Leadership, Change, and Elephants

"The single biggest factor determining whether a church is going to get healthier is the genuine commitment and active involvement of the pastor."

Pastors are the key to change and transparency in their congregations; if the pastor isn't leading the way, change can't take place. What sets pastors apart as leaders? According to the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving:

They lead from the front. They are more than cheerleaders; they personally embody the values and the vision of the congregation. They build a cohesive leadership team, demand organizational clarity, and inspire and birth trust.

They model transparency. Pastors are unambiguous as to their role, their responsibility, and their expectations. They lead with organizational clarity, setting long-term goals and short-term priorities. They measure outcomes and are truth-tellers.

They do the hard things. They demonstrate vulnerability. They hold their colleagues accountable to the values and priorities of the congregation. They go public with tough issues. They sacrifice personal gain for organizational success.

They ask the big questions. Why do we exist? What do we do? How do we behave? What could we be doing differently or better? What does success look like for our congregation?

They are macro-managers. Pastors know how to delegate, and they trust and empower their colleagues and boards. They focus on their congregation's vision and mission priorities, leaving the administration of details to others.

They monitor communication. They are the chief-reminding officers of their congregation. They tirelessly remind members as to what's important, making certain people aren't receiving mixed messages.

As leaders, pastors must focus on what Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors, calls "clock building". This means working to shape a healthy, self-sustaining church which will thrive regardless of any one program or pastor's time there (as opposed to "time telling" which devotes too much time and energy to a single specific idea or the pastor's priorities over those of the congregation). Oftentimes this work involves something which every church finds to be a challenge: change.

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes an interesting analogy; he says our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. But what does this have to do with pastors and orchestrating effective change when it's needed in a church? Chip and Dan Heath's book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, takes Haidt's analogy and applies it to an organization and its leader. It says:

          "Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider's control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. When Rider and Elephant disagree about which way to move, you've got a problem. The Rider can get his way temporarily- he can tug on the reins hard enough to get the Elephant to submit. But the Rider can't win a tug-of-war with a  huge animal for long; he simply gets exhausted. And if the Rider isn't sure exactly what direction to go, he tends to lead the Elephant in circles."

What can pastors (and lay leaders) do to get the Rider and the Elephant to work together?

Direct the Rider: Build on what's working and what the church does well. Marry long-term goals to short-term events or programs.

Motivate the Elephant: Build on positive emotions, encourage creativity, help people feel closer to the finish, and focus on new identities (ex. "This is who we are.").

Smooth the Path: Find familiar ways to ease the move in a new direction, create habits that support change, and celebrate small steps.

In Switch the Heaths include eleven common problems leaders encounter when they try to change something, as well as advice on how to overcome those problems. The challenges include people not seeing the need for change, wanting to change but getting bogged down in analysis, resisting new ideas because "we've never done it like that before", and people being excited to change at first but losing momentum after hitting a rough patch. We encourage pastors and church leaders to read the whole book, but if time is an issue, definitely read how to overcome these eleven obstacles.

Leading isn't easy. Change isn't easy. Creating a healthy church isn't easy. But if we hope to do God's work on Earth, we have to start with the hard work in our congregations.


(Elephant watercolor by Xavier Verg├ęs Farrer├│)