Because North Coast Church has been somewhat innovative over the years and successfully made lots of changes, I’m often asked by other pastors and leaders about the best way to go about making major organizational and ministry changes.
My answer often surprises them. I usually tell them to, “Slow down.” It’s not what they expect from someone with a reputation as an innovator. Now let me be clear. I don’t tell them to stop. No way. But I often tell them to slow down. And here’s why.
Most future oriented leaders are so dialed in on creating the future that they fail to realize some parts of the past aren’t yet ready to be put out to pasture. They remind me of an impatient homeowner who digs up the crabgrass one weekend and immediately lays down beautiful new sod. The lawn might look great for a few weeks. But it won’t be long until the crabgrass takes over again.
You have to slow down and make sure the crabgrass is actually dead and the roots completely killed off if you want the new lawn to look good for the long-haul. The same is true when it comes to making major changes in an organization or ministry. It takes time for the old to die off at the root level, and it takes time for the new to establish its own root system.
Let’s take the case of a traditional church with a smorgasbord of ministries attempting to become a church with a laser-like focus on small groups. That’s a significant change. To successfully pull it off, lots of competing programs and ministries will have to put to rest. But if the pastor and leadership team try to do so too quickly, it won’t push people into small groups. It will push them to another church, or no church at all.
So what do you do when major changes are desperately needed but the roots of the past run deep?
It all starts with some careful triaging.
First, identify and bury any programs and ministries that are already long-dead. Same for those on life support. Pull the plug and give them a nice Christian burial. Yes, you’ll get some push back and complaints. Count on it. But that’s the price of leadership. Every ministry (even long dead ones) have their fans. But you have to bury the dead or they’ll stink up the place.
Second, identify and starve any programs that aren’t yet dead, but need to die. These are the ministries and programs that no longer fulfill their mission, siphon off precious resources and energy, but still have too many raving fans to do away with. You starve them by limiting their budget, staffing, exposure, and marketing. While that too will create some push-back and low-level frustration, you have to do it or you’ll never have enough resources and energy to create the future.
Third, identify and leave alone those programs and ministries that are slightly off mission but still make a significant difference in the lives of people. This is a step often ignored (and even criticized) by those who are most impatient and impulsive about creating the future. But those who move too quickly to kill off something that is still working well in order to replace it with something they’re convinced will work better often end up sabotaging the future by crystalizing the opposition to it. Even if it slows down the transition to your preferred future, allow those ministries and programs that are still working well to live out their usefulness and die a natural death. It will increase your own longevity as well.
Finally, identify and feed the future. Resource the things you most want to succeed. Do so lavishly. Then step back and wait patiently while they establish their own roots deep into your organization. If you’re right about a new program, ministry, or focus, and it really is the key to the future, it will grow strong and crowd out its competitors. And ironically, someday, future leaders may well see it as the crabgrass that needs to be killed off and rooted out so that they can plant a new lawn in its place.
But that’s the way it is with change and innovation. Yesterday’s solution is often today’s obstacle. And today’s solution will often become tomorrow’s problem. Which explains why my Bible favorite verse is, “Blessed are the flexible, they will survive.” I haven’t actually found it yet. But I know it must be in there somewhere.