A Conversation about Change in Leadership

by vernsanders on August 1, 2010

Last week, in my Monday Morning Email newsletter, I posed the following questions:

I’ve been thinking about what happens when a ministry or church has a change in leadership. I think that change is difficult for a lot of people, and I know that when a new staff member arrives they generally have some sort of an agenda…whether or not the church has hired them because they need a new agenda in that particular ministry. But few new staff members heed the advice of Bob Munger, as told to me by my friend Doug Lawrence: “Go slow, lay low, and don’t blow.” Have you ever had a difficult beginning, either as the new staff person, or as the one who has been there for some time? Do you think that a new agenda is, by and large, a good thing or a bad thing? How do you deal with the new reality? What do you know that nobody else may know?

I had a number of replies.

Jack Horner told me what he’d learned:

Somewhere in my past someone planted within my DNA the idea that everyone has a boss and you’d better know who that is and find out quickly what they want.  I have never had any problem with a new minister because I immediately let him know on every level that he has my full support.  If I can’t do what he wants God will open another door for me.  That’s the way it has worked for 32 years of music ministry and, in the four churches I have served, I have always left on good terms with my senior minister.

I heard Dr. Leonard Sweet recently say that EGO could be interpreted as Edging God Out. We all have egos and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  However we need to keep a check on that and be ready to follow at the same time that we lead.

Dr. Stan McDaniel quibbled a bit about the connotations of the word agenda, and had some great words about vision:

The question about “coming in with an “agenda” is a good one.  I teach Philosophy and Practice of Church Music at East Carolina University.  The content of that class has to do with preparing for a career in music ministry and what you do when you arrive at that new job.

“Agenda,” I think, has a more negative connotation than I would like.   Agenda suggests hidden motives, while ”vision” is more positive.  Let me explain:  I counsel students that part of the job interview process for the applicant should be to get impressions of the Christian community he or she is considering serving.   One must go into the position feeling strongly that “this is a community that will respond to my leadership and my strengths.   I feel there is a place for me in this community.  I like these folks,  and my skills will blend nicely with where they are right now.”  You don’t go into a marriage or a new church music position hoping to radically change the other party.  You must be able to accept them and work with  them where they are, and let change come naturally…

On the other hand, great leadership requires vision.  People respond best to a leader who exhibits a clear vision for ministry now and in the future.  Those who simply “lay low” will have mediocre success.  A great leader has the ability to accept and love people where they are and not manipulate them for the sake of a hidden agenda.  There are no hidden agendas, but the great leader must have vision.   He/she will be able to consistently, effectively, and lovingly communicate that vision and model it in everything they do.  The vision may change or develop over time, but it is the engine driving effective leadership.  It gives it purpose and integrity.  Love, respect, patience, and the courage to be true to your ideals all play a part.

And Tom Shedd pointed out that change is not always bad:

Times of change in leadership are also times to change those things that need to be changed but have not been able to be changed for political reasons. During the “worship wars” of the 80′s some congregations used a change of leadership in music ministry to also make a change in worship style. Painful – perhaps, but probably helpful in the long run for most churches.

Change, as Tom points out, is not all bad. I’ve had the opportunity and the pain of being a change agent for a number of churches and other organizations, and it is often not pretty. But to implement change, it often comes down to one opinion of the future versus another. And, in my experience, the larger the organization, and/or the older the demographic, and/or the more tightly held the beliefs, the more difficult it is to effect real change.

My responders addressed the philosophy of change to a greater extent than the human impact of change, particularly in the case of a new staff member who arrives with a “set in stone” agenda (or vision). Sad to say, many church staffs are a hotbed of power struggles, and a lot of the tussle is about change. However you feel about it, I think it is useful to spend time preparing for it in anticipation or at the onset of any staff change.

I’d love to hear what you think. Please leave a comment below.

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August 2, 2010 at 8:51 am

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Janice August 2, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Pardon my cynicism if it starts to show.

My church is in the middle of such change that we have been unable to even hire an interim pastor. The pastor resigned in December and basically did a “slash and burn” as far as she could reach. We worked with a professional for 6 months to help us sort things out and I hope that we are on the long to healing.

I have agreed to stay on for now – but I am taking it one season at a time and will most likely resign when we call a new permanent pastor. Why? Because I have been abused, undermined, humiliated, and slandered by the last two “permanent” called pastors all in the name of “vision” — ego, narcissism, and substance abuse.

I have been Minister of Music for this wonderful church for over 22 years (minus one year in New Zealand). Hopefully, when we find an interim, they will be able to implement a vision of healing and growth for us to move on.

All in all, this church is still a very special place with some amazing people and I pray that my leadership will help them through the transition. Thanks for providing a place to vent because I am trying to show nothing but kindness and love to the people who are left!

vernsanders August 3, 2010 at 10:03 am


I know your church, and the only thing I can say is I’m sorry. I wish I could say that yours is an isolated happenstance, but, sadly, that is not the case.

A friend of mine has a saying that I would paraphrase as “Trust God and Love People, but don’t get the two confused.” I think you are doing exactly the right thing by continuing to love the people “left behind” through the transition.

I hope that you find a way to stay in the long run because you are enabled to do ministry again. If not, yours will join the long list of tales of good people who leave the ministry because of what it takes to do ministry.


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