DTS Magazine

Leadership: Knowing When and How to Change

I hear a lot of stories about how leaders have spent their community capital engaging in change without being sensitive to whether their community was ready for it. On the other extreme there are stories where many recognized change as necessary, but the leader, being comfortable, did not see the need for it and held back a ready, willing, and able congregation. In leadership, it is one thing to be able to know that change is needed as well as have the courage to go for it and another to have the wisdom to know how and when to pursue it.

Pursuing Change

We can all sense when change is needed, but change must also be managed well. Good leaders understand their community’s sociology well enough to know how to nurture change so that it bears fruit not thorns. Like a garden, change needs to be tended and carefully nurtured: the soil needs preparation; plants need frequent watering and constant assessment of growth. Most often when change brings community disaster, it is because the leader has not prepared the “soil” well enough. Its arrival becomes a shock, and the pushback can be quite strong. Change requires that people do or see things differently, which means they often will be challenged. If there is no clear explanation or rationale for the change and no community “buy in,” there is a risk that the adjustment people are asked to make will not be received well. So leaders should have a vision for the way things could be and have patience concerning the route to get there.

Change never just gets implemented. Sometimes change is best engaged in increments versus all at once. Change is also best managed when many people keep an eye on it. Leaders need to make sure they are not charging so far ahead that no one is behind them.

Not Preventing Change

On the other side of the ledger are the leaders who get so comfortable that the “garden” that is our organization starts operating on automatic pilot. We just plant and water as we always have, but times can change and so can the road to being effective. Christianity is a faith that encourages growth and change. Coming to Christ makes us new creatures and calls for renewing our minds and ways of doing things from what we were (2 Cor 5:17; Rom 12:1-2). People or institutions that don’t think change is needed are unconsciously saying that they are already perfect. Growth is a healthy thing, and growth means being open and willing to change. That requires a careful and honest assessment of the community and self. Those who do not allow themselves to be assessed set themselves up to fail (Heb 2:1). There is wisdom in sensitive counselors who have your best interests at heart and care enough about you to challenge and urge you to think about something from another angle.

A leader’s vision should be clear enough to recognize if the community needs to change or the leader needs to change. Oftentimes it will be a little of both, especially when the dynamics are not what they should be or when the circumstances surrounding the organization have shifted calling for new kinds of responses. So good leaders are always considering what can or should be done next or better. They avoid giving lip service to change and then not changing because this brings resentment.

Final Thoughts

Leading is like farming. The field needs hands to tend to it daily with loving labor, eyes to watch what is going on, and feet ready to spring into action where needed to make good adjustments. Often “cruise control” or simply assuming the field will grow its crop as it has in the past means you are not progressing. It fails to see how the dynamics in life call for making adjustments. And running ahead too far becomes a lonely exercise. Properly balanced change is a movement that generates not only growth but true team building. For when change comes with mutual appreciation, the well-tended crop has a real chance to flourish and everyone can celebrate the results.

Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than forty books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
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