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How to Lead Your Church through the Wilderness of Change - Episode 26

There is a place where any great opportunity for change can die. It's a no man's land, a wilderness, filled with temptations and riddled with the bones of past failures.  How do you avoid such? Today, we cover just that.
So about four episodes back, episode number 22, we started looking at how to lead change. At, first we considered two simple questions that will help your board or congregation consider changes.
Then we began to look at Dr. William Bridges ideas on change and transition. Dr. Bridges, in his book, Managing Transitions, teaches that all changes go through three stages of transition – An ending, the neutral zone, and the new beginning.
If this is the first episode you are listening to on change leadership, I suggest you go back to episode 22 and work up to this one.
In episode 24 we finished our work on how to end something. Today we will look at that phase between ending the old thing and starting the new – the area called the neutral zone.
I do not know anything about Dr. Bridges spiritual background. But in his book, Managing Transitions, he does use the Exodus as an example of these three phases.
You know the story – The Jews leave Egypt. They Jews wander in the wilderness for 40 years. The Jews cross over the river Jordan and begin a new thing in the land of promise. There was an ending, and eventually a beginning. But in the middle, those 40 years of wandering, we find the neutral zone.
There are some changes that do not require a neutral zone. You want to change the carpets. You go to Carpet World, pick a color, set up the install date, and step back. A few weeks later you have new carpet.
Some changes though require much more. They require a great deal of thought and work before you start something new. And managing the handover, the neutral zone, is essential. I will give you 4 things you must do while you are in the neutral zone, before you start the new thing.
I also, want to share some cautions, things you must be aware of as you wander through the neutral zone. And I will share these cautions first.
Here are 3 cautions, warnings, about the time between ending something and starting something new.
  1. People are more apt to leave during this period of time.
Dr. Bridges shares that in the business world during the period of time between the old thing and the new, employees are more apt to quit, come in late, or miss more time.
In the church world, I suspect that people are more apt to leave.  Why is that? The familiar is now gone, but nothing new is in its place. They feel like nothing is happening. They sense a lull in the action or movement of the church. So they leave.
In a few minutes, when I go through the 4 things you must do during the period, pay much attention to the idea of presenting the vision. The reason you must present the vision of this change is to keep people engaged, in place, and focused on the near future.
  1. There will be a strong pull to return back to what you had before.
Remember, the Exodus. After they got out into the wilderness, what did the people cry out for? They wanted to go back to Egypt. Numbers 14:4 says, "And they said to each other, 'We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.'" When you are in the Neutral zone, people will try to reset the old thing. They will try to drag you back to Egypt.
“Things were much better when we had Sunday School...let’s go back to that.” Things were much better when our music was traditional....when our name was first Baptist.....when we had AWANA....when we....” You get the idea. Whatever the change, they will cry out for someone to lead them back to what they had before.
  1. The Neutral Zone will satisfy, and you will be tempted to make this no man’s land the new thing.
I don’t want to take this illustration too far, but remember Rueben, Gad, and Manasseh stayed on the other side of Jordan. You, your leadership, and your congregation will falter while you are in the neutral zone because you will begin to believe that you have fully accomplished the change. You will shut the process down and be content stay there.
In the past, I have fallen to this temptation and I have allowed some valuable changes to die in the neutral zone. A large reason was the temptation to stay in this secure wilderness of the neutral zone. Another reason is that I did not fully articulate what the change was to be.
Here is a great question to ask yourself and your team when tempted to make the neutral zone the new idea – What must be true for this change to be successful? If you can answer this question – and I would encourage you to answer this in writing with great detail – when you waver you will look at this question - What must be true for this change to be successful – and its answer and you will know that you are not there yet and to keep on rowing.

Now let’s explore what you must do while you are in the neutral zone.
  1. You must build teams that will oversee this change as it transitions from the old thing to the new thing. I feel it is essential that you have more than yourself managing this change. And the bigger, or the more important the change, the more you need to invest great thought and great intention in team construction.
Let me share what worked well for me in team construction.
Keep your teams lean, but also make them large enough to get a cross section of ideas and skills.
About two years ago, I had been at the church for approximately 10 years. The pastor I preceded had been at the church for 31 years. I wanted to take the church through was a change of vision and direction.
Here’s what I did when I constructed my team.
I personally recruited all of the members. I did not place an add in the bulletin asking for volunteers to be on the team. I picked them and individually invited them.
How did I come up with the list? Before I approached anyone to ask them to join, I went through the entire list of members and regular attenders. I divided this list into two groups. Those that were at the church before I arrived and those who had started attending after I arrived.
I then sorted these two groups by age and gender. The church where I pastor is traditional in who it allows to function as an elder and a deacon. We only use men. For this project, I wanted to make sure women had a voice.
Once I identified when people arrived, their gender, and their age – I did my best to balance the 12 member team – young/old, male/female, here before/here after.
But there was one final filter.  I did not want a bunch of “yes people” but I did want people who were teachable. So, if someone fit all the above requirements but did not have a teachable spirit, they were eliminated.
  1. I think the next thing you must do during the neutral zone period is to identify who will have ownership or a part in the new beginning. Once they are identified, you need to include them in the transition management that your team is doing. It could be they are already on the transition team. If not, bring them on. If they are going to be a part of the new beginning they need to be a part of the transition.
What will the team be doing during the neutral zone period? They will be planning the who, when, where, and what of the new beginning. Using or old example – changing from Sunday School to Small groups, this team will be identifying the leaders, they will be making decisions on curriculum, the nights of the week, whether the groups are open or closed, training requirements for leaders....on and on.
So you need to identify and bring on board everyone who will have a role or ownership in this new beginning. They must be involved with the team that is managing the transition.
  1. One a regular basis you need to put the vision of the new thing before your congregation. Remember earlier I warned you that people will leave or want to return to the old ways. This will happen while you are between the old and the new. To prevent or at least manage that, you need to be communicating the vision for the new beginning.
The Center for Creative Leadership website they listed 9 tips on how you should communicate your vision. I will give you the first 5. And I will mash up 4 and 5 so it will be just one tip
On the show notes, I will have a link to the article if you wish to read the other 4.
  • Tell a story.
When you put things in story form, you give life to your vision. Dr. Brene’ Brown says “Stories are data with soul.”
Use words that paint a picture. Use people and future activities as characters and events in this story. We recently built a new lobby and new bathrooms. I would tell the ladies about the new clean well-lit bathroom.
I would tell the story that Roger will no longer have to climb those dangerous steps to come to church because the new lobby will have an elevator. Sure you will share the costs, and the square footage, and the time – but people will not react to that nor will they remember that.
I learned the power of stories years ago when I preached a sermon. In the sermon I exegeted the passage, I parsed the Greek, I shared all the theological truths that I could share. And in the midst of all that, I shared a story of a three-legged dog.
At the end of the service, I stood in the back to shake hands as I always do. And what did the people talk about, what did they share with me. Not the exegesis, not the Greek, not the theology. No, they wanted to talk about the three-legged dog. They asked questions of the dog, they shared their own stories about three-legged dogs.
Cast the vision in story form and the people will respond to it. Put the story in the future tense and use members of you congregation as characters.
  • Perfect your elevator speech.
An elevator speech is a short speech you can give during a typical elevator ride. In other words, you need a way to share the vision in only one minute or less.
You will probably not share this on an elevator, but you may share it at the start of a SS class or while standing in line at a church fellowship. So have short version.
And this short version should trumpet the negatives if we do not change and the positives of how this change will fix the current problems.
  • Use multiple forms of media.
In a past episode, I told you to use every communication channel you have. Now I am telling you, the more ways you can communicate this vision the better.
The lobby project came alive  for the people when I showed them a 3-d mock up and a video moving the viewer through the projected lobby, the people got very excited.
  • You need to share this vision one-on-one especially with key players, stakeholders, and key supporters in your church.
Sounds like your schmoozing. And you are. There are people in every church who people come to and respect. They have official leadership positions – elder, deacon, trustee – and unofficial – the church busy body, the church know it all. You need to take the time to communicate this vision with these people. And you need to do it one-on-one.
How often should you share the vision. If you do the above 4 steps you will be sharing the vision all the time. But I would not let 3 Sundays go by before I present the vision again.
  1. The final thing you need to do while you are in the neutral zone is that you need to manage.
If you are like me you already hate this step. I would much rather teach and preach. But with changes, you must put on your manager hat and manage this change.
You need to manage the transition team. You need to manage the key leaders that will be owning the new thing. And you need to manage presenting of the vision.
You need to be hands on, no laissez-faire laid back style will probably not work. Sorry for that news. You need to manage the journey through the neutral zone.
So, we considered phase two of change – every transition has three parts – the ending, the neutral zone and the beginning of the new thing. Today we looked a the neutral zone.
I covered the three hazards found in the neutral zone
  1. People are more apt to leave.
  2. People will want to return to the former ways.
  3. You will be tempted to remain in the neutral zone and called it change.
Then we covered the four things you must do the complete the neutral zone
  1. You must build a transition management team.
  2. You must identifiy the owners of the new beginning and get them involved.
  3. You must regularly communicate the vision.
  4. You must closely manage the process through the neutral zone.

This is Mark Jones and you have been listening to episode 26 of Coaching Christian Leaders. If you have benefitted from this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes or wherever you listen.
If you are about to go through a major change I strongly suggest you read Dr. William Bridge’s book Managing Transitions. I will have a link in the show notes.
Finally, if you feel that coaching would help you, that is something I provide one-to-one and with groups. You can contact me at for more information.
Thanks and I will speak with you soon.


Managing Transitions, by William Bridges
The Center for Creative Leadership -

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