I am often reminded of what my friend Margaret Marcuson, author of Leaders Who Last, says about bringing about change in congregations, which is, “Everything takes five years.” While that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s not far from the truth. Over the past four weeks I’ve had casual conversations with many church leaders related to how long it takes to get things done in congregations. Each highlighted a different aspect of the dynamic.
Gaining trust takes time. A conversation with a local priest highlighted how long it takes for folks to learn to trust a new leader. Trust is not something that is given totally by virtue of position or office. And if we’ve followed a leader who has not left well, then gaining trust can be even more difficult. Gaining people’s trust takes about five years.
Flushing the system takes time. One recent seminary graduate, only two years out of seminary, is leaving her first church position. She’s feeling frustrated that people on her primary ministry committees don’t seem to listen to her ideas, don’t seem to take her seriously and don’t follow her leadership. I shared with her my own perspective that in order to begin to get things done you sometimes have to “flush the system” first. That is, you have to transition out the people on committees that you inherited and start putting in the people you need. Getting all the people you need in the right places takes about five years.
Learning the culture takes time. My conversation with a pastor revealed his surprise at how long it took for him to understand some of his church’s behaviors and practices. He is in his sixth year of ministry in the congregation and only now is becoming aware of some of the history behind issues, practices, and habits. For one thing, he’s noticing that church members are starting to share a different kind of information, one that includes history, stories, and ”insider” knowledge that they hadn’t shared before. It takes about five years to begin to understand the culture.
Getting settled takes time. I recently met with a church leadership group for a consultation. When I began soliciting basic information about their church I asked how long their pastor had been there. When they said, ”Six years,” I said, ”O.k., so he’s been here long enough to have survived a couple of crises and for you to suspect he’s going to stay.” That got a huge laugh from the group; they recognized the truth in the statement. Later I stressed that at six years, the pastor was in the position ”to begin to start” making plans and dreaming about what the church and its ministry can be. Getting settled takes about five years.
Successful congregational ministry requires cultivation and development. Everything takes five years. Sadly, I suspect that too many impatient pastors and ministry staff don’t take the long view and end their ministries before they can even begin to start to make a difference. Too often the first crisis (right around the third year) is seen as a personal attack or a personal failure, rather than something that is a matter of course. The key is to get through it and beyond it. The tenacity that can help the leader come out on the other side of the first crisis is often what facilitates the capacity to bring about change in the long run.
Margaret J. Marcuson is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (New York: Seabury Press, 2009). She serves on the faculty of Leadership in Ministry.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.