Navigating Change Without Destroying our Ministry in the Process

Recently I wrote about the need to eliminate unnecessary structure so churches and ministry organizations can focus on accomplishing their mission more effectively. This requires a lot of prayer and discernment to know what to eliminate and what to keep. Tightening up the mission is critical to a ministry’s success. But is it possible to over-tighten one’s ministry focus so that it becomes too narrow? I believe it is.

A Narrow Niche

I was moderately involved in a para-church ministry organization in New England for a number of years. They have a long history and, in the past, have been one of the most effective ministries in the region. Over the years they had started a lot of different ministries covering a wide range is issues facing New England churches. There were certain ones that attracted my attention and so those were the ones I focused on. But I was vaguely aware of other things they were doing. Over time, it seemed like the list of other things grew longer and longer. There came a moment when the organization was involved in too many different things to be effective and clearly needed to tighten their focus and eliminate some areas of ministry

The newly-appointed leader put the organization through a radical 18-month transformation in which they shed nearly all of their programs and ministries and sliced their staff and budget accordingly. Though the promise of renewed vision with a tighter purpose was the motivating factor, many believed they narrowed their focus too tightly based on the new leader’s personal preferences instead of what was actually needed to advance the Gospel in New England.

Though only time will reveal if that is true or not, what quickly did become clear was that they focused so narrowly on a niche ministry that there were simply not enough people enthusiastic about that niche to give the organization the volunteers, funding and strategic partners needed for sustainability. Now, years later, after multiple new leaders, name changes and “refocusing” efforts, they are still trying to find their place in a spiritual landscape that has moved on without them. As wonderful as their history is, and as much as they needed to eliminate some of their programs, they cut too deep, narrowed their focus too much and have nearly “niched” themselves out of existence.

Four Steps to Streamline Well

How can we avoid this in our own churches and ministries?

Obviously, prayer is one key element. We must pray intensely about change before we implement it. And when we think we have prayed enough, devote even more time to prayer.

We must also find quality advice from leaders outside our system. Everyone inside the system is too close to help us see the bigger issue as clearly as we need to. An outsider will notice obvious gaps in our thinking that we have become totally blind to.

Instead of thinking about programs to eliminate, think about the mission we are trying to accomplish. Some programs will draw less people in attendance but are critical to our overall success. Other programs will require more financial investment but produce such a high return on that investment that it is worth the cost. Focusing on the mission, instead of the programs, will keep us from cutting out the very things that we need to accomplish the goal God has given us.

Finally, we must be cautious about making too many big decisions too fast. While we should not avoid hard decisions just because they are hard, we must be cautious about making quick decisions in an effort to project the illusion that we are making a bigger impact than we really are. Ministry organizations are dependent on volunteers, donations and strategic alliances with other ministry organizations. We must consider how changes will impact our volunteers and alliances.

All change produces a sense of loss. That sense of loss will likely mean some volunteers, donors and partners will leave us. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But if it happens too quickly, we may find ourselves in an unsustainable situation. This often requires us to make incremental changes over time so that our volunteers, donors and partners can either get used to the new way and adopt it, or, if they feel led to move on to other things, we can replace them with new volunteers, donors and partners that share our vision. We must not assume everyone will agree with our changes and make the shift with us.

Though change is never easy, through prayer, quality external advice, focusing on mission instead of programs and taking the time to make decisions wisely, we can help a bloated church structure or ministry organizations revamp without destroying it in the process.

Dr. Terry W. Dorsett serves as the executive director of the Baptist Convention of New England.