New structures will eventually
emerge, but quick and radical
change typically only occurs when
an organization or congregation
has come to a place near death.
Leadership that is more about cultural change and less about vision
casting is the catalyst that allows
the culture to be open to change.
Real vision happens when a new
culture is shaped.
The leader as a culture changer
Culture change requires a very painful first step – unlearning. It is the
intentional questioning of all our
assumptions and models, nurtured
of a mindset that considers nothing
as sacred. It’s a mindset willing to
admit the assumptions that drove
and shaped the organization to this
point may indeed be wanting in the
present and the future.
Unchallenged assumptions are
often shaped by sentimentality and
deep emotion. They may not be
inherently wrong. They simply do
not work anymore. Neither do they
reflect the type of responses necessary for the times we are in. Traditions are important, but over time,
if unexamined, their significance
and impact are weakened.
When organizational leaders
sentimentally hold to these deep
assumptions without examining
their meaning, they lose the ability
to ask, “Do they work anymore?”
Within Christian organizations
these old assumptions take on a
sense of biblical imperative, and to
challenge them is to challenge faith
itself. The more deeply held they are
for meaning, the more difficult it
may be to question them.
I am convinced churches and
Christian organizations paddling
the whitewater of disorienting
times can thrive. They may have to
lay aside the search for the magic
program that will answer all their
challenges – it doesn’t exist. Nei-
ther will they be able to get away
with a business-as-usual mindset.
There is an art and attitude to
courageous leadership that encour-
ages others to join in the cultural
transformation. Such leaders lead
with elevation. They have an ability
to view patterns as if on a balcony. If
they find themselves too focused on
the field of action, they are unable to
see the patterns that would allow
innovation. They nurture a sense of
urgency about shaping the future,
but at the same time give those with
whom they work a strong connec-
tion to the history of the organization
and what was good about their past.
Exceptional athletes are often
used as examples of this kind of
leader. Think of how they used to
describe Wayne Gretzky or now
Sydney Crosby. Each of these ath-
letes has the ability to play hard
while keeping the whole game in
mind. It was as if they stood in a press
box above the field of play while at
the same time entering the fray. It is
a new skill for some leaders, but is
absolutely essential in the complex
world we find ourselves in today.
The complexity and speed in
which shifts take place means there
is no escaping the implications.
Leaders will struggle if they are
stuck or insecure when it comes to
change and adaptation. They have
to balance a healthy sense of urgency
with a deep and unsettling realiza-
tion that ultimately the only control
they have is over themselves.
Those who have led their organizations into new ways of organiz-ing often say the most important
change was what occurred within
them. They also realize that nothing would have changed in their
organization if they had not been
open to change themselves.
So before you ask others, ask yourself, Are you willing to change? /FT
Gary Nelson is president of Tyndale
University College & Seminary. This article is
an adapted excerpt from Leading in DisOrienting
Times: Navigating Church and Organizational
Change (Chalice Press, 2015).
CHANGE MIGHT LOOK LIKE:
Asking, “Why not?”
Intentionally listening to everyone in your
organization, especially the millennials or the edgier
people wanting deeper change. It may not be where
you end up, but it could be showing the direction you
need to go.
Asking why we do the things we do on Sundays and
during the week, and evaluating how critical and nonnegotiable those things are.
Seeing other churches in your city or neighbourhood
not as competition, but as God’s Kingdom plan.
Mission organizations working together on particular
projects overseas and telling the story of these
collaborative partnerships back home in Canada.
A church intentionally connecting with people in their
community they don’t already know by attending
A church discovering what their neighbours feel are
the pressing needs of the community. –GN