Growing in Flexibility

4 ways to help your church learn to bend without breaking

“If we don’t change something, we are going to continue to die a slow death.”

Randy Ott, my father and a senior pastor in the EFCA for over 35 years, uttered those words to me with urgency and conviction. Somehow he had become aware of a resistance to change and the decline of the church he loved and served.

It can be challenging for pastors to admit that things need to change. We make excuses for why attendance isn’t what it used to be, or why volunteers are harder to find and motivate. We blame culture, people or the church down the street. We are experts at being the last people to acknowledge that things aren’t going great.

Maybe it’s a pride issue, or we worry about job security. Maybe we are afraid we don’t have what it takes to turn the page and lead through the next chapter of our church’s life. I’m not entirely sure, but I know my father had broken free. He was seeing the church clearly and sensing a new direction. The changes he led us through rewrote the story of our church in unimaginable and exciting ways.

Declining churches eventually die

Long before churches die, they go into decline. Long before they go into decline, they plateau. And churches hit a plateau when they stop changing, when they lose their flexibility. While numerical growth may be the easiest to measure, it can be a deceiving metric: there are large, unhealthy churches and there are small, vibrant churches.

Flexibility is something we all take for granted until it isn’t there.

Decline isn’t just measured by who shows up on a Sunday. It can be measured by how hard it is to recruit and keep volunteers, how many people are making decisions to give their lives to Christ, get baptized, join a small group or serve, or by the spiritual health of the leadership team and elder board. If you lose your flexibility and stop changing, it affects everything, including the effectiveness of your discipleship or evangelism strategy.

We have all held onto methods for spiritual growth far longer than they were effective. Instead of hanging onto one opportunity for people to respond to Christ, a flexible church might add an online Easter service survey for all who attended to find out who made spiritual decisions, allowing for more personal and effective follow up. Inflexibility equals opportunities missed.

None of us are as flexible as we think we are.

My college athletic trainers used to tell me that I had hypermobile joints. It means that my joints were extremely flexible. Things that would cause injury to others would leave me relatively unfazed.

Because of this weird joint characteristic, I was able to bend when others broke. Friends would sprain their ankles and miss a week or two of practice, but I would be back after a bag of ice and a day off. My senior year I had a severe wrist sprain that could have ended my whole season, but because of my flexibility, I didn’t even miss a game.

Flexibility in the church is the ability to adjust to changing circumstances...

Of course, I took this and many other advantages of my youth for granted. Flexibility is something we all take for granted until it isn’t there.

I worked out with my wife last week and now I have trouble getting out of my office chair. I tore a calf muscle walking up a hill to watch one of my daughters play a soccer game and it took six months to heal.

Without flexibility things break instead of bend.

Stretching your church’s muscles

Flexibility in the church is the ability to adjust to changing circumstances that affect how you can minister in your local context. And often, we don’t realize its importance until it’s gone.

The more flexible you are as a church, the less impact changing circumstances have on your effectiveness with the vision and mission of your church. For example, if a pandemic were to affect your ability to gather as you once had, you would be able to adjust to changing guidelines while keeping your mission central. Flexibility would allow you to shift quickly, making you more effective without losing focus on your mission.

Walk humbly, listen more, speak last.

A flexible church can bend and adjust quickly, making it more effective in building the Kingdom and making disciples. Flexible churches can also adjust without compromising the gospel or the Word of God. So, when culture shifts, as it always does, a flexible church can stand uncompromisingly on truth while learning to effectively communicate love and truth in new ways.

The context and culture in which we minister is constantly changing. A flexible church can bend without breaking. So here’s how to lead your church in becoming more flexible:

1. Be a flexible leader

Open yourself up to new ways of doing things. Don’t assume that you are right. Walk humbly, listen more, speak last. I remember a period in my leadership development when I was inflexible and stuck. But I got out of my routine and started meeting with business leaders and reading leadership books outside of my favorite authors. I discovered new perspectives and insights that challenged my thinking and leadership in new ways.

Don’t be afraid to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone and really look at how things are going. If you want an adaptable, flexible church that is unwavering in the essentials of our faith, then you must be that kind of leader. Model flexibility for your team.

2. Value flexibility as a team

At my church, being flexible is one of our leadership team values. Valuing flexibility as a team allows you to stay mobile and adjust to be more effective. Ministries aren’t silos; we must all adjust and move together to make sure we are being effective and staying on mission. Valuing flexibility as a team also injects a healthy amount of grace into our interactions and staff relationships.

3. Build flexibility into the culture of your church

Start small. If you are waiting to make a change until a big change needs to be made, you are setting yourself up for failure. (The equivalent would be attempting to do a split for the first time without ever having stretched the lower half of your body. Something is going to split, but it won’t be what you want it to be.) Change is best implemented small and often.

When we started to grow fast, we knew big changes were coming in the near future. To build flexibility into our church, we made a lot of smaller changes incrementally. We changed lighting, signage, paint schemes. To build flexibility into your church culture, you need people to trust that your changes are meaningful. All of your small changes should tie into your vision and direction. If you can’t explain why, don’t make the change. Good change creates more opportunities for you to communicate and align people with the vision and mission of your church.

4. Draw clear lines

There are things we should flex and things we shouldn’t. Drawing clear lines about what will not change and communicating those boundaries well will build confidence in your leadership. People will change with you if they trust you. Explain what is on and off the table and it will set the expectations of the people you are leading.

Flexible churches endure the rigors of changing ministry contexts without losing focus and time on mission. How flexible is your church? Your leadership team? What about yourself as a leader?

It is hard to admit that I am less flexible than I think I am. Life and ministry are so unpredictable, but the most difficult part is just getting started and leading the way for others on your team and in your church. So prepare for the next change that affects the context of your ministry by stretching yourself a little this week.

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