Lessons from Luther on Leading Major Change

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October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to a church door, sparking the Reformation. Today, there are around 900 million Protestant Christians worldwide, including nearly 90 million Lutheran Christians. The social and political changes ushered in by the Reformation were just as sweeping.

I’m thinking, maybe, just maybe, this Luther could teach us something about leading major change.

At first glance, change in churches may seem insignificant compared to the Reformation. While the overall scope of change is different, the impact of major change is scalable. Major change takes varied forms in churches:

  • Transforming an unhealthy church culture
  • Relocating a church to a new location
  • Leading a congregation from one denomination into another denomination
  • Transitioning a mono-cultural congregation to a multi-cultural congregation
  • Expanding a church into a multi-site congregation

We can draw principles from Luther concerning leading such changes in churches.

Principle: The greater the change, the greater the commitment required of leadership.

Luther had no way of knowing the price he might pay for nailing the theses to the church door in 1517. It didn’t take long to learn the potential price. Luther was placed under the Imperial Ban in 1521, endangering his life. Luther’s own government was so certain Luther would be put to death that the government had Luther kidnapped, hiding him for almost a year. Luther ultimately left hiding to resume leadership of the Reformation.

I do not think leading change in a church in the western world should cost leaders their lives. However, leaders engaging in major change need to approach the work with sober judgement. Even a successful change process takes a major toll on leaders. It is not uncommon for pastors to leave a church after major change, starting fresh with a new congregation.

Principle: Do not lead major change alone.

An Augustinian monk, Luther was assigned to lecture and study at the University of Wittenberg in 1508. This means Luther had a decade to discuss and debate this thinking on reform within the relative safety of the university. He also had time to discover religious and political leaders who shared his passion and vision.

From time to time, I discover pastors trying to lead major change alone. Sometimes, they are striving against the lay leadership of the church. Other times the lay leaders are half-heartedly following, but not truly invested in the cause. Both are a sure sign the pastor should stop leading the change, sit down the church leadership, and start a discernment process. It’s time for everyone to ask God about the future direction of the church.

Principle: You cannot over communicate in the midst of major change.

From my perspective, the 95 theses are the first truly viral media. Copies of the original document (written in Latin) were distributed. However, the theses were also translated into German. Thanks to Gutenberg’s Printing Press, copies in both languages were mass produced and distributed.

I can’t think of a single church that claims they excel at communication. The challenge of communicating in multiplied exponentially when a church undergoes major change. Leaders must communicate what change is being made, and why it’s being made, for years. Yes, I literally mean for years.

Principle: Commit to major change, then minimize the risk.

Luther confused people, even some of his closest associates. He challenged the most powerful force in the world, yet wouldn’t insist on some basic changes at home. For example, he was criticized for not supporting the removal of statuary in sanctuaries or collections of relics, even though both risked leading the faithful astray.

The primary reason Luther didn’t embrace such changes was the conscience of the parishioners. As a priest, Luther understood church members needed time to understand why such changes were being made. I also think Luther understood that, by reducing risks, he gave the Reformation the best possible opportunity at succeeding.

When churches initiative major change, too often they push too fast. Church leaders announce they are considering relocating the congregation, then immediately start looking for at potential new sites. They would be much better served to immediately hold cottage meetings so they can explain in more detail why the church is considering the change, then receive feedback from members. This would minimize the risk of making poor decisions or failing,

What additional leadership principles have you learned from Luther? Leave your thoughts about them in the comments or send me an email.


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