The Pastor as a Change Agent

Remaining Relevant in a Constantly Changing Cultural Environment

by Randy Helms

Here is a process that will help pastors become change agents ensuring the church remains relevant and proclaims the important message of Christ that is both timeless and life changing.

By Randy Helms

Society is changing at a faster rate than ever before. Because of this, the church of Christ must be willing to change its methods if it is to remain relevant. The challenge is to change the methods, which are temporal, without changing the message, which is timeless. Many within the church resist change for fear of compromising the message of Christ. For this reason, the 21st-century pastor must see himself as a change agent that can implement effective changes while making them palatable to church members.

We must view change as a process and not an event. What good does it do for the leader to yell charge and rush to the top of the hill only to find he or she arrived there alone? A more progressive approach to change is the better part of wisdom. This takes adequate planning and this is how we, as pastors, can become change agents. The process will involve understanding change management, adopting an adaptable approach to leadership style, and empowering people to think strategically. Following this process will help pastors become change agents ensuring the church remains relevant and proclaims the important message of Christ that is both timeless and life changing.

Change Management

Change management is essential. Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze theory is the basis for many organizational change-management theories and models. Lewin believes that the motivation to change is strongly related to action: If people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new ways. He embraces the idea that change management proceeds in a circle of steps. The steps embrace the idea of:

  • Unfreeze — becoming motivated to change. Faced with a dilemma or disconfirmation, the individual or group becomes aware of a need to change even though there may be resistance to change.
  • Transition (or Change) — change what needs to be changed or moving to a new state. Leaders diagnose the situation and explore and test new models of behavior.
  • Refreeze — making the change permanent. Leaders evaluate application of new behavior, and, if reinforcing, adopt it.1

The cycle begins with a series of planning actions initiated by the change agent. There are some who take issue with Lewin’s “refreeze” stage. They contend that society is changing so fast there is no time to make the change permanent. There are, however, some dangers in never refreezing. For instance, living in a constant state of transition can become a pleasant trap. People become comfortable in temporary situations where they are not accountable for productivity and where they may substitute talking about change for real action.2

If you look at change as a journey rather than an event this becomes clear. What kind of journey has no destination? At the end of the journey, the final goal is to refreeze, putting down roots again, and establishing the new place of stability. In today’s church culture this stage is often rather tentative as the next change may be right around the corner. What leaders may sometimes inadvertently encourage is more of a state of “slushiness” where they never really achieve freezing (theoretically making the next unfreezing easier). This does not necessarily have to be all or nothing. A more effective change strategy might look more like “unfreeze — change — slushiness.”

Adaptable Leadership

There is no one-size-fits-all theoretical approach to leadership style in today’s church environment; however, classifying our church organization as traditional or contemporary will help us in our process. Traditional organizations tend to be more bureaucratic and people identify these organizations by characteristics such as autocratic authority, adherence to a legal code, expectation of uncompromising obedience, compartmental specialization among workers, and a clearly defined hierarchy of offices.3

Contemporary organizations are less formal. They tend to embrace the idea that the organization is best served by adapting to its environment. The value here is to strive for a fit between the organization’s structure and the culture of the community it is called to reach.4 The predominate thinking in the contemporary type is that people will not perceive organizations whose structures are not fitted to the environment (which includes other organizations, communities, governments, etc.) as relevant and these organizations will be less productive. We can gain further clarification of this distinction by seeing traditional organizations as having a rigid structure with an expectation that the environment will adjust to it. Contemporary organizations are more fluid and place a value on adapting itself to the environment.

The evolution of society has broadened the organizational field to the extent that we now face a range from ultra traditional to hyper contemporary and everything in between. This is especially true in the church. This broad diversity confronts today’s leader with a crucial question: Which leadership approach is most effective in my particular organization? Many pastors have found themselves both unproductive and underappreciated because they failed to adequately adapt to their environment.

Leadership style is the manner and method of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people.5 Consider the Authoritarian and the Participative>6

The Authoritarian Style is foundationally autocratic and is more classical in nature. Leaders use this style when they tell their workers what they want done and how they want it accomplished, without getting the advice of their followers. The authoritative leader tends to embrace the transactional approach to leadership. Transactional leaders base this style on the assumption that reward and punishment motivates people and that systems work best with a clear chain of command.7 When people have agreed to do a job, a part of the deal is that they yield all authority to their manager. In this style, the prime purpose of a subordinate is to do what his manager tells him to do. Transactional leaders work through creating clear structures whereby it is obvious what they require of their subordinates, and the rewards they get for following orders.

The Participative Style is foundationally democratic and is more delegative in nature. This style involves the leader including one or more followers in the decision-making process; however, the leader maintains the final decision-making authority. The leader may allow the followers to make decisions while remaining responsible for the decisions they make.8 Participative leaders tend to embrace the transformational approach to leadership. Transformational leadership works on the assumption that people will follow a person who inspires them. A person with vision and passion can achieve great things. The way to get things done is by injecting enthusiasm and energy. Participative leaders care about you and want you to succeed.9

Transformational leadership starts with the development of a vision — a view of the future that will excite and convert followers. The leader, the senior team, or the grass roots of the organization may develop this vision. The important factor is the leader buys into it without reservation.

The next step, which is ongoing, is to constantly sell the vision. The transformational leader takes every opportunity to convince others to buy into the vision. In effect, he is selling himself as well as the vision. The transformational leader seeks to infect his followers with a high level of commitment to the vision. He is people-oriented and believes that success comes first and last through deep and sustained commitment with an emphasis on relationship.10

An effective leader may find it necessary to embrace both of these styles from time to time as the circumstances warrant. The pastor who finds himself in a more traditional environment might find the Authoritarian Style most effective. The more contemporary organizational climate tends to find the Participative Style a better fit. Our challenge is to become a change agent that will move the church in a direction that will best relate to the culture of the community. Adapting to the organizational type of the church by adjusting our leadership approach should give us the best opportunity to accomplish this.

Strategic Thinking

Most church organizations regularly practice strategic planning. This is predominantly limited to a few in the upper tier of leadership and is the procedure of developing a strategic plan that encompasses the vision of the organization. Leadership expects everyone else to carry out this plan. Strategic thinking, on the other hand, involves organization members on every level. The pastor sows the vision in the hearts of followers who then empowers others to think strategically and develop ways to implement this vision. Look at strategic thinking in the arena of problem solving. This focus helps identify strategic thinking as beneficial on all levels of an organization and not, as strategic planning tends to do, limit its application to the top levels only. All individuals in the organization can think strategically, not just the pastor.11 Embracing strategic thinking will enable leaders to involve themselves in strategic planning on a departmental basis. Everyone can be involved.

Strategic thinking refers to cognitive processes required for the collection and evaluation of information and ideas that shape an organization’s competitive advantage.12 We can only define the difference between strategic thinking and strategic planning by a clear understanding of the basic function of each. Strategic thinking is a complex phenomenon and is necessary if strategic planning is to occur. To help in differentiating between the two, view strategic thinking as a skill leaders use in developing a means whereby leaders engage the vision. Strategic planning is a process leaders use in accomplishing its goals. If we take this approach, we could see strategic thinking as a critical leadership skill that requires having the ability to assess a program in relation to its mission, its future goals, and the external environment in which it works. Strategic thinking requires leaders to examine whether their programs are doing the right things, embracing the right values, and moving in the right direction to achieve their mission. Strategic planning, on the other hand, is an organization’s process of defining its strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, including its resources in both capital and people.13 The strategic thinker remains ever open to emerging opportunities and is not bound by narrow, overarching, and predetermined plans. Churches who succeed at embedding a capability for strategic thinking throughout their organizations will have created a new source of relevant outreach.

Again, our challenge is to change the methods in a way that will make us pertinent to the culture of the community without changing the message. To accomplish this we must embrace change as a process. This will help the pastor work as the change agent to ensure the church remains relevant as it proclaims the message of Christ. Working the process will help overcome resistance by involving followers in each step of the journey. The secret is to change the methods in a way that will engage society without changing the timeless gospel. We can accomplish this as we embark on the journey of understanding change management, adopting an adaptable approach to leadership style, and empowering people to think strategically. May God help us as we strive to be effective in reaching our world for Christ.

Randy Helms, pastor, Glad Tidings Church, Largo, Florida. He is presently enrolled in the doctoral program for strategic leadership at Regent University. Helms is the author of The Joy of Connecting.


1. Kurt Lewin, Resolving Social Conflicts (New York: Harper and Row, 1948).

2. Mark K. Smith, “Kurt Lewin: Groups, Experiential Learning and Action Research” (2001). Accessed July 28, 2012.

3. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, trans. A.M. Henderson & Talcott Parsons (New York: Free Press, 1947).

4. Website no longer available.

5. Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lippitt, and Ralph K. White, “Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Climates,” Journal of Social Psychology, 10, no. 2, (1939): 269–299.

6. U.S. Army Handbook (1973). Military Leadership.

7. Peter G. Northhouse, Leadership Theory and Practice, 3d ed. (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 2004).

8. Rajiv Mehta, Alan J Dubinsky, and Rolph E Anderson, “Leadership Style, Motivation, and Performance in International Marketing,” European Journal of Marketing, 37, no. 1/2, (2003): 50–85. Author accessed from: ABI/INFORM Global.

9. Peter G. Northhouse.

10. Bernard M. Bass, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectation (New York: Free Press, 1985).

11. Jeanne M. Liedtka, “Strategic Thinking: Can It Be Taught?” Long Range Planning, 31, no. 1, (1998): 120–129.

12. Richard L. Hughes and Katherine Colarelli Beatty, Becoming a Strategic Leader (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005).

13. Jeanne M. Liedtka, (1998).