Rocking the Boat without Capsizing

April 11th, 2012
Image © by axhixh | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

In the late 1980s, rhythm and blues group Midnight Star climbed the charts with a sensational hit called “Don’t Rock the Boat.” Have you experienced these sentiments before as a church leader? If so, you are in good company. If not, get ready.

“If you want truly to understand something,” said social psychologist Kurt Lewin, “try to change it.” Most people do not welcome change. But, according to Lewin, a pioneer in the study of group dynamics, change can be managed. We must learn how and when to rock the boat of “church as usual” attitudes to discern God’s vision and strategies for today.

Clergy and lay leaders can and should make changes in alignment with their job descriptions and the church’s mission. First, however, one must build relationships, talk with the people involved, and understand the systems involved in the change. Before making any changes, new leaders should go on a journey to discover the truths of their contexts.

Learn the facts. Before proposing an increase in the youth budget, for example, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of the overall budget, past and present, as it relates to youth.

Build relationships. Learn who the real and perceived leaders are. Get to know them well. Schedule one-to-one meetings. Ask lots of questions. What ministries are thriving? Which ones are barely surviving? Listen more than you talk.

Assess yourself. At the same time, ask how you may need to change to serve effectively in this new leadership role. What new skills do you need to develop? What underdeveloped gifts do you need to cultivate?

Weigh the costs and benefits. Of all the possible changes, which ones are emerging as realistic and worth the time and effort involved? What “price” will you and others have to pay for the change? And what is the cost of not changing?

Identify the sacred cows. It is important to know what is sacred in your context. Something that has little meaning in one church may be of utmost significance for another. A new worship chairperson can get in needless trouble by moving a few candles. When key stakeholders become upset over small changes, major changes become even more difficult. So take time to understand why things are the way they are.

Don’t take resistance personally. Remember that you may be wrong. When you do make mistakes, be swift to make amends.

Develop a clear theological rationale. All change needs to be grounded in a clear rationale of how God is glorified in these changes and how the church can advance its mission to be the presence of Christ in the world. Only what you do for Christ will last. In all your ways acknowledge God, and God will direct your path.

This article is reprinted by permission from Leading Ideas, a free online newsletter of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and available at


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