Leading Change and Relationships

How do we form life-giving relationships, especially among those who are resistant to change?


If you’re leading change, not everyone will agree with you. In your heart of hearts, you may hope they will. However, if everyone agrees and says, “That’s a great idea! Let’s do it!” you are probably not proposing anything that means real change. Leading change means upsetting the balance, and people may get upset and even angry.

Tolerating disagreement and upset isn’t easy for church leaders. I’ve sat in church meetings hoping no one would speak up to disagree. I’ve cringed when they did speak up in opposition, especially if it was on a matter I really cared about. And other times I’ve been relieved when the room stayed quiet. Now I have come to believe that that relief, while understandable, was a mistake. It’s better when people can have open conversations about differences with regard to change, instead of pretending the differences don’t exist.

Connect Person to Person

What do you do instead of getting defensive or trying to convince people this is the right way forward? Stay connected. Work on relationships. It’s easy to avoid the people who oppose the change we are proposing, especially if they are being difficult about it. 

Before, during, and after a decision making process, whether the decision goes your way or not, connect with people. Make a point of seeking people out who are on the “other side.” You don’t  have to talk about the issue on the table. If they have a pastoral need, reach out to them. Talk about sports, their grandchildren, or whatever they are interested in. When I was a pastor in Massachusetts, getting interested in Red Sox baseball gave me a great way to connect with the men in my church–there was always something to talk about. It gave me credit for future conversations.

Sometimes people who hold a different perspective will avoid you. Don’t chase after them, but keep in touch in a light way. Make a point of saying hello at worship. One pastor during a time of challenging transition set his calendar to remind him to send a birthday text to every single member. It was a neutral way to stay in touch with everyone. People loved it, and it helped the church weather the transition, because the members knew their pastor was thinking about them.

Opposing Voices Make a Contribution

Listening is one of the most powerful ways to develop relationships. It’s better for the church if you are open to hearing a wide range of views. When we are promoting an important change within the church, it is hard to listen to people with a different point of view. We want to jump in and convince them that we are right, and share all the reasons why they should change their mind. But the harder we try to convince them, the more they will tend to dig in their heels. 

What to do instead: listen. Be curious about their position rather than trying to persuade them you are right. Ask questions like, “How did you come to think about it this way?” Ask what the church means to them, and how they came to the church. Even if you’ve known them for 20 years, you don’t know everything about them. Simply be a curious presence, not someone who is trying to talk them into something they don’t want to be talked into. 

See if you can listen well enough that you could repeat their argument back to them. One pastor said he thought about these voices as the “loyal opposition.” This idea helped him stay calm and more able to appreciate and relate to them. 

Those other voices make a contribution to the wider discussion, too. Susan Beaumont, in How to Lead when You Don’t Know Where You Are Going, talks about the importance of surfacing dissent. She says, “dissent is critical to originality and creative thinking. Minority viewpoints are important because they stimulate divergent thought (141). Even when those divergent opinions are wrong, they fuel the creative thought process of others in the room. They contribute to the generation of ideas..” You can view those dissenting voices as a gift to the congregation rather than a threat. After the meeting you can find a way to thank them for sharing their point of view honestly.

Leadership, particularly during a time of change, requires solid work on relationships. In times like these, time leaders spend connecting and listening is time well spent.

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Rev. Margaret Marcuson speaks and writes on leadership and works with faith leaders around North America as a consultant/coach. She helps clergy do their work without wearing out or burning out.

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