10 Leadership Mistakes in Transitioning a Church

Some years ago, Thom Rainer and I co-wrote, Eating the Elephant: Leading an Established Church to Growth.  In that book, we talked about several mistakes pastors make when trying to lead their church toward growth. Our Lawless Group research since then has revalidated those findings and pointed out others:

  1. Poor communication with church members.  I’m convinced many more church members will get on board if they understand the “why” behind changes. When we give only the “what” without the “why,” our folks will likely lack the motivation to change.
  2. Inadequate responses to resistant people. People who are resistant aren’t necessarily bad people. Sometimes, frankly, their input would have saved us from trouble. Simply hearing their concerns can go a long way toward gaining their support.
  3. Too much too soon. Leaders who want “microwave” change often run over people who still prefer the stove.  The microwave may be much more effective, but the wise leader knows he must discover the right pace to move in that direction.
  4. Overdependence on methodologies. Methodologies are not insignificant. In fact, good missiology leads us to ask about the most appropriate method for a given context. Methodologies, though, are never answers in themselves. Constant methodological changes without sensitivity for people can wear out the church.
  5. Borrowing vision. It’s good to learn from other churches, and the Internet gives us more opportunity than ever to do so. If we only copy other churches, though, we risk reducing our congregation to a project. Every church is different, and every one should seek God’s vision.
  6. Short-term commitment. The pastor who wants to lead a church through change toward growth must be committed to stay there awhile.  Indeed, the pastor with a short-term commitment will likely have only a short-term vision.
  7. Mirrorless leadership. Some leaders of transitioning churches use a magnifying glass to see faults in their church, but they use no mirror to see their own deficiencies. Their tendency to blame the congregation for all the problems makes the transition that much more difficult.
  8. Reactive praying. The tendency of many churches working through change is to make decisions and implement plans – and then ask God to bless those plans. We shouldn’t be surprised if our plans don’t work if we don’t seek God’s guidance until after we’ve implemented them.
  9. Loveless shepherding. I wish we saw no need to add this mistake, but we’ve seen it too much to ignore it. Many leaders want to change a church they’ve never grown to love, and that lack of affection makes it easier to “run over” the people who appear to be in the way.
  10. Giving up too easily. Moving a congregation is seldom easy. It often takes more energy and more time than we had assumed. Leaders who leave early while blaming others may well miss what God has in store. 

What other leadership mistakes have you seen? 


  • Keith Tillman of Powell, TN says:

    Very timely post and extremely encouraging for pastors who are committed to church revitalization. #9 should be #1…a wise Pastoral Care professor once told me that pastoral compassion and love for the church covers a lot of mistakes. Over the years, I have learned to love the church, not because we are lovable, but because it belongs to Christ. This was needed today…thank you.

  • Thanks for this Chuck. I am in a church as “transition pastor” that has gone through a TERRIBLE eighteen months before my arrival. And in reality the last 30 years have not been healthy. I liken myself to having the good cop bad cop role….maybe the cop analogy does not work ? But the good and the bad do. We have to speak truth; and often what we say is not received well at first. But I have found that transparency is best as long as they understand that you have the Kingdom Mission first and foremost in your heart AND sincere love for the people that are there. Many times we are dealing with a “remnant” , sometimes that remnant caused the past problems, but more often than not you will have well meaning folks who have not been led properly and need loving adjustments brought to the systems and priorities of the church. The last one on your list is probably the most important. I find myself wanting to be “done with this” ! It is a tough battle and very understandable why a young man would not want to do this type of work. I will have one to “hand off” in eighteen months or so; it will never be a large church BUT it will be a church worthy of a pastor’s best efforts and can be a place for kingdom advance. Thanks for your labor friend. Your posts are very timely. MICHAEL PALMER

  • Chuck Lawless says:

    Thanks, friend. Always good to hear from you.

  • Chris Arveson says:

    Blaming previous pastors is a frequent error. Best to assess where you are now, forget the past and press forward as you understand forward to be. Remember, there’s a fair chance that some year another transitioning pastor will be negatively assessing your work as well. The church is always in transition.

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