I was such a young whippersnapper when I went to seminary. I graduated from college at age 20 and from SWBTS (M.Div) at age 23, so I am really not kidding. I was a seminary grad before I could grow any significant facial hair. I had been active in churches and raised as a pastor’s son, but I had very little practical knowledge of what it took to pastor a church. I learned a lot about theology, Greek and Hebrew and inductive Bible study (in my days at Dallas Seminary) and I got a lot of “practical” advice, most of which I had no frame of reference to judge.
So, being the self-important young whipper-snapper that I was, I promptly ignored most of it.
But one piece of advice I heard and held on to. In one class (can’t remember if it was at Dallas or SWBTS) I read a book called “The Change Agent” by Lyle Schaller. One thing he said stuck with me and has, I believe, helped me be an agent of unity at the churches I have served. I am now finishing my 31st year of full-time Christian service and in that time have served 4 churches. I was an associate pastor/youth pastor in Florida for 5 years. I then took my first pastorate, a deeply divided rural church in Virginia where I stayed 4 years. Then, after being denied appointment by the Foreign Mission Board (now IMB) because of (what turned out to be) a minor health problem in one of our children, we headed west to Iowa where I served one church for over 14 years and am in my 8th year at Southern Hills.
Northbrook Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, when I arrived, had some deep cracks in its unity – personality conflicts and power struggles. After a tumultuous first couple of years and a genuine revival that God brought, Northbrook became one of the most unified, peaceful churches a pastor could hope to serve. When I moved to Southern Hills, it was a deeply wounded church that had just been through a huge fight that produced a major split – a church with a sucking chest wound!
I am not a particularly warm and fuzzy kind of guy. I have always envied those pastors who could hug and “love on” other folks, but I am a little more reserved in my relationships. I love my church family, but I’m not demonstrative either physically or verbally. But there have been things I have learned that have helped me be an agent of unity in deeply divided churches.
And the principle I learned from Lyle Schaller has been one of the most helpful.
Of course, the most important principle is the one that I learned later in Henry Blackaby’s book, Spiritual Leadership. Division is often caused by pastors who develop and pursue their own agendas in a church. Our duty as undershepherds is to discern and attempt to implement the agenda of Chief Shepherd of our souls, with the Spirit of God as our source of power. The more I pursue my own agenda, the more I will divide the church (or perhaps lead it in the wrong direction). The more I lead my church onto the divine agenda, the more unity and peace will be the consequence.
But the Schaller principle has also been key. Let me state it clearly.
Don’t try to make major changes in a church in the first 3 years of your pastorate.
When you step into the pulpit for the first time, the church gives you a gift – a six-month supply of “leadership dollars.” But that supply of leadership bucks will run out soon and any credibility and leadership authority you have after that will be won by your integrity, your faithfulness and your behavior as pastor. You earn the right to lead God’s people! You bank those leadership bucks and once you have saved up enough, you can begin to spend those leadership bucks to make the changes you need to make in the church. Preach the Word. Serve the people. Lead with integrity. Get to know folks so that they can trust you. Show constancy during hard times and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit whatever comes. Eventually, you will bank the leadership bucks you need to lead the people to make the changes that need to be made to conform to Christ and get on God’s agenda.
The fundamental mistake a lot of pastors make is trying to change things too early, before they have banked the leadership bucks they need to make those changes. As they try to push through these changes, they suddenly find themselves bankrupt and in the middle of conflict. Of course, we always blame that on the divisive and ungodly church members who refuse to submit to our authority. But the reality is that we tried to spend leadership buck we had not saved up!
Over the last couple of years, we have made some major changes at Southern Hills Baptist Church.
We changed our worship schedule. If you knew our church, you would know what a big deal that is. We have a contemporary service (which was at 8:30) and a traditional service (had been at 11 AM). We had needed to switch the services for years, but had I tried to do that early on, there would have been horrible conflict. Last year, when we made the change, there were some unhappy folks, but a remarkable absence of conflict. Patience pays off when it is time to change things at a church.
More importantly, we completely restructured our church. We had a horribly ineffective structure, based on 22 standing committees (for a church of around 400 to 500 regular to semi-regular attenders. I began back in 2009 by preaching the Great Commission, Acts 1:8, and Acts 2:42-47, defining the biblical mandates of the church. Then, we developed and approved a document of guiding principles – a biblically-based mission statement, with a definition of these biblical mandates and the core values by which we would operate. We then elected a restructuring committee that labored to bring forward a structure built around ministry teams based on our biblical mandates and guiding principles. All this took time. It was a radical change, but in August we voted the new structure into place with nary a single dissenting voice. Had I tried to make these changes in 2006, the church would have likely been deeply divided, and the split that began in 2004 would have become complete. SHBC would be in steep decline today.
I think I waited a little too long to start bringing these changes – there are some reasons for that which are not pertinent here. But the fact is that by waiting 4 or 5 years to begin a process of structural transformation in this church, we got through it with minimal pushback or conflict.
I’ve seen so many pastors go the other way. They go into churches full of righteous (self-righteous?) confidence that they are God’s change-agent sent to reform this dysfunctional church and make everything right. Within a few months of installation to the pastorate, they begin to implement their agenda. Lo and behold, the people, who do not have complete confidence in their new leader, are reluctant to follow him and conflict begins to arise. The pastor labels those who do not support his agenda as divisive and rebellious, and the back door of the church swings wide open.
You say, why do I have to wait three years to make the changes that need to be made today? Let me make two points in response here.
- If you are not going to invest your life in a church, you ought not try to mold that church to your own agenda. That is a power-trip, not a divine mandate. You must make the investment in the church, build respect and trust so that your people will follow your lead willingly.
- If you plan to invest your life in the church you serve, you do not need to make all the changes today. Time is your ally. Be patient and you can make those necessary changes without causing division.
Of course, the root of this is a commitment that I think we need to make. The unity of the Body of Christ is usually more important than whatever agenda item I am trying to push forward. There are very few issues worth dividing the church to implement. It is certainly not worth division simply to “get my way” or assert my authority.
If we take the time to lead with integrity, serve with humility and proclaim truth with boldness, the Spirit of God will cause our staffs to bud and the people who would have resisted us in our first year will sometimes support us in our fourth and fifth year!