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

Change Within Congregations, somebodies got to do it…

Written by: on May 9, 2019

When we were in South Africa for our first semester in the LGP program I was having trouble nailing down my problem and how to come at it in a way that would be effective. Dr. D, my advisor, had a great deal of influence on how I was going to address the problem but I also got to sit down with Diane Zemke because her Ph.D. dealt with congregational change. She was instrumental in helping me jump off into different writings on my subject, she even sent me her dissertation, NOW AND NOT YET: THE EXPERIENCE OF TEMPERED RADICALS IN CHRISTIAN CONGREGATIONS so I could start to look over the subject matter. In my opinion, she is an expert in church change and how we can help congregations move through change gracefully. Her book Being Smart about Congregational Change takes her work and makes is so accessible in helping church leaders work through very difficult times. In my work so far, I have dealt very little with the actual movement of the congregation and have focussed on the underlying causes of inward focussed congregations and what could cause them to adjust that focus to others.

While change is the preferred outcome for a church in decline or a church that has plateaued, as Diane wrote, “By the time a congregation hits a mid-point plateau, it hasn’t updated its mission for years if not decades. Indeed, the reason growth has leveled off is that the congregation is no longer working as constructively with its environment. It has also become more rigid and less willing to adapt.” [1] Most churches won’t admit they are in decline or plateau until it is too late. Getting an older congregation to move to a new way of doing things is hard work and comes with many slings and arrows if not done with a delicate hand. For example, the church I serve now, started in 1954 and has been at the location where it is now since 1960. One of the walls in the church has a picture of every pastor and his family lining the wall. With only three exceptions the tenure of these pastors is 2-3 years. Some are very young, some are very old but they share one thing. A congregation that has been static at or around 150. When I took over the number of people coming on  a weekly basis had dropped to 45. One thing I told them is there has to be changes made in how we do “church”, if you are not on board with a pastor making changes then do not hire me. They assured me they were on board but the road has been slow. Most churches that hit the decline slope never pull out of the downward spiral. There is hope in renewal though. Diane points out that renewal is “not about getting more contemporary music or updating the sanctuary or the constitution.” [2] These things are changes that do need to happen but she points out, “At its heart, renewal is about reexamining and updating congregational culture and narratives.” [3] What Diane is getting at is this, we can make superficial changes and that may work for a little while, but if the congregation does not change its DNA, then eventually they will decline and die. 

We see this in business, the Fortune 500 today looks nothing like the first iteration of its list. There are companies that were not even a dream over 50 years ago in 1955. Companies like Bethlehem Steel and Zenith Electronics were on the list in its infancy and are no where to be found, in fact only 60 companies from 1955 are still on the list today. Today the list features tech firms like Google and Apple.[4] So if companies whose main goal is to make money, satisfy customers and find new markets can die so can a church whose goal it is to serve and proclaim the gospel. A church’s death, unlike a company who loses its customers and dies quickly, can hold on for way to long. Looking back at the history and narrative of the church and pine for days long since gone.

As a leader of the church, someone who is to be a change agent, as Zemke describes, needs to walk the church through the culture change with a wise but gentle hand. If you do not, then anger will flare. You are messing with a history of worship and service for God. Just because their methods are outdated, does not mean they were not relevant and a vital part of the community where they reside. I think to many pastors come into a church, see all the things wrong and just start changing everything all at once, never paying any heed to what or who has come before them. They end up hurting those they were sent to serve and, generally, end up leaving after a few difficult years. They look back and say, that church does not care about people any more. They just want to be comfortable, and that is sometimes true, but more often than not, they want to make a difference they just do not know how to do it and they need a gentle hand to help them move in that direction.

[1] Zemke, Diame. Being SMART about Congregational Change. , 2014. 39.

[2] Ibid. 46.

[3] Ibid. 46.

[4] Perry, M. (2019). Fortune 500 firms 1955 v. 2017: Only 60 remain, thanks to the creative destruction that fuels economic prosperity – AEI. [online] AEI. Available at: http://www.aei.org/publication/fortune-500-firms-1955-v-2017-only-12-remain-thanks-to-the-creative-destruction-that-fuels-economic-prosperity/ [Accessed 10 May 2019].

About the Author

Jason Turbeville

A pastor, husband and father who loves to be around others. These are the things that describe me. I was a youth minister for 15 years but God changed the calling on my life. I love to travel and see where God takes me in my life.

13 responses to “Change Within Congregations, somebodies got to do it…”

  1. Mike says:

    I’m glad you got Dr. Zemke’s dissertation. I tried to access it but was unable online. She has some wise advice from her lived experiences dealing with church change for sure! I used her work as a parallel challenge for my work in spiritual warfare. Congregational change- Spiritual warfare have interesting similarities, challenges, and evil schemes working against both.
    It looks like her work is really helpful for you, your dissertation research, and your current ministry at your church. PTL!
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

    • Jason Turbeville says:

      Her work really does have its applications on both yours and my work. If you need a copy of the dissertation I can email you what I have. She also gave me another of her works that has been helpful as well.


  2. Kyle Chalko says:

    Jason, I loved yuor quote “we can make superficial changes and that may work for a little while, but if the congregation does not change its DNA, then eventually they will decline and die.” your absoltuely right that the whole culture code needs to change. Using the DNA illustration is really powerful here because it makes it clear that identity and everything that makes you you needs to change. Woah.

    to continue the illustration, and to continue our congegants as we tell them you need to change your DNA, is that it is actually possible to change your DNA. Thank you science. Here are two new developments you might have already heard about. First, is the weird capability we have to activate certain genes, in some ways, we are not as fixed as we thought. Second, “Genetic Enginering” is a thing, see link here —> “https://www.npr.org/2019/05/02/718250111/hacking-darwin-explores-genetic-engineering-and-what-it-means-to-be-human”

    • Jason Turbeville says:

      Good thoughts but one thing we have to be aware of is genetic change that can either have good outcomes or, disastrous implications changing at the very core what something is, that is the hard part of dna change you still have to keep your core beliefs intact, i.e. Salvation is through Christ alone. Unfortunately the message can sometimes be changed to tickle ears or garner fans as you well know.


  3. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jason,

    I am excited for you and this connection for all your good work. Diane is such a great person!

    I loved her work on “change agents” and thought this was also helpful:



  4. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Jason! So fortunate that you have been able to consult with Diane on your own research. It sounds like you too are on a journey within your congregation. In what ways do you see your congregation’s DNA changing and what is your approach in helping it along? The church is truly blessed to have you at its helm!

    • Jason Turbeville says:

      In the two years I have been there I will admit I have been a bit underhanded in my changes :). They seem surface level but in doing so I am trying to bring the congregation into a different way of thinking and change. Of course, there are those in the church who are well aware of how I am working the change and are great agents of change themselves. There are those who are pushing back with all their might as well, it is a balancing act to be sure.


  5. Jason,

    While reading this book I was excited as I thought of you and your situation, as it is speaking directly to your church’s issues.

    I thought of a Baptist church I was once a part of.
    It was in downtown Toronto where all other churches were dying; this one was down to 7 congregants in a big old building. The new pastor came in on the condition that he was given carte blanche to reshape the church… there wasn’t anything left to lose. He ended up spearheading a renewal of the church that we were eventually attracted to. His thesis was that the local church must respond to the local environment, serving outwardly.

    Seeds he planted continue now, the church isn’t big. But it continues. http://www.danforthchurch.com/

    • Jason Turbeville says:

      I love that, unfortunately most congregations I have dealt with, even in that situation would rather die than change. I have a friend who is now the pastor of a new plant because the former congregation refused to change, they ended up just giving the building away when there was only 3 members left and wanted nothing to do with it. I love that the congregation of that church was willing to try, that is the first step.


  6. Dan Kreiss says:


    I believe your church hired wisely and you represent someone very capable of leading them through tough transitions even if none of you are completely sure of the eventual outcome. It appears that you continue to work in the church not overly concerned with your own level of comfort but willing to help negotiate the congregation through necessary and difficult changes. It is great that you are ahead of the curve regarding Zemke’s work and I expect that in the not too distant future (like maybe once we graduate in less than a year) your denomination would be wise to utilize your insight regarding this important issue.

  7. Greg says:

    Jason. Often what church leaders says and believe are not always that same when it come to change. One thing I am sure you have learned (I know I have) is that true change comes slowly by someone constantly casting and recasting a vision. I often have to scold myself that it has taken Christ 48 years to make me who I am, would be ok if it took that long to help mold and shape that ministries I am working with to be who I believe God wants them to be? (I secretly answer that with a no I would be happy with that. ) I hope your journey will benefit the congregation and ministries you are called to.

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