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Staying faithful to the original calling in times of leadership change

A critical time for any church is when its senior leadership changes, but it is a passage all churches and organisations must navigate at one time or another. Leaders who have steered the ship for a long time tend to imprint their style and preferences on the vessel itself. To extend the analogy, they affect not just the captain’s cabin but the actual ship structure. The longer the leader has been at the helm, the greater the degree of influence on the entire ship.

When senior leadership change occurs, several human forces tend to manifest. At first, the new leader wants to keep the ship steady and to reassure the crew that both vessel and direction are still sound and unchanged. However, it is only a matter of time before the captain will feel a strong need to effect change. Perhaps he will want to impose his style and vision, or perhaps he will have identified things that are creating problems; but change in some form is bound to occur.

Change is natural, can be very good for an organisation, and is often essential. However, change management requires great care and wisdom. Changing environments, of whatever sort, require course corrections, and new types of crew may require changes to the work facilities. However, problems quickly arise when a new captain tries to change the fundamental type of ship he is commanding. In the Second World War, freighters were sometimes fitted with guns, painted grey, and pressed into service. But, they remained slow, fragile, and ill-equipped, and most times were quickly sunk by the enemy because under the paint they were still freighters.

Business schools love to use case studies of organisations that failed spectacularly because they stubbornly held onto what they thought was their original reason for existing. A much- used example is that of the great American railroad companies at the turn of the 20 th century that failed to realise that they were in the transport business and not just the railroad business. Long-haul trucking and airfreight evolved unnoticed under their noses until one day many of them found themselves out of business. However, in the Kingdom of God, monumental failures are more likely to occur when Christian organisations or churches morph into something God did not originally call them to be. For instance, a theological seminary that morphs first into a liberal college and then into a secular university. Or, a biblically-based Christian support organisation for substance abusers that morphs into a secular mutual aid society acknowledging, at best, a ‘higher power’. Or indeed a local church established by Jesus, its head, to be an extended faith family is changed by its new leader to be more like a business or an army than a family.

“A Christian organisation or church’s mission statement should no more change, over time, than a country’s constitution.” New leaders may tweak it just a little but its expression of the essential reason for the organisation’s existence should not change. A number of core values flow from this key statement of resolve, and these in turn find expression in operational plans and priorities. When leaders contemplate making any change to the organisation’s strategic plans they need to ask the vital question “Does this enhance or detract from the expression of our core values?” If the proposed change does not enhance core values, then leadership should discard it and seek a different solution or opportunity. If the church changes in ways that detract from core values then internal tension soon starts to build up because of the functional dissonance between practice and values. If this continues to happen then the mission of the church will change, even if the plaque on the wall reads the same as it always has.

To stay faithful to the original calling, new leaders always need to check their ambition, evaluation of needs and opportunities, and sense of personal calling against the mission and core values of the church that God has entrusted into their care. Strategic and tactical changes are often required, but changes to values affect the mission from which they derive, and changes to the mission can effectively negate the original call of God. To stay faithful to original calling in times of leadership change, stay true to the mission statement and core values.

Dr Christopher Peppler
Retired Pastor of the Lonehill Village Church and Founder of the South African Theological Seminary

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