Exactly What Not to Say When You’re Leading People Through Change


So you’re leading through change. Who isn’t these days?

Change is more important than ever because the world is changing faster than ever.

Here’s the challenge. Most leaders fear change not because they’re afraid of change, but because they’re afraid it’s going to backfire.

The truth about change is that it’s more mysterious than it needs to be.

Many people aren’t sure how the dynamics of change work, and have seen so many leaders get skewered trying to lead change that they’re afraid to try.

Other leaders—unaware of the dynamics of change—storm change so aggressively that they look over their shoulder to discover than nobody’s following.

You can learn how to lead change well. 

Leading change requires a skill set. And the good news is that skill set can be learned.

That’s why I wrote this book outlining a five step strategy on how to lead change when you’re facing opposition.

Today…a question all of us face when leading change. What do you actually say when you’re leading change?

Say the right thing…and change can happen easily.

Say the wrong thing…and plans can unravel in front of you.

Learning The Hard Way

In almost two decades of local church leadership, one of the constants in my leadership has been change.

We’re always navigating it.

The mission stays the same, but the methods, by necessity, have to change to remain effective.

When I was a pastor, we changed everything from the style of music, to the dress code, to buildings and locations, to church governance, to staffing structure, to how we engage volunteers and much more. There is almost nothing we haven’t changed, except the message and the Gospel.

Since leading my leadership company, change has been rapid and consistent: moving from a hobby to a company to a full-time pursuit, rapid growth and pivoting in 2020 to a 100% digital company thanks to a pandemic and the disappearance of speaking in-person.

I have answered thousands of questions about change in group settings and one on one meetings.

In the process of leading change for so many years, I’ve said (or thought) almost everything below…both good and bad. I’ve learned the hard way. But I’ve tried to learn quickly.

Change is so critical…as a leader you simply have to learn the skill of navigation it.

And some language is simply more helpful in leading change than other language.

So…if you want to ruin the chance of change happening , just say these 7 things.

And if you want to help the chances of change happening at your church, try something a little closer to the things I suggest below:

1. The Proposed Changes Are Great. I Can’t Understand Why You Don’t Like Them

Leaders who navigate change successfully learn the skill of empathy.

Not everyone is going to cheer wildly when you introduce change. Be prepared for that.

If you want to turn an enemy into a friend, empathize with them.

Try saying something like: I can understand you don’t like the changes…I would be upset if I were you too.

That validates someone’s feelings. And when you feel validated, it gives you a chance to move forward.

Empathizing with people’s pain often opens them up to change.

2. God Told Me This Is What We Should Do

Please please please don’t pull the God card when you’re navigating change.

I mean by all means invoke God’s name when you’re preaching about Jesus rising from the dead or other core essentials of the Christian faith.

But don’t tell your congregation or organization that God told you to buy your next building or change the music or to build a new wing or whatever else you’re proposing.

Even if you believe God told you to do something, suggest it as a plan…or a wise course to follow…or the best options we see right now.

Rather than being less credible, you will become more believable and more trustworthy.

Too many leaders use God as a justification for the plans they’ve designed.

Please hear me. I pray about the plans we make, seek wise counsel and honestly believe they are the best thing for the future. But these days I never pull the God card out.

Why? Because if the plan fails, it just makes people suspicious or cynical. I don’t want to bring God’s name into disrepute. If I stick to the Gospel, I won’t.

So what should you say?

How about this?

Our team has looked at this and prayerfully considered the options. We believe this is the best move we can make at this time for these reasons….

Ironically, you won’t lose credibility. You’ll gain it.

3. We’ve Got This All Figured Out. Trust Me.

Don’t try to be the guy who ‘knows it all’. You don’t.

You haven’t got this all figured out. All you have is a strategy. That’s it.

So be honest. Why not say something like:

No, we’re not 100% sure this is going to work. But what we were doing was not working. So we’re going to try this. 

Better, isn’t it?

4. I Know You Love The Past. It’s Completely Irrelevant…Focus On The Future.

I’ve been tempted to dismiss the past. Who hasn’t?

Future is my top strength on StrengthFinders.

But to dismiss the past? That’s a mistake.

Some of that is just arrogance. History did not start with your arrival.

Brian White, who works at Disney, once told me about a great philosophy about handling the heritage at Disney (after all, Disney has almost a century of history, and Frozen is a long way from Steamboat Willie.)

Disney’s approach?

Honor the past without living in it.

Love that. Acknowledge that what happened in the past mattered and is important, and point the way to the future.

Maybe say something like:

We’ve had some great moments and seasons in the past, and we want to ensure we have many more in the future. That’s what I’m hoping this change will accomplish.

5. Everyone Needs To Get On Board Right Now

People will take differing amounts of time to get on board. Be okay with that.

You’ll have a handful of highly enthusiastic early adopters. Run with them.

Let others come on board over time.

Say something like:

I realize this is going to stretch all of us, and I appreciate those of you who are willing to give this a chance even though you’re not sure. We so value that!

6. I Know People Are Leaving…Who Cares?

When you make changes, it’s almost guaranteed that some people will leave.

But don’t gloat or pretend it doesn’t matter.

Because leaving hurts you, you’ll be tempted to pretend you don’t feel it or to vilify your opponents.

People who disagree with you aren’t always bad people. They just disagree with you.

Are there times when people should leave your church? Yes. In fact, here are 7 kinds of people you can’t afford to keep in leadership..

But in the moment—when people are leaving—that’s is a moment for empathy. Express concern both for people who are concerned about people who are leaving and express regret.

But then say maybe say something like:

Yes, it is sad. But I think what need to remember is that they will have another church to go to. I’m excited about creating space for people who haven’t yet been to church…and I’m excited that you want to create space for them here too.

7. This Plan Is Bullet-Proof

No matter how well thought-through your plan is, it’s not bullet proof.

It might fail. Really, it might.

So why not just be honest?

Instead, say something like:

I agree. We don’t know for sure if this plan is going to work. But it’s helped a lot of other churches (or…if no one’s tried it that you know of, say ‘nobody’s really tried this before…’), and we believe it’s our next best step. So we’re going to try it. And after we’ve given it our best, we’ll make sure to evaluate it. Thanks for the freedom to try new things.


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