Congregational transformation is fueled by personal renewal

 Part 2 of an interview with Jim Herrington
and Trisha Taylor,
Authors of Learning Change

In Learning Change: Congregational Transformation Fueled by Personal Renewal (Kregel Ministry), authors Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor share stories from a community of pastors who tell of their journey to discover whether real change in their congregations was possible. Many felt trapped in unhealthy, even toxic, church situations and were desperate for hope. Yet their journey eventually led them beyond all their expectations. Learning Change chronicles these transformations lived out in practice, in community, and over time in a wide variety of congregational contexts.

Q: How did you find and collect the stories of churches who were able to institute lasting change in their congregations for this book?

We were invited by leaders from Western Theological Seminary, Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church to develop a collaborative process focused on personal and congregational transformation. Based on our previous work in a variety of settings and using content from our previous books, Leading Congregation Change and The Leaders Journey, we designed what has become Ridder Church Renewal (named after Bud and Lenora Ridder, donors who funded the pilot project). We did a 30-month pilot project with 16 congregations. All of the writers who contributed to the book were in that pilot project. As they applied what they were learning and because we worked together more than five years, we were able to see the unfolding stories of transformation in their individual lives and in the lives of their congregations.

As a result of the process we have been through with more than 100 congregations now, the stories pour in. People love to share the ways they are seeing meaningful change in their personal lives and forward movement in their congregations. The book includes just a few of the stories connected to this group of contributors. The stories in real life are a lot messier than they sound in this book, even though we tried to tell them as honestly as possible. We would encourage the reader to remember that learning is gradual and there’s lots of messiness along the way.

Q: In what ways did the churches participating in the study most need to change? Did they all share a common goal?

They all needed deep change in the mental models guiding the decisions they made about how to impact their communities effectively with the Gospel. This included confronting and changing mental models about things that are dear to us as Christians: discipleship, mission and the role of the church. They all also needed support and encouragement as they worked to change those mental models. The common goal was renewed hope they and their congregations could thrive in the 21st century.

Q: Tell us about your observations and research that led to the pilot programs you started in Houston to reconnect pastors and congregations to their calling.

In 1990, Jim was serving as the executive director of Union Baptist Association. They conducted a 40-year longitudinal study of the success and impact of their 400 congregations. They combined that with a series of 25 listening sessions with pastors of different-size churches from different parts of the city and from different language and culture groups. The research showed two overwhelming realities. The first was 80% of their congregations were plateaued or declining despite being in a massive mission field. The second was pastors were largely demoralized. As one pastor said, “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked for less results than I’ve ever gotten. My health is failing. My family is struggling. All my denominational leaders can tell me to do is work harder at what I’ve been doing.” We became convinced we needed to find systemic, innovative solutions to the challenges facing pastors and congregations.

During that same period, Trisha was working one-on-one with pastors and ministers and their families in counseling and in a local pilot leadership development process for pastors called LeadersEdge. Her experience lined up with what several national studies were showing; many pastors were emotionally, relationally and spiritually weak and unhealthy, and they were ineffective leaders because their seminary programs had not trained or equipped them to lead. Many had trouble spiritually forming a congregation because they didn’t understand the process of spiritual formation. These pastors felt the pain of their ineffectiveness but were turning to programs to grow their churches rather than engaging a deep process of personal transformation. As pastors engaged in counseling, peer groups and LeadersEdge, they enthusiastically reported their experience of deep change. However, in most cases, the changes the pastors were experiencing didn’t translate to congregational change. We then began wondering how to set up a process for transformation and learning that would lead to change in pastors, lay leaders and congregants.

Q: Who is the intended audience for Learning Change, and how should the book be used?

The intended audience is pastors and congregational leaders who are faced with the challenge of congregational revitalization. Many pastors — particularly those who have recently finished seminary and are in their first call — have a good background in theology and church history but lack the relational skills to pastor a congregation. While they can’t learn these skills from reading our book, the book will alert them to some of the skills and values that are necessary and will invite them into a community of learners.

We’re particularly enthusiastic about the potential of this book to provide an introduction and reference guide for lay leaders to engage some of the best information out there about congregational leadership, spiritual formation and missional living and to hear the stories of others who are also putting these things into practice in their congregations.

This book will be most effective when it is used in community — small groups of people who are committed to learning together. We’ve already heard about church staffs, denominational teams, study groups and gatherings of friends beginning to work through this book together. We would say this to the reader: If you read to gain information, this book will be helpful; it has lots of good information and can serve as a resource for that. If you read to increase your own self-awareness and think through your own leadership, it will be even more helpful. If you do the exercises, think through the questions, practice being different, learn to use the tools in real life, share your learning with others and receive their feedback, it will be life-changing.

Q: In the second section of Learning Change, you write about the four core values that drive our process of learning and effect change. What are those values, and why are they imperative?

The values are authenticity, integrity, courage and love.

We believe the core values are essential for two reasons. One, we hold a deep conviction (taught by Jesus and the prophets) that when it comes to transformation, the how is even more important than the what. Two, deep change has to come from deep places; surface-level behavior change isn’t what we’re after. These values help us start from a different place and guide us as we learn to live a different way.

Q: Part three of the book delves into mental models and shifting the way we think about ministry and the church. What are some of the old ways of thinking that need to be reexamined in order to move forward as more missional congregations?

The fundamental shift is one that disrupts the separation of the secular from the sacred. Until congregational leaders recognize the mission of the church is in the world — the workplace, the schools, the neighborhood — they will continue to languish. This will include disrupting the assumption the professional minister is doing ministry and everyone else is working in the “real” world. This must shift to the ministry team empowering, coaching and celebrating those people in the congregation who are on mission in the world.

A second shift is challenging the assumption that knowledge of the Bible translates into effective leadership. While knowledge of the Bible is essential, knowing how to collaborate, listen and create are also essential skills.

Another important shift is from the goal of preserving and extending the church system as it currently exists, in exchange for joining God in God’s redemptive, restorative work in the world. This means letting go of some of my own preferences and moving out of my own comfort zone.

Q: What are some of the additional tools offered in the last section of the book for more effective leadership? 

The tools we offer in the last section of the book are designed to help leaders understand their own part in the corporate change process and manage themselves. We start with helping leaders understand their autopilot — how they show up the way they do — so they can choose differently, starting with healing the wounds involved in creating that autopilot. We then move to helping leaders develop their skills with dialogue, learning to listen deeply and to talk in ways that facilitate change. Finally, we offer life-giving accountability as an essential part of the change process — a lifelong process of coaching and being coached.

Learn more about Learning Change at