Leading Change

Leading Change

Gain true buy-in

This article is excerpted from Building a Life-Changing Small Group Ministry.

When you're leading change in your ministry, there are four unifying tools that can help you along the way, guiding your board, staff, and volunteers through various aspects of the change process.


A common set of ideas, transferable concepts and language, and fitting arguments for the ministry's direction are important when you guide a church into a new vision for community. If you can find one or two texts that best express what you hope to build, provide some insight into how it might look in your church, and create the conversations about transition, they can become crucial springboards to change.

A volume on small-group models might be useful. A book on vision, along with a small-group leader training handbook, could provide the needed education and inspiration. You may need a book for senior leaders, a different one for ministry heads, and still another for group leaders.


Just as a great architect can show someone what their new home will look like, those leading a small-group ministry will need a blueprint of how the church could look if your dreams materialized. The redesigned church built on small groups can be touched and felt through the blueprint. Project the current growth rate, and assume that everyone belongs to a group and that leaders, coaches, and support teams are in place. Draw how the organization would look once all of it is built. You can start to see the future through this blueprint.

Blueprinting your church can drive productive discussions about today, tomorrow, and the change in between. Role transitions, shifts in duties, ministry adaptations, resource implications, timing and sequence issues, and numerous other matters will surface as you diagram how the congregation could function through community. Without such architecture, ideas about transformation could remain only theory.

The Stop-Doing List

Legendary business author Jim Collins suggests that instead of a company driving change through another to-do list, it should create a stop-doing list. The dirty little secret about most organizational change is that it usually requires the enterprise to discontinue existing activities if it really wants the new day to arrive. Not that anyone admits it. Instead, the focus is on what to start, not what to stop.

You cannot mount a fresh effort to build life-changing small groups without changing what the church is doing today. You may begin to come against sacred cows, misaligned efforts, and individual holdouts, but you nevertheless need to engage your board, staff, and volunteers in discussions about what must stop in order to actualize the new vision for community.

Key Influencers

You do not have to persuade every member of the church that group life is a good idea; but you need to convince a small fraction of key influencers, who will in turn bring everyone else along. The key is to figure out who those individuals are, where they are involved right now, and what they need to process in order to become walking billboards for the community movement.

Five to ten percent of the people in your church act as influencers who everyone else will follow. Some of them are obvious, such as your senior pastor. Others are much more subtle, in that they could be a department head that will create early wins with new groups, a significant donor who will support added resources, or a board member who pulls others toward fresh vision. Don't try to win everyone over, just the right ones.

You will find over time that mixing and matching these four tools with influential teams, departments, or strategic leaders will support your efforts to bring change. And the transformation will come over time. You cannot afford to be fooled by early progress, though.

Distinguishing Between Philosophical and Practical "Buy-In"

Building a life-changing small-group ministry requires three to ten years, and churches tend to declare victory too early. In his book on change, John Kotter warns of such a trap, an easy mistake to make.

How do you avoid such an error? We have found it helpful to watch carefully the following sequence:

  1. Words. People will start to speak using small-group terms before they change their thinking about group life. Their ability to talk community is good in some ways; they have to get used to the idea of something new and different. It does not, however, mean they have changed their mind about a different way of doing ministry.
  2. Thoughts. Over time they will start to think differently about ministry, groups, leaders—but they still don't believe it. Having the key concepts in mind, including the essential vision, values, and strategies, shows progress. Moving from mere words to a full grasp of how a changed church could function does not yet indicate real ownership, though.
  3. Heart. It takes time to build enthusiasm for the movement of group life. Each person needs to process out loud (words) so they can make sense of the new vision (thoughts). Once they assimilate it, they can start to feel it; once they experiment with it, they will see how God moves through community. Watch for occasional passion and you will see heart.
  4. Behavior. The ultimate destination is to alter people's behavior so that community becomes a natural reflex, the way people naturally do life and ministry. For example, when a church member lands in the hospital and she calls her small-group leader instead of the visitation pastor, behavior has changed. When relationships become primary and the infrastructure fades into the background, celebrate heartily.

Many people talk about a "church of groups" but act like a "church with groups." Do not be fooled by what people say. You haven't reached the finish line yet. The win comes much later in the progression. You must make the most of new thoughts and tend them so they grow into a desire for community. As more and more people feel and act out group life, change moves from hope to experience. With God's abundant grace, a team of humble, truth-seeking leaders, and the will to persevere, leading change is possible!

—Bill Donahue and Russ Robinson. This article is excerpted from Building a Life-Changing Small Group Ministry; used with permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

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