3 Essentials to Bring Change in your Church

If your church is not changing, it’s not growing. I heard someone once say, “Don’t be afraid of change. You might lose something good, but you’ll gain something better.” However, bringing change in a church is often difficult. One of the greatest leaders of all time, Nehemiah, effected change in the setting that surrounded the building of the wall around Jerusalem. He modeled for leaders three essentials necessary to bring change.

Embrace or Reject Change

In Nehemiah 5, after Nehemiah faced opposition from without (criticism from his adversaries) and opposition from within (discouraged people), he faced a new crisis. Wealthy Jews were exploiting the poor by charging excessive interest rates. As a result, the poor faced hunger, crippling debt, and even slavery because some had to sell their children into slavery to pay off the debts.

In the midst of that crisis Nehemiah engaged three essentials that resulted in the guilty party changing. The rich repented of their abuse and paid back the money they had taken from the poor.

He engaged these three parts of himself to bring that change.

His heart: he engaged his passion.

In verse 6 he writes, When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.  In other words, this issue gripped his heart. It stirred his passion and emotions that motivated him to action.

His head: he carefully thought.

Rather than reacting to the situation and letting his emotion override good judgment, verse 7 says, I pondered them in my mind…. In other words, he paused long enough to get a clear picture of things before he acted. James reminds of this.

James 1.19   My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

His hands: he did something.

Finally, he took action by taking these four steps.

  1. Define reality by clearly defining the change you want to bring (the rich were exploiting the poor and that needed to stop).
  2. Bring the right people to the table (vss 7-12). He had to engage the right people to solve the problem. So, he confronted the guilty party and informed the rest of the people what he had discovered.
  3. Secure commitment (v 12). He held the guilty accountable by asking them to take an oath that they would give back what they had taken.
  4. Set a good example (vss 14-16). Nehemiah didn’t simply expect others to change. He, too, took responsibility by setting a good example. He sacrificed by refusing the king’s food allotment usually given to governors like himself. He committed to never exploiting the people as former leaders had. He committed to being a different kind of leader.

Nehemiah wisely managed change by using his heart, his head, and his hands to effect that change.

What has helped you create change in your church or ministry?

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8 Ways to Bust Leadership Discouragement

Discouragement is a universal experience for ministry leaders and the word actually self defines itself…dis-courage meaning no courage. Some of the Bible’s greatest characters faced it: Moses, David, Paul, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the apostles. Nehemiah, the great Old Testament leader faced it when he led the Jews to rebuild the wall. Yet, his response offers us hope when we face it.

Businessman having a crisis

Nehemiah had been hammered with criticism and it was taking its toll. Discouragement had set in. Nehemiah 4.10-21 tells us what Nehemiah did in response to it. This part of the rebuilding story gives us 8 discouragement busters.

Buster 1: Monitor your thoughts.

This buster is perhaps the most important one. An unconscious chatter is always active inside our minds because our mind simply wanders a lot. When we are not thinking about anything else, it wanders off into worry, fear, anxiety, or discouragement.

A key concept gaining greater prominence today is something called metacognition which simply means thinking about what you are thinking about. To battle discouragement we must discipline ourselves to be aware of this constant chatter that often leads us into discouragement. I believe the Apostle Paul understood that when he wrote this verse.

Phil. 4.8   Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

So, to bust discouragement stop and ask yourself, “What am I thinking about?” Monitor your thoughts, your self-talk, the inner chatter. Change you thinking if it’s going negative.

Buster 2: When you feel discouraged call it what it is, don’t stuff it, ignore it, or rehearse it.

Nehemiah didn’t ignore the discouragement the people felt.

When we name our negative emotion we actually decrease its power, contrary to what we often tell ourselves, “Just ignore it or stuff it.” Neuroscientists have discovered that when we stuff our emotions it actually reinforces them over the long term. But when we actually name them, it decreases the power of our emotional centers and engages the thinking centers of our minds.

Buster 3: Guard against emotional pig-pens.

Pig-pen, one of the characters in the Peanuts cartoon was always dirty and carried around a cloud of dust wherever he went. And, he seemed to spread his dirt everywhere he went. Pig-pen is a great word picture for some people who carry around a cloud of discouragement with them wherever they go. In Nehemiah’s day some of the Jews living in the surrounding areas would come into town and bring their discouragement. When you know someone around you is an emotional pig-pen, keep your distance.

Buster 4: Do nothing.

Nehemiah had to stop the building for a time to re-group and re-focus the Jews. Sometimes as leaders we get so tired or sleep deprived we simply need to stop, rest, sleep more, or simply take a break.

Buster 5: Do something.

Nehemiah responded to this discouragement and resistance by getting the people to be intentional about doing something to get them off their negativity. He gave them a common goal. He did something constructive by setting new plans in place to deal with his enemies. So, when discouragement comes, don’t wallow in it. Rather, do something constructive.

 Buster 6. Be specific with your plan.

Nehemiah was specific in what he did in response to the discouragement. He made many changes in how the work was done. The same holds true for defeating discouragement. We know that discouragement will come our way, so be prepared. When it comes, act upon your predetermined plan. Such a plan may include calling it what it is, going for a walk, calling a friend, doing something nice for someone, or spending 10 minutes on a short term project you’ve been avoiding (like cleaning off your desk).

Buster 7: Count your blessings, not your burdens.

Nehemiah often reminded the people of God’s faithfulness to them. In doing so he was helping them count their blessings. Neuroscientists are learning that when we count our blessings and shift our attention from the negative we actually decrease the chemicals in our brain that make us feel blue. By counting your blessings you are intentionally shifting your attention off the source of and the emotion of discouragement. The Psalmists counsels us with these words.

Psa. 77.11 I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.

Buster 8: Don’t face your discouragement all alone.

Nehemiah would keep his trumpeter at his side and if he saw the enemy marshaling forces in the distance, he’d sound the alarm to bring everybody together. The beauty of the body of Christ remind us that we don’t have to bear our burdens alone. When you face discouragement, take the initiative to be a friend, get into a safe small group, or see a counselor. Don’t bear it alone.

Every ministry leader will face discouragement. Nehemiah’s response gives us hope in our discouragement.

What has helped you battle discouragement?

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The Often Overlooked Brain-based Insight that Improves Preaching

I’ve given over 1,000 talks, sermons, speeches, and Bible studies during my 33 years in ministry. Sometimes I’ve felt like my mind was in the zone. Sometimes I didn’t. Only in the last few years have I discovered perhaps the single greatest key that has helped keep my mind sharp during a talk and improve its effectiveness. What was it? Exercise. Specifically, exercise within two to three hours of my talk. Here’s what I’ve learned about the brain and exercise that has improved my speaking.

Brain exercise 3d illustration

Scientists increasingly see exercise as a powerful way to keep your brain healthy. Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey wrote an entire book on the subject called SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that exercise increases a key protein necessary for a healthy brain, BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). Brain derived means that the brain makes it and neurotrophic implies that it helps make neurons (brain cells) strong. It’s considered the master molecule of learning (Ratey, p. 38) that he calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’

This brain fertilizer benefits the brain in many ways.

  • It protects neurons from premature death.
  • It improves their function.
  • It enhances communication between them.
  • It stimulates their growth (neurogenesis).
  • It provides a key link between emotions and thoughts (Ratey, 2013, p 40).

In one study Dr. Ratey writes about neuroscientist Arthur Kramer who divided fifty-nine sedentary senior adults into two groups (p. 226). One group simply did stretching exercises for six months while the other group exercised for six months three times a week on a treadmill. MRI scans showed that their frontal and temporal lobes actually increased in volume, a surprising finding. And, their brains looked two to three years younger than the brains of the stretch only group.

Another study showed that even one 35-minute workout on a treadmill at 60-70% of maximum heart rate can improve our brain’s processing speed and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes your brain’s ability to shift its thinking and to create new ideas.

Dr. Ratey also studied students in a school system in the Chicago suburbs. The school began a before hours exercise program called Zero Hour P.E. Students who participated in the program improved their mood and their reading comprehension compared to students who didn’t participate. He directly attributed this improvement to exercise.

Although for years I’ve regularly exercised during the week, I usually didn’t do so on Sundays since I had to arrive at church early. However, when I learned about this insight, I began to exercise 20-30 minutes early each Sunday morning. I’d either run or ride a stationary recumbent bike to get my heart rate to 60-70% of its maximum. When I began my Sunday morning exercise routine, I quickly realized these benefits.

  • I was less anxious about my message.
  • My memory improved and I more easily recalled the sermon’s points as I spoke.
  • I felt more physically energized than when I didn’t exercise.
  • I was more relaxed around others.
  • My overall mood was much better.

So, if you regularly preach or teach, consider exercising 20-30 minutes 2-3 hours prior to your teaching. I believe you’ll experience some of the same benefits I did.

What has helped improve your preaching/teaching?

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Are you a People Pleasing Pastor with your Board

Skinny, nerdy, and lacking much athletic ability, I grew up trying to get people to like me. Although I didn’t compromise my Christian values to gain popularity, I used other techniques to gain approval. Those techniques included profusely offering compliments to others, smiling a lot, and avoiding ruffled feathers. Slowly I developed people pleaser tendencies that followed me into ministry. Several years ago after I realized that I was becoming a people pleasing pastor, I began to change how I relate to my board that I’ve described below. Although I’ve made progress, I’m still in recovery.

Board of Directors People Speech Bubbles Discussion Company Lead

For my just released book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership, I researched over 2,000 pastors and saw myself reflected in many of their stories. In one phase of on-line research pastors could anonymously record their pleaser stories. I gathered over 100 single spaced pages of stories, many of them heartbreakers. Here’s one pastor’s story that struck a chord in me.

For the first three years after coming to First Church, in the fall I would bring a list of recommended goals for the coming year for the church board to consider adopting for the church.  The third year I did it, the board asked me to discontinue this practice as they did not want the church to be a “pastor-driven” church.  They stated that someone other than the pastor should drive the goal-setting process.  This was a hard blow for me as I saw it as a rejection of me as their leader.  They wanted me to be their chaplain, but not their leader.  I honored their request and stopped bringing recommended goals to the church board.  However, I never really got over that experience and I have remained fearful about trying to take an active leadership role with the board ever since.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why I feel bored here and want to move on, but have no idea where to go next.

I felt the pain of this pastor because I’ve been tempted at times to replace my leadership role as a pastor with people pleasing. However, at my new church in London, Ontario, I have an excellent relationship with the board that I attribute to these new behaviors. I feel like I am fully free to lead yet not people please.

  1. I listen a lot. I don’t assume I know it all. Having moved from the U.S. to Canada, I not only am having to adjust to a new church, but to a new culture as well. I’ve adopted a posture of listening and learning and in the first 60 days I’ve met with over 100 people in various venues simple to listen. The word has gotten out that I really want to listen. It has given me solid credibility with the church.
  2. I over-communicate. Each week I send our board a quick summary of my week’s activities and learnings. I’ve also added a new feature in our weekly Sunday bulletin called, “Where’s Waldo (a.k.a. Charles).” In a paragraph I share a synopsis of what I did the week prior. An 80 year old church member told me that she enjoys reading what I’ve been doing. She said she never knew what a pastor did during the week.
  3. I’ve become intensively collaborative. Many U.S. pastors have come to Canada and have failed because they’ve assumed a very dominant top down leadership style. It does not work in Canada (and probably not as well in the U.S. as it once did).  I’ve  enjoyed listening to other’s ideas and incorporating their suggestions into my leadership. I’m not people pleasing in doing so. Rather, I’m honoring how the body of Christ should work together.

I still have a ways to go in my people pleaser recovery. But I’m making good progress and enjoying the journey.

What have you discovered that has helped you avoid people pleasing tendencies?

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InterVarsity Press will release People Pleasing Pastors in February but it is available for pre-order now. You can learn more about the book and view a cool video trailer here.

5 Ways to Handle the Chronic Critic in your Church

Every church has ‘em. The Chronic Critic…the person(s) who simply can’t be pleased. No matter what you do, they have something negative to say. You are not alone when you face chronic critics. Nehemiah, perhaps one of the greatest leaders of all times was on a mission from God. Yet he faced chronic critics. They could have derailed his God-given mission. They didn’t. And here’s what he did.

Critic concept.

Complete this statement: The last time I was criticized by someone in my church I…

  • Reacted
  • Blew up
  • Screamed
  • Cussed
  • Stayed silent and drove my anger inward
  • Became defensive
  • Felt embarrased
  • Listened and learned from the critic
  • ???.

Criticism never feels good. Sometimes it’s warranted. Sometimes it’s not. Nehemiah’s criticism from Sanballat and Tobia was not warranted, yet Nehemiah wisely responded with the 5 P’s below. Nehemiah 4. 1-9 tells the story.

Neh. 4.1   When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews,  2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble — burned as they are?”

3   Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building — if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”

4   Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity.  5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

6   So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

7   But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry.  8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.  9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat. (NIV)

You’ll recall that God gave Nehemiah a burden to re-build the wall around Jerusalem, a noble task. He obeyed God’s prompting and got criticized for it. The five insights below from Nehemiah’s response to his chronic critics give us a good template to follow when we’re criticized. I call them the 5 P’s.

  • PREPARE FOR IT: if you want to make a difference for God, you will be criticized, even though what you’re doing is noble. We live  live in a fallen world and this world’s systems and values oppose the rule of God. If satan can use criticism to derail you, he will. The greater impact you have for God, the more you will be criticized, not less. If you try to please everybody, you may avoid criticism, but you’ll be miserable.
    • For every action, there is an equal and opposite criticism. (Harrison’s Postulate)
  • PAUSE AND PRAY: Instead of reacting, retorting, getting defensive, showing the illogic of his critics, Nehemiah first turned to the Lord in prayer (v. 4). The criticism hurt, but he did not even the score. He asked the Lord to bring appropriate judgment. Prayer takes the sting out criticism and when we pause, it gives time for clear thinking to rule, rather than reactivity.
    • Matt. 5.44 … I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer… (Message)
  • PRAY AND PROCESS: Criticism often makes us feel bad and often we act irrationally or in an healthy way to it. When we get criticized we must, however, process that criticism by asking these kinds of questions. What is valid about it? What do I do with it? Do I ignore it? Do I confront the criticizer? Do I learn from it? We should not disregard all criticism.  We can learn much from our critics. Some critics can even become our best coaches.
    • Psa. 141:5 Let the godly strike me!  It will be a kindness! If they reprove me, it is soothing medicine. Don’t let me refuse it. (NLT)
      • Evaluate the merit of criticism in two ways.
        1.  In light of the spirit and attitude in which it was given. Did the critic criticize to help you or to hurt you?
        2. In light of the voices to whom your critic listens. Does the critic hang around with godly people, or simply run with a pack of other critics?
  • PROCEED WITH CARE: Although Nehemiah often prayed, he didn’t use prayer as an excuse to do nothing. He did something. He moved forward with the project to rebuild the wall. When the chronic critic criticizes you, don’t let it immobilize you. Do something tangible.
    • You may need to separate yourself from your constant critics and not listen to them any longer.
    • You may need to boldly tell your critic to stop criticizing.
    • You may need to listen and learn from your critic.
  • PROTECT YOUR VULNERABILITIES: In response to his critics, he posted guards at the wall’s most vulnerable places. Sometimes criticism reveals where were are weakest and most vulnerable. When such criticism reveals those weaknesses, we may need to take some of these extra steps to deal with those sensitive places.
    • Consult a good counselor.
    • Invite a safe friend into your life to help you process the criticism.
    • Study Scripture to see what God’s Word says about that area.
    • Read a helpful book that addresses your sensitive area.

Ultimately we must look to Christ who provided the perfect pattern for responding to our chronic critics.

1Pet. 2.23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (NIV)

What has helped you respond to your critics?

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[1] Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Determined (p. 50). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.