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Do what it takes to implement change in a struggling organization

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Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2012 12:18 am | Updated: 12:06 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

While all of us would like to work in organizations that are known for excellence, sometimes we find ourselves, instead, as an agent of change in a struggling organization.

Immediately after Seminary, I was offered a job at a “dying church” in Indianapolis, Ind. The leadership was honest about the congregation’s struggles and expressed their hopes that a young minister might help them turn the situation around. 

My wife and I decided to take the job and then began one of the most difficult, yet rewarding seasons of my career.  We were there for 8 years and enjoyed significant success by infusing new life into a very old congregation. 

I’d like to share with you a few of the principles I learned while helping a struggling organization become a healthy entity. 

1. Build on the organization’s strengths.

Even in the most desperate of situations there are usually a few strengths to be found.  Find them and build on them.  In our situation we were blessed with very loving people, (most of whom were senior citizens), great cooks, a solid building and financially generous givers. 

Knowing these strengths, we attempted to be the best church possible for senior citizens. We began a shuttle service for seniors who were unable to drive and installed a chair lift. We offered Bible studies in the afternoon instead of the traditional evening spot to avoid nighttime driving for those who struggled visually.

These changes met with a positive response from the congregation and were fairly easy “wins” in the quest for growth. In addition, they helped to reinforce that the members were a priority in spite of being asked to move out of their “comfort zone.” These adjustments created a good foundation of trust when they were later asked to make changes that were not as popular.

2. Make changes through “experiments.”

When I decided to “kill” the Sunday night worship service that had been a tradition for decades, I knew there would be resistance. Even though only about 20 people attended (sitting scattered around the 200 seat sanctuary) this service was an organizational fixture. Cautiously, I asked the elders for permission to do a 6-month “experiment.”

Once a month, instead of the Sunday night service, we introduced the concept of small group Bible studies. One of those small groups was at the church building led by me in a smaller room for those who wanted to “go to church” on Sunday night.

Immediately that group was infused with more energy because of the fact that 20 people in a small room feels better. The other two small groups were held in homes.

Instead of 20 on Sunday nights, we began to have 60 on the small group Sunday. After six months, with the “experiment” being deemed a success, we celebrated the victory and made the new format permanent.

I found people were more likely to give an experiment a chance rather than a permanent change of format and structure.

This success helped lay the foundation for a more difficult change about 5 years later. We added a second service to the Sunday morning programming that was more contemporary and outwardly focused.

Our music choices and the style of worship shifted significantly. At the end of the experiment’s time frame we had connected with a much younger demographic and our seniors saw many young adults becoming part of the church body. Once again we evaluated and celebrated success.

3. Celebrate success.

If there comes a time in your life in which you find yourself in the critical role of changing a struggling organization, it is my hope that these simple — yet effective principles — will be as useful to you as they were to me.

Whether you are in a business, a non-profit, or a church I hope you enjoy success. 

Derek Dickinson is the Co-Chair of the Northern Leadership Center Advisory Committee and Minister at Journey Christian Church. Dr. Nicole Cundiff, the director of the UAF Northern Leadership Center, can be reached by email at or by phone 474-5401. Check out our new website at This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Northern Leadership Center.

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