Congregational change takes time and patience, speaker warns

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)--When it comes to leading a church to change, there is only one word to describe the challenge -- monumental, Lyman Alexander told participants in a conference during Black Church Leadership Week at LifeWay Glorieta (N.M.) Conference Center.

"Churches tend to be static, stable institutions. Leading a church through change is one of the most difficult things to do, especially if the church is plateaued or declining," said Alexander, director of missions for the Crescent Bay Baptist Association, Inglewood, Calif.

He introduced a change process he has used for three years with churches in his association. The process was developed by Union Baptist Association, Houston, and outlined in a book, Leading Congregational Change by Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem and James Furr.

To successfully implement change, Alexander said, a trusting environment must exist in the church. "People have to believe leaders have their best interests at heart."

Also, members must "see pain in their present or great reward in their future" to be motivated to change. And the church must be characterized by spiritual and relational vitality, he said.

"Only when people are in love with God and with each other are they in a position to be thinking about change," Alexander said.

He warned that change in a church doesn't happen overnight.

"It takes a minimum of three to five years to bring about significant change in a church. That's why pastors must make a long-term commitment to the church," Alexander said.

To establish a climate where change can occur, he said leaders must "create urgency by creating a clear picture of the church's current state that is widely shared by the congregation. They must make the status quo unacceptable."

While the vision for the church may begin with the pastor, Alexander said it must next move beyond him to a group no larger than 25-30 comprising the vision community. He emphasized that a church's vision should not be the pastor's vision but God's, and the larger group may change what the pastor initially suggested.

"Working together you will clarify what God's vision is," he said.

Formulating a church vision begins with knowing its mission. For most churches, the mission is the Great Commission stated in Matthew 28:19-20, he said. The vision is then a statement of "what this particular church at this location is to do."

Next, he said, a church must set God-sized goals to implement the vision over three to five years. "Don't set goals that you and your congregation can accomplish with a little effort. Set goals you can't accomplish without God's help."

Finally, the vision community must develop action plans for the first 12 months, all focused on accomplishing the goals, vision and mission. With a vision, goals and action plans in place, Alexander said the next task is communicating them.

"Communication strategies must take into consideration the different ways people learn," he said. Also, just because church members voted on a vision does not mean they understand what is about to happen. Communication strategies must be varied and continuous.

Alexander offered four concluding pieces of advice, beginning with seeking God's vision.

"Don't go across town, look at what someone else is doing and come back and implement it in your church," he warned.

Second, he suggested, share the vision broadly throughout the church. "A vision hidden is no vision at all. Make sure everyone hears about it."

Also, he urged, "learn from your failures. This means you have to try new things."

Finally, be patient, Alexander said. "If you're trying to change a declining church, it didn't get that way overnight. It won't come back overnight."

Approximately 1,400 people attended Black Church Leadership Week, July 2-6, sponsored by five Southern Baptist Convention entities -- LifeWay Christian Resources, North American Mission Board, International Mission Board, Woman's Missionary Union and Annuity Board.


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: LYMAN ALEXANDER.

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