How does the congregation view itself now?
  • What are its strengths and weakness? Opportunities for growth?
  • What are some areas you'd like to see progress in your church?
  • How might you begin that process?
  • What would you be looking for as some signs of progress?