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?