A New Model for Leading Change


What is God calling your church to do in the near future given your church’s mission and context?  Doug Powe and Lovett Weems outline key considerations for leaders who seek to innovate while also sustaining what is most essential in their ministries.

Practicing innovative leadership is a necessity for all who care deeply about the faithful and fruitful stewardship of your congregation’s mission. Maintaining “what is” is never sufficient, and the more the church and community are changing, the more attuned leaders must be to those changes and their implications for the church. Matt Miofsky and Jason Byassee captured the challenge well in Eight Virtues of Rapidly Growing Churches when they wrote, “In our churches, we often overestimate the cost of trying something new and underestimate the cost of doing nothing.”

Three leadership imperatives

Your attention must be focused on three things as you plan your own priorities and work with congregational leaders and staff to set congregational priorities:

  • the basics on which all else depends
  • the sustaining efforts most critical to the organization’s ongoing mission and fruitfulness
  • the efforts for innovation most critical for the church’s next faithful step

Choosing key change priorities

In addition to caring for the basics and practicing good management to improve what you are already doing well, vital congregations identify a few initiatives that can take the church into a new chapter in its history. We suggest that the following criteria are useful in identifying priorities:

  • Potential: What difference will it make?
  • Fit: How will it align with our identity and values?
  • Reach: How will it help us reach unserved or underserved people?
  • Readiness: Is the issue “ripe” enough to engage, or can we “ripen” the issue?

Think of looking into a kaleidoscope. Each of the four criteria represents a different turn of the eyepiece. The elements inside the kaleidoscope stay the same, but you see a new image with each turn. Each criterion gives you a chance to see fresh possibilities. Once the priority is determined, you are ready for the next steps.

Determining what God is calling you to do

Leadership for something you are not currently doing or not doing well is different from making incremental management improvements — making changes you identify through your experience. Efforts you are not doing or not doing well require new construction, not renovation. You first must decide what change you believe God is calling the congregation to make.

Farmers do not know what to do until they decide what crops they hope to harvest. Builders cannot begin until the nature of the structure is determined. So it is with the most spiritual of ministry endeavors. You must determine what fruit you hope God will provide from the harvest of your efforts.

Exploring what you need to learn

Next is learning — and resisting the temptation to begin doing things. You don’t know enough to do things yet. Remember, Ronald Heifetz says an “adaptive challenge” is one that requires you to learn before you can act.

As you learn, you will continue to confirm or revise your ultimate outcome, even as you begin to think of initial steps that will help you test out the assumptions behind your thinking as well as other critical aspects of the effort. Each of the initial steps leads to evaluation, learning, and subsequent next steps based on what you have discovered. With each step, you are growing wiser and more focused on what you still need to learn. Some of your ideas may fall away as a result of your testing, but others will arise. Those working as a team should gain energy and confidence from their growing knowledge and experience.

The need for new knowledge and skills

The decline of participation in mainline and other congregations is not news. Mainline denominations have been working to reverse negative trends for years. We believe change requires a new way of thinking. The knowledge and skills a pastor needed in past decades are not irrelevant, but now they have to expand. The new competency requires sustaining and innovating leadership practiced well and at the same time.

Wise leaders consider how much time and effort they put into sustaining leadership — building on the strengths of the congregation and minimizing its weaknesses. They also recognize that they cannot rely on sustaining leadership alone to help God’s people take the next faithful step, given new and ever-changing cultural and social contexts. They also need to practice innovative leadership. This both/and approach requires new knowledge and new skills.

Sustaining While Disrupting book cover

This article is excerpted from Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation by F. Douglas Powe Jr. and Lovett H. Weems Jr. (Fortress Press, 2022). Used by permission. The book is also available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

Cover of Discovering God's Future for Your Church showing a blank wooden signpostLewis Center video tool kit resource
Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.