Creativity and Change Management in the Church—One Pastor’s Approach

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


The Rev. Chris McKinney knows that sometimes you have to be creative to get your congregation’s attention. Like setting snack chips on fire during your sermon.

“It was during Lent, and I was giving up chips for Lent,” he recalls, “and we were talking about offering sacrifices to God. And I was talking about it … and the whole time I was putting lighter fluid on this bowl of chips while I was talking, and then I threw a match in there.

Lit candles 2 - Alight“People still talk about it. When people invite their friends to church, they say, ‘You never know what he’s going to do. Sometimes he’ll start a fire.’ So, you know, there are things that probably aren’t risky in other churches, but to our church, it feels different. It feels like a risk, but they end up enjoying it most of the time.”

In the three years he’s been at Hope Baptist Church, Pastor McKinney has found ways to be strategic about making changes to the worship that are bigger than just spicing up the sermon. Considering the Midwest church’s very traditional worship style, he came to the conclusion that offering an alternative service might help the congregation to grow.

“Instead of turning our 8:30 service into a contemporary worship service, I started one on Sunday night that was in addition— [I] didn’t change anything in the morning, because I knew the people that came at 8:30 would crucify me if I did. And I knew it was too soon. … And so I did something that didn’t affect them. It happened alongside them. So, it was a risk, but it was also mainly a risk to my own health, not to the church.”


Adding a Contemporary Worship Service

McKinney asked a colleague at the local college to recommend a student with outstanding skills as a worship leader. That student was paid a stipend to lead the Sunday night service, with his band providing music, and to promote it to college students via social media. More than 100 people attended the launch of the new worship service.

Unfortunately, the only church members who regularly came on Sunday evening were people who had long been complaining about the lack of a contemporary service. McKinney had explained to them that this effort wasn’t about them getting what they wanted—it was about welcoming a new demographic of people into the church.

Vintage Faith Church - Vintage 130 - Copy“They got it for about a month,” he said. “And then they started griping about everything. Everything. It was never about reaching out for them. It was never about celebrating the good of what was happening.”

At the end of the year, when the time came to evaluate the evening service, attendance was averaging out around several dozen people—enough for McKinney to consider it a success. Yet the additional workload and the stress of continually dealing with the negativity of the disgruntled group were taking their toll. He decided to discontinue the Sunday evening service in order to have more time and energy to give to the rest of the congregation and to his family.

McKinney doesn’t seem discouraged by this: “I knew it was a little bit of a risk. I knew it could fail … but it wasn’t a failure, because we tried it. We experienced it. We learned from it.”

One thing the congregation learned was that a real need for college ministry existed in their community. After his student worship leader left, McKinney used the funding from that position to hire a part-time college ministry coordinator, who successfully organized weekly worship, Bible studies, and simple dinners for undergraduate students.


Managing the Risks of Making a Change

McKinney takes an experimental approach to ministry and outreach, trying new things without being overly attached to an expected outcome; he understands that it’s possible to encourage innovation while still treating the congregation’s values, culture, and traditions with respect. He says that many of the church’s lay leaders seem surprised about how many changes have been made in the past few years, and how few serious missteps or conflicts there have been.

He describes his methods of change management this way:

“You get the people that need to buy in to buy into it. You get them on board. You have the one-on-one conversations you need to have. You get the influencers involved that everybody looks up to. You weigh the real issue, which is people’s experience of loss … people really get upset when they feel like they’re losing something.

“So, people don’t get upset when you start a new worship service. They get upset when you take their worship service away. People don’t get upset when you start small groups. They get upset when you take their small groups away. People don’t get upset when you bring in a new staff person. They get upset when you fire their staff, when their staff person has to go away because of that.”

Some of these same insights underlie a change management strategy called parallel development. It suggests that, when a church or other organization is split between those who are excited about new possibilities and those who feel threatened by them, leaders may need to hold the two in tension for a time. If an innovation is life-giving, it will usually grow and gain support; if a past tradition has become stale or irrelevant, it may naturally fade away in time.1

McKinney says that when something new really takes off and energizes the congregation, then the members won’t mind if something less effective gets eliminated later.

When he arrived at Hope Baptist Church, he found a “shotgun approach to mission”—lots of minor mission partnerships with no unified focus. Instead of eliminating the ones he considered less vital, he helped the congregation identify a couple of things they wanted to focus on. As time passed, they began to focus more and more on those things and build their congregational identity around them.

“Now, you know, a few years in, they’re looking at those other things that they were just throwing money at,” he said, “and they’re going, ‘Well, why should we keep throwing money at that when this is the thing we’re really passionate about, and we could do more over here if we stopped throwing money at that and gave it over here?’ So, those things begin to die away. …

“So maybe I’m not as much of a risk-taker. I think I take very calculated risks.”



For Your Consideration

  • What kinds of risk do you think are beneficial for churches to take?
  • What kinds of risk do congregations expect their pastors or priests to take? What kinds of risk are off limits?
  • When you are deciding whether or not to take a particular risk, what factors do you weigh?


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1 Arlin J. Rothauge, Parallel Development: A Pathway for Exploring Change and a New Future in Congregational Life (New York: Congregational Development Services, Episcopal Church Center, [199-]),