Not too long ago I found myself on a narrow two-lane road on my way to an appointment. I had never been in this area, so I was trying to be very careful and watch for the place I needed to turn. But, as happens to me occasionally, I did not see the sign for my turn in time to make it so I had to keep driving. I wanted to just stop and make a u-turn but there was no shoulder to the road and there was the occasional car coming from the opposite direction so I knew that was not a good option for me.
I could tell the car driving behind me knew the area and was becoming frustrated at my hesitant speed. They could not pass me so they had to just slow down and follow. Being aware of their presence caused stress for me but I could not move over and did not intend to miss an opportunity to turn around.
As I continued to drive, I was very conscious of the fact I was going farther and farther from my desired destination. I was also mindful of the time – I had somewhere to be and I did not want to be late! I’m sure my blood pressure was rising as all of these factors began to add up. I needed to do something but I had to be careful. I had to keep going until I found a safe place to turn around.
This real-life story reminds me of the challenges all leaders will face multiple times as they navigate the minefield of change in the group they are called to lead. You feel you know where you need to be as a group/organization/church, but being able to get there will not always be easy. A sudden turn – a quick decision – a careless move – can be catastrophic. The key to successful change will always be finding a safe place to turn around.
Change is inevitable. It occurs whether you want it or not. Our human bodies are the best examples of change. Look at a picture of yourself from ten years ago then look in the mirror. Notice anything different? You have changed! Regardless of your diet, exercise regimen and mental fitness you cannot keep change from happening. Change is a natural part of the process.
The world around us is changing. Sometimes I reminisce about the world in which I grew up causing me to feel that somewhere along the way I was transported to another planet because the world I live in now in no way compares to the one of my childhood! I didn’t ask for these changes but they happened nonetheless. As is often said today – it is what it is. Change just keeps on coming!
Very few people are surprised at the changes from the two examples I just gave. We may not like it, but we accept – and even expect – these changes. But…change within the group – especially the church – is another matter entirely. I change, my world changes, but leave my church alone! But, guess what, change happens at church too. We must keep the same message but methods will need to change from time to time.
What are some things to remember when entering a season of change? I am sure this is not an exhaustive list, but here are four statements I believe any leader needs to consider when approaching change:
1. Change must be led. Leaders must be intentional with change. There always should be a clear understanding of the reason, process and target of the change. Communication with the group will be extremely important – there should be no surprises. Surprises breed suspicion. Suspicion causes trust to be lost.
Even when change takes place incrementally – which in many cases is the best policy – someone needs to own it and be responsible for keeping everything on track. Leaving anything to chance is a dangerous course to take. As the cliché’ goes – failing to plan is a plan to fail. There can always be adjustments to the plan but there must be a plan.
Leaders earn their stripes during seasons of change. Standing at the helm puts one in a vulnerable position but that is when leadership must rise to the occasion. There will be times when patience must be exercised. There will be times when decisions must be made. There will be times when you swim against the current. There will be times momentum is on your side. During the good, the bad and the ugly – leaders lead.
2. There can be a wrong way to do the right thing. I have worked with many pastors who told me they were confident they heard from God on a matter. In spite of this firm conviction, their efforts did not succeed. Their heart was right and their motives were pure but still things did not work out. In many of these instances the change that was sought was noble but the plan to achieve it was lacking.
There is a classic example of the wrong way to do the right thing in I Chronicles 13:7-11. In this story David and his men are bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem after it had been stolen and removed by the Philistines. A plan is devised to place the Ark upon a cart to be pulled by oxen – what could possibly go wrong?
As this celebrating caravan make their way toward Jerusalem, the oxen stumble and the Ark shakes. Uzzah, caring deeply for the security of the Ark, reached out and grabbed the Ark simply to stabilize it. This actually seems like a good thing to do – but there is a problem. God had strictly forbidden anyone to touch the Ark. When Uzzah did this, he was immediately struck dead. God’s response to Uzzah’s action tells us there can be a wrong way to do the right thing.
I am grateful that unlike Uzzah, our mistakes will probably not bring sudden death to us, but they can bring much frustration and disappointment. This is the reason leaders must pay attention to details. While most of us are goal oriented, the path leading to the goal is of utmost importance. Never ignore the process. How you achieve your goal does matter. The end does not justify the means. When you get to where you are going, you want to feel good about how you got there.
Here is a nugget to remember – a leader’s integrity will be affected more by the how than the what. The systems of men reward the result while the hearts of the people are changed by how you achieved the result. Good leaders care about those they lead. Manipulative leaders use people to gain advantage for themselves. Choose to be a good leader.
3. Safe arrival at your destination must be a priority. (Crashes can really ruin a good day!) We have often heard about those who win the battle but lose the war. This happens when shortsighted leaders only see what is immediately in front of them but fail to consider what happens next. These situations rarely end well. There is momentary gratification but the pain that follows is greater than the preceding joy. This problem is taken off the table by a clear understanding of the big picture and making sure each step taken leads to the desired destination.
Leaders must never be so sure of their “rightness” that they develop a win-at-any-cost attitude. The desired change may be in the best interest of the group but until the group believes this – or is at least willing to try – the changes are good for no one. Remember the goal is safe arrival at the destination with as few casualties as possible.
Too often the battlefield of change resembles the battlefield of war – casualties and destruction everywhere. The leader made the changes desired but the price was great. The thrill of victory is hollow because the losses will be hard to overcome – if they ever can be.
There is a simple fact to keep in mind when the possibility of change is being explored – everything we do in life has a price attached. What will the price be to make the change? What will the price be if we do not make the change? Is the difference between action and inaction great enough to merit the change? It is a very foolish leader who will not take the time to sit down and count the cost before launching into drastic change within any organization.
Sometimes you just have to go for it. The group is heading in a disastrous direction and waiting for a better time to institute change is not an option. This is a tough predicament in which to be but these situations do exist. But, even when this is the case, a good leader will go the extra mile to avoid crashes. Safe arrival at the destination for all the people is the desired outcome.
4. Aborting a plan is not always bad. Football fans know that sometimes the best play for your team is to punt. Punting the ball to the other team means you are giving up on your present set of downs but with the expectation of getting the ball back in a better position. We do not score this time, but we look forward to another opportunity.
Sometimes plans do not work. Sometimes timing is just not right. No matter how we frame it, push for it and believe in it – it ain’t happening! When this happens, a wise leader backs up and makes a new plan. Continuing to fight a losing battle makes no sense; living to fight another day makes all the sense in the world. Aborting the planned change in this situation is not loss; a dogged determination to have it your way regardless of the cost will bring great loss. Leaders need to know how to punt.
This article began with me driving down the road needing to turn around but unable to do so. It was necessary for me to continue driving away from my desired destination in order to find a place where I could turnaround safely. I was frustrated – drivers around me were angry – people expecting me wondered where I was – but none of that mattered. The success of my trip required me to stay the course until I found a safe place to turnaround.
Sincere leaders are always looking for ways to make things better and to become more productive. Most usually it will be determined change is necessary for this to occur. There will be many opinions as to what these changes should look like and when they should happen, but the leader – while listening to the advise of others – must make a thorough survey of the landscape and make the best decision possible. Much will be involved in this decision, but it all begins with a single turn. Be careful – be wise – be prayerful. Make sure you find a safe place to turnaround.
Good leaders care about those they lead. Egotistical and manipulative leaders use those they lead.