DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How to Change a Church Without Killing It

Written by: on May 17, 2018

I grew up in a small town of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee.  We had one elementary school and one high school.  Just as I became a preteen, Mt. Juliet grew enough that they built a separate Junior High School.  As Nashville experienced rapid growth in the 1990s and beyond, my hometown changed to become a trendy bedroom community for those who wanted to live away from the city.

While I have not lived in Mt. Juliet since the 1980s, I still visit my mother regularly who lives there.  On one such visit, we drove by this little country church and she told me, “Stuart, they got a new pastor and he told them that if he were to come, he would change their music to contemporary.  Well, he did and half the church left.”

To be honest, I do not know anything about that church, and I do not know what became of it, but most of us in ministry have known of churches that have either split or had a mass exodus.  I know of a church where the youth minister made a strategic change to intentionally go after unchurched teens.  He met them in the community, invited them to the Wednesday night youth group meeting, and shared the gospel with them.  The parents of the “church kids” noticed these teens smoking in the parking lot after church, cursing loudly in the church hallway, and flirting with their daughters.  When confronted, this youth minister listened to their concerns, but tried to encourage these families to understand his perspective.   Eventually, dozens of families left the church for another church which had a “safer” youth ministry.

If you are like me, you probably can recount more stories where a change was made in a church body or ministry, only to cause dissent and decline.  For that reason, many pastors and church leaders are cautious about making changes that might be unpopular, even if they believe that these changes are totally necessary.  For example, I heard about one large church where the pastor retired.  The elder pastor met with the new pastor on his way out.  He handed the new pastor a piece of paper with three names.  He said, “these the names of three staff members that I should have fired years ago but I didn’t have the heart to do it.”

These examples and more came to my mind last month as I listened to the audiobook, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,  by William Bridges.  This book was written to business leaders but was obviously relevant to pastors and other church leaders.  Bridges makes the point repeatedly that organizations who make changes without managing the implementation of the entire transition process often fail.

For some of us, we may see the words “change” and “transition” as synonyms, but Brides sees “change” as more cognitive (what should we do?) and “transition” as psychological/emotional (how will this affect me personally?).  Bridges asserts that good change with bad implementation is, in reality, a bad change.  One illustration he gave was when the Italian clothing company, Benetton, diversified by buying several sporting goods companies in the late 1990s.  All of a sudden, Benetton gained a bunch of employees who were avid sporting goods enthusiasts.  They were asked to relocate and made to integrate into a very different business culture.  It was a total failure, most of the sporting goods employees quit, and Benetton eventually closed down it’s sporting goods line.  Whether or not the purchase of these companies was a good or bad decision can be debated.  But the poor implementation by Benetton sealed the fate of “Benetton Sportsystem.”

What can church leaders gain by reading Managing Transitions?  Here are my thoughts:

a)    Bridges uses the story of Moses many times in his book, even though the target audience is secular business leaders.  Yet, pastors will be inspired that God’s word shows us how God led Moses to manage transitions effectively.  To put it simply, managing transitions is biblical.


b)    Many church leaders are afraid of making changes because of the possibility of negative consequence.  This book gives these leaders a path to help make changes that are willingly adopted by church members.


c)    Most seminaries do not teach seminary students how to manage transitions effectively.  Maybe one reason that many young pastors have such short tenures is that a lot of mistakes are made in this area?


d)    Our culture is changing at a rapid pace.  Most church leaders do not believe that our society will look the same 10 years from now as it does today.  They know that the church will have to make significant changes in order to be effective in the coming years.  This book can help them effectively implement these changes.


In conclusion, the consequences of a bad transition in a church can be brutal:  lost members, hurt feelings, a drop in offerings, a negative reputation in the community, etc.  Not only should church leaders decide what changes need to be made, they also must carefully plan how this transition should be managed.


William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making The Most Of Change (Boston, MA: Da Capo, 2017).


About the Author

Stu Cocanougher

9 responses to “How to Change a Church Without Killing It”

  1. Mary Walker says:

    Really inspirational post, Stu! I agree with you that churches could learn something from this book. There is enough in it about thinking about people’s feelings that you would think it would be a natural.
    “Change” is a four letter word in my Dutch church. I am praying that since God has me there, maybe He will help me to encourage people. But they don’t believe in change. Again, I think the book had a good suggestion – I need to sell them on the problem. But they don’t think we have any problems either.
    Have you more suggestions?

    • Stu Cocanougher says:

      Mary, you hit the nail on the head… “sell them on the problem.”

      What metrics do they use to measure success?

      How about ask them, do you plan for our church to still be in existence 25 years from now?

      How many of the current members will be actively serving the church 25 years from now?

      What are we doing to a) reach our community b) build up leaders so that our church will be thriving in the future?

    • mm Katy Drage Lines says:

      Good question, Mary. And I ditto everything Stu said in response. I think the Bridges were spot on in encouraging leaders to “sell the problem.” I don’t have the book in front of me, but it reminds me of Jim Collins’ Good to Great plan– it requires us to confront the brutal facts, be honest about the gravity of a situation.

  2. Jim Sabella says:

    Great post, Stu. Your title goes right to the heart of the matter. It does seem like there are only two options when faced with change in the church, change or death! Of course it doesn’t have to be that way and I think Bridge’s book is an important source, especially for the church. I have friends who are still suffering the results of a change in the church that they never really processed correctly. And the change happened 25 years ago! Always enjoy reading your posts.

  3. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Love the cartoon Stu.
    I think this is one of the most profound statements on church ministry I have heard in a long time: “Not only should church leaders decide what changes need to be made, they also must carefully plan how this transition should be managed.” There is so little awareness, teaching, and accountability in this area. Sometimes church just feels like a “free for all” where people can fight, lead, communicate, and live however they want, regardless of the devastating consequences. I often wonder what God must be thinking of his church as we behave in such unloving, hurtful ways in His body. We are to be known by our love and that can start with how we manage our differences and navigate change. Ok, I’ll step off my soapbox now. Thanks for inspiring me. You must be a social worker. 🙂

  4. Lynda Gittens says:

    Yep Stu I have seen many churches split and members who were mad leave. Our church in the past brought kids from the projects to VBS, but the parents and teachers didn’t like their behavior and weren’t equipped to help them. So instead of training teachers or finding teachers that wanted to help all children not just the ones with privilege, they stop inviting them.
    When making changes, I believe the leaders need to be trained for the change. What are your thoughts?

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    My first response as I read this, Stu, was “God save us from ‘safe youth ministry.'” Our kids go to schools and live in a culture where they interact with people who are deemed “unsafe” but then so many times parents ask youth leaders to insulate their children. Of course church should be a safe space, but I don’t think that has much to do with avoiding kids who smoke. #metoo and #churchtoo have shown us just how many of us grew up in very dangerous “safe” youth groups.
    I really appreciate your thoughts on how this book applies to churches. Change in churches requires a delicate and compassionate leadership as well as courage. Thank you for highlighting how this book can help.

  6. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Does anyone besides your mom call you “Stuart”? 🙂

    I would greatly affirm the value in seminaries equipping ministers with navigating the transitions in change. Along with working with a team, dealing with conflict, talking about money, etc. Most of my grad program was theoretical and theological; foundational and vital, but incomplete.

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Stu I appreciated that you tied this book to the church. Often times books catered to business leaders can feel like putting a circle into a square peg for church leaders.

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