Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church

Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church

by Lovett H. Jr. Weems

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Learn how to work for genuine and effective change in your church without trying to throw out everything that has gone before.

Pastors and other congregational leaders are eager to institute meaningful and effective change in their congregations. They know that old attitudes and perspectives prevent the church from fulfilling its mission to make disciples of

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Learn how to work for genuine and effective change in your church without trying to throw out everything that has gone before.

Pastors and other congregational leaders are eager to institute meaningful and effective change in their congregations. They know that old attitudes and perspectives prevent the church from fulfilling its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Yet too often church advocates insist that if genuine change is to occur in the church, then everything must change. The board must be wiped clean, and new technologies, new worship styles, and even new theologies must replace what has come before.

The problem with such calls for radical change, says Lovett Weems, Jr., is that they are not true to the way that genuine and lasting change takes place. Like every other organization, churches rest on a cultural foundation of shared assumptions, values, and practices. The paradox of successful change is that this foundation is at the same time the source of resistance to change and what makes change possible. Lasting, transformational change grows out of the congregation's current sense of its story and its mission. Transformational leaders know how to build on the church's identity, making new ministries and emphases the natural extension of what has gone before. In other words they know how to make the story of change the next chapter in the book of the congregation's life, rather than throwing the book away and trying to start over.

An astute student of management and leadership theory, Weems offers congregational leaders essential insights into how they can work with and through their churches' ministries to bring about authentic and faithful growth.

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Take the Next Step

Leading Lasting Change in the Church

By Lovett H. Weems Jr.

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-1910-3


First Create Trust

We must be the change we seek to produce.


The ability to create trust is the foundational competency for effective change. When church leaders begin reading supposedly secular books about leadership, it is often a great surprise that the language used in the best of the books seems to come from the vocabulary of the church. Church leaders may expect to find elaborate grids, schemes, and designs. Instead, the words that dominate have to do with values and character. It soon becomes quite evident that there is no way to talk about leadership without talking about values, character, and relationships.

When I was a seminary president, I spent much time raising money. That is one thing seminary presidents are called to do. Years ago I heard the statistic that major gifts tend to come after a dozen or so visits, often by the president. I was close to that statistical average with a woman in her nineties. She had ample resources, no family, close ties to the church, interest in our school, yet had never given a single gift. I arranged yet another visit with her by scheduling a flight with a lengthy layover in her city so I could take her to dinner, as was our usual pattern.

When I arrived at her home, she was not dressed to go out. She indicated that she was not feeling well and perhaps we could visit for a few minutes and then I could head back to the airport. We talked briefly in her living room. Then, as I was standing at the door to leave, she said simply, "I trust you." Her words meant a great deal to me personally, as my regard for her had grown through the years. I also knew then that she wanted to provide significant support for the seminary; she left half of her estate for student scholarships.

That was the day I learned that the term development was no mere euphemism for "fundraising." It became abundantly clear to me that people give out of trust, and that trust grows out of relationships and experiences that engender such trust.

A term sometimes used in communication theory is the "ethical proof" of the speaker. Ethical proof refers to the credibility that the hearers accord the speaker. When the ethical proof is high, the task of persuading the audience is not hard. When the ethical proof is neutral, the speaker has a more difficult time. When the ethical proof is negative, the speaker has an extremely difficult time persuading the audience. This concept means that the way the constituents perceive the leader is often much more important than the "facts" of the presentation.

So it is with the presence of trust and credibility between leaders and constituents. James Kouzes speaks of credibility as "credit-ability." People are doing an analysis of our credibility all the time just as a bank might assess our credit worthiness. Indeed, credibility is the working capital of the leader. It is from the account of credibility that the leader draws to make possible creative change. Credibility is the foundation upon which all effective leadership builds.

A leader wins trust slowly, but can lose it quickly. Once lost, this trust is difficult to regain in that leadership setting. People may give us a leadership position through election or employment. However, the credibility needed to lead must be worked out among the people with whom we serve. It is trust from those with whom the leader works most closely that gives a leader the essential element of credibility.


A United Methodist bishop met with a group of seminary leaders recently to discuss his observations about the type of clergy leadership most needed by churches today. The bishop noted with disappointment that many clergy leaders appear not to give the time and attention required to develop trust relationships sufficient for effective leadership. What the bishop observes about clergy leadership is true of all leadership.

The level of trust that exists within an organization and toward leaders is crucial to the effectiveness of leadership. When trust is limited, it is difficult for progress to take place. Change requires a minimal level of trust. Some speak of a "trust threshold" or a "radius of trust." That describes the variations in trust we all experience in relation to individuals and groups. Over time we come to extend more trust to some people and organizations than to others.

Economists remind us that in societies where the "radius of trust" is limited to family and a few close friends, a strong and expanding economic life is difficult to achieve. Economic transactions require a certain level of trust. Lack of sufficient trust imposes something like a tax on all interactions that makes progress more difficult.

This helps explain why in low-trust organizations, even modest change is hard to achieve. Conversely, in places where a high level of trust has been developed, remarkable change can be accomplished with a minimum of acrimony and delay.

The leadership challenge is to provide the "glue" to cohere independent units in a world characterized by forces of entropy and fragmentation. Only one element has been identified as powerful enough to overcome those centripetal forces, and that is trust.

James O'Toole



Relationships are the first imperative for trust. Warren Carter, Pherigo Professor of New Testament at Saint Paul School of Theology, describes characteristics that are central to leadership in the church in the New Testament, and names "relationships" as the first. Helen Doohan notes personal involvement with the people as a significant characteristic of Paul's leadership. The importance of relationships is seen in Paul's early leadership, described in First Thessalonians and developed more fully in later letters, in which he is intimately involved with the community, and his life is intimately bound together with theirs.

It was relationships that provided the foundation for Paul to address pivotal issues. Relationships are more than ends in themselves for leaders. For Paul, involvement and relationship provided a context in which issues and questions could be placed and handled. We are called to build relationships so that we can all better serve a common mission and vision. On the other hand, working on fulfilling a common purpose, with all its struggles, can be important in building strong and lasting relationships. One does not build positive relationships as a substitute for mission but to make mission possible. And on the way to fulfilling mission, new and even deeper relationships are discovered.

The sensitive and delicate relationship between an orchestra director and the members of the orchestra is a helpful reminder of the importance of relationship between leaders and those with whom they work. A strong bond must be established if leadership is to take place. A study of leaders in one professional field found that the number one reason leaders failed was an "inability to get along." "Poor interpersonal skills represent the single biggest reason for failure," the report said, "and the most crucial flaw to recognize and remedy." A denominational executive spent a year visiting every local church in the state where he gave oversight. At the end of the year, when asked for any insights about clergy leadership that came to him from this experience, he said that the single most common source of difficulty for pastors was in their struggles around interpersonal relations within the congregation.

One of the distinguishing qualities of successful people who lead in any field is the emphasis they place on personal relationships.

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky

Clearly presence is a requirement for establishing strong and solid relationships. Absence does not "make the heart grow fonder" in congregational life. Just the opposite is true. Relationship building takes time, attention, and care. It was the late Tip O'Neill, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who popularized the phrase "All politics is local."

Increasingly I am coming to believe that all leadership is local. There is a sheer presence required for effective leadership. Leaders must stay close to the people with whom they work and close to the details of what is happening in their setting of leadership. When too much time and emotional energy are being given to endeavors outside that setting of leadership, there is almost always a deterioration of the quality of relationships and leadership.

I remember being struck by a comment made by a nationally famous preacher who was speaking at our seminary. I remarked that he probably spent a great deal of time away from home doing such speaking. He indicated that he did not. He went on to tell about numerous weekly ties he has to congregational members and events and how he will rarely be away so as to have to miss one of them. Since that time I have noticed how closely great leaders stay connected to their local settings of leadership.

In the 1960s I heard the activist Saul Alinsky speak. A college student asked him about what the student might do to become a national social movement leader. Alinsky's answer was immediate and simple: "If you want to be a great leader, you must become a great leader in a local community." Yes, all leadership is local, and it begins with the bonding of leaders and constituents which is so critical to trust.

Before there are plans and programs, human relationships must be formed. Credibility is built on relationships. Although leaders normally can expect some basic acceptance from the group because of the leadership role, that is not an adequate relational basis for leadership at all. It is that strong bond that is required for leadership.

In fact, Kouzes and Barry Posner define leadership as "a reciprocal relationship between those who choose to lead and those who decide to follow." Margaret Wheatley makes clear the importance of relationships in her understanding when she says, "Relationships are everything."

The first imperative for establishing and maintaining trust is the quality of relationships that are established by the leader. Therefore, the priority for a leader is to establish a relationship of trust and respect with the people with whom the leader is working. Everything depends on this bonding. We come to trust people we know. Building such relationships requires active presence. Since we come to trust people we know, whom do we know? We know people who are there. Proximity is the most important reason people talk to each other. Leaders are present and visible.

At the most basic level, we trust those who care about us. We trust those who we believe understand our concerns and will act in a way that takes our needs into account. Trust develops from relationships that engender confidence and mutual respect. It is developed within the context of leadership in the day-by-day interactions with real people in actual circumstances. Paul speaks of authority being used for "building up" and not for "tearing down" (2 Cor. 13:10). Do people perceive us as caring about them and seeking what is best for them?

True leaders know it is not a matter of appearing to care. "Whom you would change," Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "you must first love." Secular writers make the same point in saying that just possibly "the best-kept secret of successful leaders is love."


A second imperative for trust is character. Character here means honesty and integrity that comes from consistency between one's words and actions. Behavior is the key. Even perceptions of inconsistency hurt trust. Perfection is not the issue so much as coherence among words, values, and actions. Do people see us doing what we say we are going to do?

For a number of years, a United Methodist pastor served in Mississippi with great difficulty. He and his family moved regularly from one modest pastorate to another, sometimes after only one year. The reasons for the frequent moves were many. The educational, personal, and social differences between pastor and assigned congregations were gigantic. Nevertheless, near the surface of parish conflict with their pastor was a profound witness by the pastor against the segregation and racism of the day.

When the United States Supreme Court rendered a decision in late 1969 that finally instituted unitary school systems across the South, this pastor was serving a white congregation in the Mississippi Delta where pronounced African American population majorities are common. The pastor's community was in a school district affected by the ruling. Within a matter of weeks, whites left the public school system, with the exception of the pastor's children.

A committee from the church made an appointment with the United Methodist bishop to talk about their pastoral appointment for the coming year. Bishops were accustomed to meeting with delegations upset with this particular pastor. Nevertheless, the bishop was surprised by the delegation's message. They said, "We don't agree or understand what our pastor and his family are doing. However, we respect his commitment to his beliefs. We understand, Bishop, that it may be best for our pastor's family to move. But, we want you to know that our request to you is that our pastor whom we respect be returned for another year."

Personal leadership and organizational leadership require the persistent example and power of character and integrity. A study of exemplary leaders among Catholic health systems found a profound synthesis of values and actions. Integrity strengthens the capabilities of leaders and institutions to address pressing needs. As Rosita de Ann Mathews puts it, "Integrity builds structures that become impervious to demonic penetration."

Trust that comes from the character of the leader accumulates over countless personal and public encounters where the leader behaves in a way that communicates honesty and integrity. Each experience can contribute to the credibility a leader needs for maximum effectiveness. Although the effects are quite practical for a leader, the motivation is far from calculating. Leaders of character behave in honorable ways because of who they are and who they seek to become as children of God and leaders called by God for leadership on behalf of the entire community of faith.


Excerpted from Take the Next Step by Lovett H. Weems Jr.. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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