Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Being Smart about Congregational Change

Written by: on May 11, 2019

Diane Zemke’s book Being Smart about Congregational Change was nice change in pace from other books we have read. I felt this book was very academic and calculated in its delivery of well-rounded ideas. But also I felt this book was deliver with a vocabulary that is not littered with academic jargon, but a real voice that a real church could listen to.


Zemke in her opening chapter talks about why congregational change is different than business change and warns us from getting too much pastoral direction advice from business models and popular leadership literature. A congregation is different because first of all, the volunteers hire the pastor. This is the opposite of what typical businesses experience. This was a great point, but also one I couldn’t quite relate to. Having only been a staff pastor, and never been a senior pastor / lead pastor, I was always hired into situations which I was expected to lead both up and down. The typical church however is under 200 people and most churches these size do not have more than maybe 1 support staff.


Secondly congregational change is different because of the unique hieararchy that can grow within a church, as Zemke calls Clans and Bureaucracies.[1]  And lastly, congregational change is different because there are often very unclear measurements of success. It’s not uncommon for a church board to not all be using the same report card in how the rate how the church is doing. Could even the board members of a church agree on what the exact vision of that church is. This is what Any Stanley calls “define the win.”


Zemke explains that in a changing a congregation there will be a shift in some one’s commitment. [2]   In order to see what is the right battle to have and what is simply good growing pains, you can be aware of what someone’s commitment “to church” actually means. For example, one person’s commitment to church might be more about. Of the most committed members of your church, what are they really committed to? Are they committed to the relationships, to the theology, to the values, to the tradition? Of course, many are just more committed to sports than any of those things.


I sensed a connection in this book to some of these ideas presented in Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt wrote about the different core values that two opposing viewpoints come from. And its these core values which cause us to see the opposing view point, not just as a different opinion, but something that causes us to see them as the enemy – they are threatening our core values.  And of course, these values are all noble virtues by themselves, but it’s in the variance of emphasis in each value that can cause us to see someone else as a monster.



Zemke also talks about the importance of more than just superficial change. Again this is another question behind the question scenario. It’s not just about the service time change or calling yourself “contemporary” now… (contemporary is the new traditional, btw) but real change in how the congregation thinks. You can’t change the congregation from plateau or decline situations without changing their mindset. Surely a new program or a new pastor might attract some more lookey-loos to initially increase attendance. But for real growth, a “deeper shift” is needed. And it’s here I saw tying into my knowledge our book Deep Work we read last year. Diane Zemke though gives us the practical guide on how to be smart about that type of change, for our congregations.


The most helpful idea presented in this book was the chapter on commitment. Zemke breaks down that conflict is actually as simple as it sounds. And then answers is not that some people need to be more invested. Its no that simple. This also means simply trying harder is not a viable sustainable solution for others, its that they are already trying hard but at different things. Zemke explains the commitment and lack of commitment is not the real measurement. Buit looking deeper and seeing the value that’s represented by their commitment/lack of commitment. It’s the question behind the question.



I appreciated how Zemke delivered this argument. I felt it was delivered with a heart to really encourage the local church and pastors and offer some practical help. Even the sections that were about the nuances of commitment, Zemke reminds the reader multiple times about the dangers and foolishness of over committeemen. Before we ask our people to commit more, we stop and ask ourselves, not just, are we committed enough? But also, are we over committed?

Also Zemke is hesitant to challenge about commitment, because many many pastors and congregational members are over committed.

[1] Zemke, Diame. Being SMART about Congregational Change. 2014. 16.

[2] Zemke, Diame. Being SMART about Congregational Change. 2014.99.

About the Author

Kyle Chalko

5 responses to “Being Smart about Congregational Change”

  1. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Kyle! You bring up an excellent point about your role as leading up and down. It reminded me of Jim Sabella’s dissertation topic (btw he was awarded the outstanding dissertation award from cohort 7) – it might be a great leadership resource for your role (middle leader roles). Your last question about commitment (and over commitment) posed is so important because the reality is the busiest people are those who are doing the most work in the local church. I find myself leading multiple ministries, the head of administrative council and youth ministry – even though I work two jobs and am in a doctoral program. How do you train your interns to navigate this challenge?

  2. Great post, Kyle!

    I completely agree with your assessment. Zemke’s ability to balance the academic and the applicatory make this text a brilliant read.

    You ask the question, “Of the most committed members of your church, what are they really committed to?” This creates a measurement to understand the WHY behind the WHO and helps facilitate the HOW. Too many churches operate in the dark and then wonder why no one is moving forward or following their leadership; however, most do not understand the importance of surveying their congregation and understanding their culture. Do you find that congregational culture varies mostly based on age, geography, educational status, or relationship status? Can these subcultures be the driving forces of congregational culture?

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    Kyle, you wrote, “Zemke in her opening chapter talks about why congregational change is different than business change and warns us from getting too much pastoral direction advice from business models and popular leadership literature.” This seems the case for many of the books we have had for this course. The biggest advantage we have had in light of that, is the various inputs from our religious backgrounds. I wonder if it makes a difference for doctoral students to study it, as compared to churches incorporating it?

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    I find your take away from the book interesting and thought provoking. Commitment is critical for congregational vitality both from leadership and congregants. As you point out it is also very difficult to agree on an adequate measure of commitment and what it is that seems to be missing regarding that aspect. I think that many in the church hear complaints of limited commitment, already feel stressed and exhausted, and come to the conclusion that the church is reminding them of another area where they don’t meet expectations or measure up to God’s full desire.

    Your understanding of that will be crucial to leading people in a way that both challenges and supports them through critical transitional stages in the life of the church. I am glad you are reading this text at this stage of your career with ample time to apply the insights gained.

  5. Chris Pritchett says:

    Hey Kyle you raise an excellent point about the level of commitment of each member of the congregation. Some are more committed than others, and surely this creates extra challenges for change leadership.

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