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How to Transition a Church
How did Central church go from 400 to 1,200 in attendance in six years? They used a principle their pastor, Darin Latham, learned as a teen the day he discovered he had acne.

When I arrived at Central in January 2001, we were a church of 400 people on a Sunday morning, with a rich heritage and a traditional approach to ministry. Now, in 2007, we are a church of 1,200 people on a Sunday morning, with a vibrant atmosphere and a highly contemporary approach to ministry. I'm often asked how we got here from there. I can tell you that it began with a principle I learned the day I discovered I had acne.

Let me explain.

It was the first time I put on a pair of prescription lenses. I was in my early teens and, up to that point, I thought my vision was normal. Having never looked through someone else's eyes, I assumed that how I saw the world was how everyone else saw it. The optometrist gave me a pair of contact lenses and told me to walk around the mall to try them out. As I passed by a mirror, I caught a glimpse of myself and was traumatized by what I saw—I had acne! I didn't know I had acne. Suddenly, I could see every blemish on my face!

I had a choice to make that day. I could rip out the lenses and go back to my fantasy world of a perfect complexion, or I could face reality and fix my problem.

That same choice is before every organization, and it's the first step in the process of change. It's been said that "You can't change what you won't acknowledge." That's why the first step to introducing change is to create an environment of change. Before transitions can take place, there must be a climate of self-analysis and a recognition of the need for new approaches. How do you create such a climate? Here are three simple steps that worked for us at Central …

Read challenging books. Read books that inspire, stretch and teach you—books that talk about things you've never tried and places you've never been, from leaders you've never met or didn't think you'd even like!

Visit prevailing churches and conferences that stretch you. Take handpicked leaders to churches that are growing and/or doing things very differently. Go somewhere completely outside your box. At Central we've invested tens of thousands of dollars to take busloads of leaders to world-class events. The bus rides alone were filled with life-impacting moments.

Do an honest audit of where you are as a church. You need to create moments where your church stares into the mirror and tells itself the truth. Look at honest attendance and financial trends. What does reality truly look like? A couple of tools that helped us were the Natural Church Development Inventory by Christian Swartz and the Life Cycle of a Church by George Bullard.

The next key is to assemble a team of committed and skilled change agents. This step, while often skipped, is crucial. Before you put a plan in motion, you need to make sure you have the right people on the bus. "The quality of the workers determines the quality of the product." Even the greatest idea can be destroyed in the hands of the wrong person. Once you realize your need for change, do everything you can to put the right people in positions of influence. Which qualities should you look for? Here are four that I use:

… no matter which option you pick, people will leave.

They are sold on the need for change. This is not a time to be putting doubters at the helm. You are looking for people who are convinced of the need for a new direction.

They are skilled in the art of change. Sometimes people reject good ideas simply because of bad presentations. Find people who have people skills, and teach your leaders the art of conflict resolution. They're going to need it.

They are committed to the cause of change. I have a slogan, "Sometimes you have to choose whom you lose." When you are facing crucial decisions you need to realize that, no matter which option you pick, people will leave. Essentially, you have to think through the options and the repercussions and "choose whom you'll lose."

They understand their role in the change process. One of the crucial steps we took was to define clearly the roles of the board and staff in the change and leadership process. We consider ourselves to be generally a "staff-directed, board-protected" congregation. The single best resource I have read on this topic is the book The Imperfect Board Member by Jim Brown.

Once you have established a climate for change and have done your best to assemble a team prepared to lead change, only then can you develop a strategy for change. The key to this step (and take my word on this one), is to ensure it is a grass roots process. I have been guilty in the past of imposing my values and desires upon others instead of doing the spadework of discovering what the values and desires of the congregation actually were. Remember: you are seeking to discover God's fingerprint for the congregation, not leave your fingerprints on it. I've discovered that changes forced from the top usually result in changes at the top.

How do you do this?

Consider bringing in outside help. The objective voice of an experienced outside facilitator can make all the difference. Contact your district office for advice or recommendations.

Focus on the foundational issues. The best place to start is the life-giving (and restoring) process of answering the questions "What is our mission?" and "What are our core values?" You'll be amazed at the energy you tap into by discovering the answers to these questions.

Finally, the last challenge in the change process is to remain constant and vigilant. I have often had to remind myself of the old saying, "It's not the final swing, but all the swings combined, that cut down a tree."

A change agent should be doing three things:

Celebrate every victory that the new vision achieves!

Constantly work the vision. It's as simple as working hard, being ruthlessly focused, and incredibly patient.

Constantly cast the vision. This means being on the giving and receiving end of envisioning! Remember: vision leaks.

Constantly celebrate the vision. Celebrate every victory that the new vision achieves! Catch people doing something right and commend them for it, publicly and privately.

Central is by no means anywhere close to being the ideal church. We can still see blemishes. But one thing is for certain: even at 85 years old, we have a renewed sense of who we are and what we have been uniquely called to do. It's amazing what an honest look in the mirror can do.

This article has been presented in a three-hour conference format and can be ordered on DVD by contacting Central Gospel Temple in St. Catharines, Ontario, or by visiting www.centralgospel.ca.

Darin Latham is married and has four children. He is the Lead Pastor at Central Gospel Temple, Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, in St. Catharines, a church that has grown from 400 to 1,200 congregants on a Sunday morning over the last six years.

Originally published in Testimony, May 2007.

 

 
 
 
 

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