As I consider this question of personal transformation in the midst of congregational transitions, an old praise song comes to my mind. The words are…
Change my heart, O God, make it ever true;
Change my heart, O God, may I be like You.
You are the Potter, I am the clay,
Mold me and make me, this is what I pray!
Change my heart, O God…
My conviction is that congregational change is brought about by personal change – spiritual transformation – in the lives of the people in that congregation, because, as we all know, the church IS the people. And that personal change has to begin in the hearts and minds of the leaders; all of the best leadership coaching out there, both secular and Christian, reinforces that truth. And among the leaders, personal change will take hold most effectively when it begins with the primary leader – the Lead Pastor and shepherd of the flock. The apostle Paul confirmed that in his words (cf. I Cor. 11:1, Phil. 3:17) about following his example, because he follows the example of Christ.
Whenever I begin ministry with a congregation, or wish to look again at what might need to change within a congregation, or among their leaders, I always have to start with the question or prayer, “Lord, what needs to change in me?” If I properly understand the meaning of God’s call on my life to this particular people at this particular time and place, and how I am to be a spiritual catalyst for what God desires to do among them right now, this is where I have to start. The essential work is PRAYER.
It is first of all, prayers of thanksgiving. I must be thankful for God’s mercy and grace, and that He placed me within the Body of Christ to begin with. And I must be thankful for the goodness of God that has placed me within this unique congregation, and given me the holy privilege of serving them. This attitude needs to “spill over” onto every single person within the church, because you cannot be a truly thankful Christian and at the same time be a grumbler, complainer, naysayer, and the like.
It is secondly, prayers of repentance. The old saying goes, “God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called.” Sincere repentance helps to “qualify me” for the calling to be a change agent in the church. Genuine repentance begins with a true spirit of humility, and resonating with the cry of the tax collector (Lk. 18:13), “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Being transparent about my weaknesses and failures before others, and acknowledging my own desperate need for God and His forgiveness, often helps them take an honest look at this need in their own lives.
It is thirdly, prayers of healing. There is a sense in which ALL of the work of Christ in our lives, both personally and corporately, can be understood to be a work of divine healing. He heals our souls, our wounded psyches, our damaged emotions, our broken bodies…everything. And this is not merely a one-time work; it is an ongoing process, and one which I must not be too proud to let others witness happening in my life. This is about spiritual authenticity as a leader, to be sure, but it is also about “the ministry of reconciliation” and the “message of reconciliation” that St. Paul refers to in II Cor. 5:18-20. Many congregations in transition need healing, and they need reconciliation. I need to show them how that can be realized in their own hearts, and how we need to be praying for this.
It is finally, prayers of submission. This is not a popular concept in our culture, and sadly, many of our culture’s norms and values have pervaded the church. But as a spiritual leader, whose life and ministry is guided and girded by the norms and values of Scripture, I need to be in submission. I must first of all submit to God, but I must also submit to others, as Paul reminds us in Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” A lack of submission is often connected to many of the relational and organizational difficulties that prevail in church families. My prayer is for God to help me be a humble example of Godly submission before those who look to me for help and leadership. And I am often amazed at how God honors this, and uses this, as a way of helping congregations transition.
If we want God to be about the work of changing our congregations, we have to begin by asking God to change US. If we want to be like God, and exhibit the character of Christ, we must put ourselves “on the Potter’s wheel” of prayer, and pray bold prayers for Him to mold us and make us as He desires. Once this clay vessel is fashioned according to God’s desires, it’s remarkable what He can use us to do, to facilitate change in those around us.
Paul Burmeister is currently serving as the Transition Minister at Forest Grove Reformed Church in Hudsonville, MI