• Joel Hathaway

Danger at the Intersection of Leadership

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

I found 23 cell phones, five wallets, two iPads, a laptop, and a luxury watch…while running. Always at intersections. I also came across dozens of hubcaps, lug nuts, wheel weights, and one starter motor. This has led me to two conclusions. People are forgetful about what they set on their cars. And more importantly, a change in direction is difficult.

Changing Directions is Dangerous.

Changing directions is a dangerous maneuver, whether for an automobile or an organization. Dangers include the loss of momentum, the challenge of keeping everyone onboard, and the stamina to stay committed to change. This is as true for churches as for business endeavors. In some ways, I’ll argue, harder for churches.

Loss of Momentum

An organization like an automobile has momentum. The systems of the organization—research and development, marketing, manufacturing, reporting structures, etc.—are designed to achieve an outcome. Like the pistons of an engine, when these parts work together, the organization moves.

Changing direction—whether focusing on a new product or implementing a new process—is an act of resistance. It requires adaptation and adjustment within every element of the organization. Change violates routine and habit. Starting a new habit takes time. And people generally do not like it.

The opportunities for organizational change usually precede the necessity. By the time the average member of your organization acknowledges the need for change, it is too late.

A Congregational Case Study

Most churches follow a predictable growth-decline cycle. A church a) is formed usually by a dynamic speaker who draws young families. These families make up the first generation of the organization. These families b) go on to have children who are 25-35 years younger (2nd generation). As the founding families reach the 40-50 age range and their children reach the 18-25 age range, the church begins to c) recognize a generation gap in the makeup of the congregation—10 years younger than the founding families and 10 years older than their children. The church leadership solves for this issue by d) hiring someone in their 30s. But that is a technical solution for a rapidly changing adaptive challenge. This is a “carry on” approach, involving no real organizational change in direction.

By the time the founding families are nearing 60, most their children have moved off to college and settled into adult life somewhere else. The average congregant e) begins to see the problem at this point. There is f) pressure on the current pastor to bring in younger families. He decides it is time to retire or take another position (or is fired in a heated battle), and the church responds by seeking to hire a “younger version of their last, best pastor.” This also does not require any real organizational change. It is an attempt by the older stakeholders who remain to rewind organizational history to a better time.

The Challenge of Keeping Everyone—or at least the Healthy Members—on board

Organizational theorist Albert Hirschman found that there are three responses members have to organizational issues. They can leave, what Hirschman calls “exit.” They can be given space to express their frustration and concern—though not necessarily with any real change. Hirschman calls this “voice.” Or they can be integrated into the changing course of the organization through a process of deepening loyalty.


The ability for unhealthy people to resist change runs deeper than most leader’s determination to implement an organizational change in direction. This requires an even deeper stamina within the leader, driven by a vision that is larger than one person.

People’s deepest commitments are reserved for those organizations in which they find identity and power. For long-standing members of a church, their deepest commitments are often reserved for the church. In established churches, these are usually the oldest members who, as it happens, are also the most resistant to change.

Keeping these members on board during an organizational change may be no problem. They’ll make life hard, but they’ll stick around. These members are often most critical of proposals for growth or revisioning. They are quickest to voice their disapproval, and they are often the last to leave an organization.

In contrast, the people you most need to help the organization move in a different, healthier direction are less committed (less-loyal) families who are usually more resilient to change, less likely to voice their concerns, and quicker to exit a troubled organization. Keeping these organizational members is essential if there is to be life on the other side of a change in direction.

The Stamina to Stay Committed

During a season of pastoral transition—which includes seeking and hiring a pastor and the first five years in the role—church search committees are at the spearhead of change in direction for their church. They can help implement a new direction of ministry, even as they are pressured to seek a rewind to “better days.”

Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, in Leadership on the Line, found that holdouts within an organization are one of the recurring hindrances to growth and change. Holdouts are people who refuse to change. Their rigid resistance creates fear in those open to change, specifically the fear of loss. You hear it when people say, “Did you know Pam is talking about leaving if the church hires that pastor? If she leaves, I don’t know how we’ll survive!”

The ability for unhealthy people to resist change runs deeper than most leader’s determination to implement an organizational change in direction. This requires an even deeper stamina within the leader, driven by a vision that is larger than one person.

The So-What Takeaway

Organizations set on a determined, historic course often die the slow death of attrition and irrelevance. While avoiding the dangers of course corrections and revisioning, they suffer irrelevance.

But leaders who succeed in this dangerous journey of changing direction need “a sacred hard.” “The most difficult work of leadership involves learning to experience distress without numbing yourself. The virtue of a sacred heart lies in the courage to maintain your innocence and wonder, your doubt and curiosity, and your compassion and love even through your darkest, most difficult moments.” (Leadership on the Line, 227)

Seeking the right pastor to navigate a change in direction? Here are 5 Common Mistakes of Pastor Search Committees.

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