Creating Change in Your Church When You Don't Have Authority

Posted by Aaron Buer on April 25, 2019

Here’s a tension that we all live with: We see things in our churches that need to change but we don’t have the authority to make the change.

Been there?

Even if you are a senior pastor, you still have to win the approval of your board in order to enact certain changes.

You’ll never have all the authority you think you need.

This reality of trying to create change without all the authority you think you need can be incredibly frustrating. It’s so easy to conclude,

“I need more authority! When I’m in charge...”

I’ve come to understand that this is actually not true.

I’ve occupied all sorts of roles in the churches I’ve served and led in.

Some of them came with next to no authority and others with very high levels of authority.

Guess what?

Every step of the way I’ve encountered the same tension.

Change needs to happen and I don’t have the authority to make it happen.

So, what to do we do with this?

Two strategies that I have learned might help here.

Before I jump in, a quick caveat: Not all these ideas come from my head. I am borrowing/stealing ideas from Scott Cormode from Fuller Seminary who is a brilliant speaker in the area of change management.

So, if you like what you read, much of the credit goes to him.

Change Strategy 1 | Help 'Them' Feel the Problem

There are two ways to reveal a problem to the people who have the authority to do something about.

One is to inform them that there is a problem they need to fix. In my experience, that doesn’t go very well.

Our 9:00 service is at capacity and you need to do something about it.

Good luck with that one.

What happens here?

The people in authority usually go on the defensive.

So, how do you reveal the problem in a more helpful way?

By telling stories that help them feel the problem.

Back to the example of your 9:00 service being at capacity. You tell stories.

I was in the parking lot just before the 9:00 this weekend and I saw a family circle around the parking lot twice and then drive away.

Or,

I heard from our children’s ministry director that we had to turn five families away at the 9:00 last weekend. That breaks my heart.

Stories invite the listener into the problem and help them feel the discomfort associated with the problem.

In my experience, when you don’t have the authority to change what you know needs to be changed, one of the best strategies is to help those with authority to feel the pain until they recognize that the current situation is unacceptable.

When this happens, they will take ownership of the problem for themselves.

One final thought here.

One story won’t cut it.

We’re talking about many stories over a long period of time. I would think in years instead of weeks.

Your job is to keep the pressure on in a non-offensive way.

Turn up the heat to a level that is slightly uncomfortable.

Too much heat and you’ll be dismissed—figuratively or literally!

You know you’re winning when you start to hear others share the same stories or when those you are trying to influence start to describe the problem as unacceptable.

Change Strategy 2 | Uncover the Fear of Loss

There is a phrase I have often repeated on this blog that I believe wholeheartedly,

People don’t resist change. They resist loss.

I used to believe that some of the people I work with just don’t like change.

Now, I believe that almost everyone is open to change under the right conditions.

When people resist change, it is usually because they are afraid of losing something.

Influence.

Respect.

Opportunity.

Friendship.

If you’re in a position where you know what needs to change but don’t have the authority to make that change, then understand that as you discuss the situation with those who have authority and help them to feel the pain of the problem, that the resistance you encounter will be associated with something they are afraid of losing.

If you can uncover what "that" is and help them understand that the solution to the problem will actually help them gain something they want...as my Great-Grandfather would say, “Now you’re cooking with gas.”

Now, you’re getting somewhere.

Change Strategy 3 | Experiment on the Fringes

As we all know, sometimes we do everything we can to influence those with authority—to lead up, but we still come up empty.

Perhaps you are low on the totem pole and don’t really have an opportunity to engage those with the highest levels of authority in conversation.

Now what?

I would suggest that you need to experiment on the fringes.

If you believe you have a solution to a problem.

If you believe you know what needs to change, then go ahead and do it.

Implement your ideas in the sphere where you do have the authority.

For example, if you’re the youth pastor, you probably don’t get to call the shots for the weekend services.

However, you can implement the changes you know need to happen in your student ministry.

Experiment on the fringes and create a pocket of awesomeness in your sphere of influence.

Often, the best way to generate support for your idea is to create results.

It’s difficult for leadership to ignore positive results.

Results will get you promoted quicker than ideas.

I guess what I’m saying is that instead of pushing for massive changes to weekend services or the floorplan of your church building, you might get more mileage out of implementing your ideas within the area that you do possess the authority to do so.

I would argue that leadership will take note and your voice will gain influence.

Wrap Up

We often believe we need more authority to create the change we know needs to happen.

In my experience, more authority is actually not what is needed.

What I’ve been trying to say in this post is that a more effective way to lead change is through wisely influencing those in authority and creating pockets of awesomeness in the areas in which you do have authority.

Give it a shot. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Topics: Advice

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