5 Things Every Church Leader Should Unlearn (If You Want To Stay Relevant)


So you likely have some learning goals set for the year ahead. That’s awesome.

But the best leaders don’t just learn new things, they unlearn old things that are holding them—and their teams—back.

Unlearning a few things might be one of the best things you can do this year, especially if you want to be able to reach the next generation.

This is true not only of reaching them with the message of the Gospel. It’s also true of any leader who wants to build a staff or volunteer team of young adults.

If you want to reach the next generation, you should unlearn some things that keep you from connecting with them.

Don’t get me wrong, every older leader brings wisdom and life-experience that’s invaluable, but often our methods interfere with our message. Our strategy and assumptions sabotage our intentions.

This post is a companion piece to the posts I write every year about disruptive church trends. Here’s the 2019 version of that post. You can find the 2018 version here (it’s still quite relevant). Those posts are designed to help us all figure out how the culture is changing and how the church needs to respond.

This post is aimed at helping you do a better job as a leader in leading that change.

Unlearning what’s wrong is as critical as learning what’s right.

With that in mind, here are 5 things every church leader should unlearn to stay relevant.

1. What Used To Work Still Works

In an age of massive disruption (which arguably we’re all in), it’s easy to cling to what’s known because so much feels unknown.

As a result, most of us naturally cling to things that used to work hoping they will work again in the future.

Maybe you had an approach to leadership or preaching that resonated a decade ago but for some reasons just isn’t anymore.

Or maybe you had a program that used to be standing room only that currently has a lot of empty chairs.

It’s so easy as a leader to think that you just need to pour more gas on the things that used to work to bring them back to life. The truth is, gas only lights if there’s a spark. And the flame left those things a long time ago.

If you’re pouring more effort into something with diminishing returns, it’s time to rethink everything.


Because leaders who cling to ineffective methods ultimately destroy the mission.

Here’s an example. I have a fairly widely-listened-to leadership podcast I host. Leaders often ask me, “So will you always podcast?”

My answer is “No.”


Because podcasting is the method, not the mission. My mission is to help leaders thrive in life and leadership. Podcasting is currently a very effective method of helping leaders do that.

But I’m sure the day will come that people take out their earbuds and something else comes along that’s even more effective. On that day, I’ll ditch podcasting and jump on whatever else helps leaders thrive in life and leadership.

On the other hand, I’m also in the final stages of writing my next book.

I think I’ll be writing books years from now. Why? Because the method (book writing) has been around for millennia and the book industry, while changing, is expanding rapidly. It’s also the best way to ensure your ideas get broad distribution over many years…sometimes even over decades. But again, if that changes, it will be time to ditch the method to fuel the mission.

Most leaders resist change.

And that’s their demise. The way you’ve always done it, should never be the way you always do it.

More specifically, the next generation, who is attracted to the mission, will always look to join a team that’s flexible in its methods. You did when you were young.

Just because God doesn’t change doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

By the way, here are 9 things that used to work in the church a decade ago that don’t today.

2. Flex workers and remote workers are lazy

I’m hearing this question more and more from leaders who are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing work culture: what do I do with (young) team members who want to work from home, from coffee shops and have flex hours?”

My answer: embrace it.

There’s a myth that still persists that team members who want to have flex hours or who want to do remote work are lazy.

They’re not lazy. They’re living in the 21st century. We have this thing called the internet these days, and it’s changing everything.

Gone are the days when you needed a central location that everyone reported at a set hour to do set work. Sure, if you run a factory that produces widgets, you probably still run that kind of a business.

But if you work in a church or in an office, arguably, you don’t anymore. If you run reception, sure, you need set hours and a set location. Ditto if your job requires some form of manual labour or production.

But beyond that, if you’re an information or knowledge worker, you don’t.

Bryan Miles has become one of my favourite leaders to listen about the changing work culture. He and his wife Shannon have built a large, rapidly growing company that’s entirely virtual, and last year was voted by Inc. magazine as having the #1 workplace culture in America.

Bryan has a new book called “Virtual Culture: Why The Way We Work Doesn’t Work Anymore“. You may want to put it on your reading list.  I interview Bryan about the rise in virtual culture on episode 175 of of my Leadership Podcast.

Bottom line?

Remote workers aren’t lazy. Lazy workers are lazy.

If you have a lazy team member, deal with it. If they don’t improve, release them.

But embrace remote work and remote workers. What you’ll discover is that productivity actually increases (often dramatically), costs go down and you begin to attract some of the best and brightest talent out there.

Will you need some set hours where everyone’s together? Of course. Many organizations have common days where everyone’s in the office but give freedom on other days.

So how do you evaluate people then if you can’t see them?

Well, first, being chained to a desk rarely improves anyone’s motivation or productivity.

And second, evaluate on them on results, not process. NOT producing is entirely different than how they’re producing.

If you focus on the outcome, not the process, you usually get a better outcome.

By the way, I’ve been working with flex and remote teams for years and love it. Several of my team members are from Bryan’s company, BELAY Solutions, and I love it.

You can learn more here to see if remote work may be right for you.

3. Online engagement only happens with lazy people in their PJs

I literally heard this again this week from a leader. It drives me crazy in the most polite Canadian way.

Two of the seven recent church trends I identified deal with the relative decline of church-in-a-box (as I call it) and the rise of digital church. You can read about those trends here.

But underneath it all is an attitude that people who engage church online are lazy and only watch in their PJs.

Does that have a shred of truth? Of course. I’m sure there are thousands of Christians who are too lazy to go to church and watch in their PJs instead. And maybe online church has been a back door for that group. For that group, there’s not much of a future for reasons outlined here.

But…and this is what leaders keep missing…Online church has a far bigger front door than back door.

The online world isn’t for lazy people, it’s for people. And if you want to reach people, stop ignoring the online world where ALL the people alive today are.

You shop online. You don’t make a physical purchase without checking it out online first. And you don’t drive anywhere new without jumping online.

Life has moved online, so ministry has to as well.

If you keep thinking online engagement only happens by lazy people, you’ll miss 99% of people you’re trying to reach.

You can read more about how churches moving online will impact the future church here and here.

4. I’m the Leader Here, So Listen Up

A generation ago, being in leadership for many leaders meant you (finally) got to call the shots. Leaders loved the authority their position gave them…too much.

The top-down model of leadership ruled, and essentially leaders thought everyone else should fall into line.

That model of leadership is still far too alive in too many churches. The best leaders know that any large, growing church is hardly ever a one-person show.

In the same way work is being de-centralized, so is leadership.

The best way to keep smart, engaged people on your team is to value, respect and empower them.

Leaders who continue to rely on their authority will find themselves with less authority.

True authority comes from respect, and respect has nothing to do with a title. It has a lot to do with humility, with a willingness to serve your team, and honestly, with results.

Leaders who serve their teams well, who exemplify deep character and who produce results will rarely have a shortage of other great leaders around them.

As studies have shown, people don’t quit companies. They quit bosses.

5. The Business World Has Nothing To Teach the Church

I probably take more heat on this idea than almost anything I write about, but I would love to see church leaders finally unlearn this idea.

Is the church a business? No, of course not. We’re a body. The body of Christ.

But just because the church is not a business doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from business. Many churches are exceptionally poorly run and led.

What you effectively say if you have this attitude is that nothing good happens in the corporate world. They’re not smarter than you on teams, management, technology, people, change management, marketing or anything else.

You know what that is, right? That’s arrogance. Hardly a fruit of the Spirit.

Does everything that the business world teaches you work in the church? Of course not.

But that doesn’t mean nothing does.

So let me ask you: who are advancing their mission faster, businesses in your community or your church?

There’s a very good chance that if your church is growing as fast or faster than most businesses, you don’t have to unlearn the idea that the business world has nothing to teach your church. Most growing churches have figured out that they can take learning from almost anywhere, run it through a theological filter, and put it to work.

A final note: If you struggle with seeing what you can learn from business, just know that one of the reasons you have almost no high capacity leaders volunteering at your church might be directly related to this attitude. If you continually convey to business leaders that you’re opposed to learning anything from business, don’t lie awake at night wondering why no business leaders serve at your church.

Or why none attend.

Unlearn Some Bad Habits and Myths

My latest book, Didn’t See It Coming: Overcoming the Seven Greatest Challenges That Everyone Experiences and No One Expects is helping thousands of leaders navigate the challenges of personal leadership, not the least of which is staying relevant. I have two chapters in Didn’t See It Coming about how and why so many leaders become less relevant over time, and some strategies and practices that will help you stay relevant.

You can order Didn’t See It Coming here in hardcover, audiobook or kindle.

If you want to drill deeper into honing and crafting your skills and insights, I’ve developed three online courses that can help you navigate the complexities of ministry and leadership and unlearn some things that are working against you.

The Art of Better Preaching walks you through 12 ways to anchor and improve your preaching content, writing and even delivery.

The Church Growth Masterclass will help you identify and eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. It’s everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

The High Impact Leader will help you beat overwhelm and get time, energy and priorities working in your favour.

All my courses are on-demand and give you instant, lifetime access. You can do them on your own time on any connected device.

What Do You Need To Unlearn?

Anything you’d add to this list?

What do you think church leaders need to unlearn?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

5 Things Every Church Leader Should Unlearn (If You Want To Stay Relevant)


  1. theartist on January 7, 2019 at 1:38 pm

    Whatever happened to SIMPLE Church. Ministry has become so overcomplicated to the point of ineffectiveness
    (my opinion). If the methods Jesus used… I call it ( “The Go” ) was effective then, why not today. For example -Technology is good, but coupled with blogs, emails, podcasts, social media, satilite, websites, etc-I
    (as a Church employee and layperson) oftentimes I just get plain overwhelmed and weary of it all.
    I just “GO.” (Matthew 28:19-20) and more often-be the Mary (Luke 10:39-42) which is the ultimate preparatory before the “GO.”

  2. Dianne Ramster on August 18, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Good one!!! Online work and learning from the business world especially. Thanks for posting this – business leaders in the congregation would be more than willing to volunteer time and expertise if the church was willing to listen – but sadly, not.

  3. Chuck on August 18, 2018 at 8:57 am

    Most of these points can be filed under one subtitle. Culture. As you say in other forums, if we don’t get culture we are trying to reach, it’s an uphill struggle. (I seriously am contemplating writing in this topic). No matter how many lists you percolate it through, that’s the cup of coffee you MUST drink: CULTURE.

  4. Mike on January 9, 2018 at 11:37 pm

    Great article, Carey.

    For me, I’ve had to unlearn what it means to be a Christian. I’ve gone through my own faith deconstruction phase and (hopefully) am now in a reconstruction period.

    The current method of tops-down, authoritarian management prevalent in most churches was harmful to me. Thankfully I’ve found online community that listens and loves people exactly as they are, not as they should be.

  5. Glenn Garvin on January 4, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Absolutely! In fact I am looking for reading/resources on creating and sustaining a culture of change within the church. The church has been known for serious cultural delays, but technology and “the world is flat” principles have forced us to look at adaptation of structure, messaging, connection and more. My job as a bridge between Boomer leaders and attenders as well as Emerging leaders and attenders is to prepare a smooth handoff. This is the first time in church history that FOUR GENERATIONS are struggling to figure out who’s in charge. The older generation wants to go back, the younger go forward. We need more models of cross generational churches. BTW, its easy for emerging leaders and younger attenders to just walk out and start their own thing, but i’m not sure that’s the best thing for the church.

  6. David on January 4, 2018 at 2:37 pm

    I’m 54 and have been pastoring for more than 25 years. I have never understood why a job that required so much time out of the office would require set office hours. That never made sense to me.

  7. Rob on January 4, 2018 at 2:21 pm

    As a 23 year old new person to vocational ministry, I can attest that these are exactly what connects with the heart beat of younger pastors. I have found that even at the large church I’m a part of that there are still many older ways of doing things that don’t seem to change. For instance, we still use cubicles at our main offices and almost all people have set office hours. This is very constricting for me and it can communicate a mistrust of me to get work done. Often times, the staff always talks to each other and it even can delay productivity. I find that new scenery can offer fresh perspective and ideas for me as I do creative work. Also, it connects me with the community in which I serve. I get to see unchurched people instead of just staff people.

  8. Patrick Mitchell on January 4, 2018 at 1:42 pm

    I pushed and pushed against #5 for years, even as a staffer at a couple of megachurches. I mean, I had been to seminary and knew it all ;-). Then I became the pastor of a small church and had no clue what it took to run a successful organization, let alone a healthy one! I’m hoping to hear the end of pitting business strategy and church against each other. If all truth is God’s truth, what are we in the church so afraid of?

  9. Rick Rabe on January 4, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    Amen Carry!
    I am new to ‘official’ ministry. My background has been business related for over 30 years and so I appreciated the ‘unlearn’ aspect for sure.
    So much of business success is tied to these things: leadership, disruption, empowerment, and innovation. I am not saying that all businesses follow these but I am saying almost all successful businesses, that have a long term vision, do.

    It’s been an adjustment now that I have a church of my own. I was told, “when you get there, don’t rock the boat in your first year.” I have to say, when I became the CEO of three successive start-ups, I often rocked the boat so hard that it tipped over which of course required everyone to swim and help right it. I’ve taken this into my ministry. I told the congregation from the start that things have to change if we are to build His church and surprise of surprises, they (at least many of them) have embraced it with a giant sigh of relief. Thanks for your amazing blog/podcast/etc.!

  10. Craig Millar on January 4, 2018 at 12:36 pm

    UNLEARN: apathy about the pace of change in culture today.
    UNLEARN: our traditional ‘brick and mortar’ methods of training church leaders.
    UNLEARN: inflexible approaches to teaching insiders and reaching ‘outsiders’ (don’t even like the word, but I mean the unchurched/dechurched/unreached)

    If we don’t hustle, there will be nothing left.
    Urgency is the new norm to survive and thrive as a church.
    Thanks for helping to move the discussion along on what must change and what must not.

  11. Chris Hearn on January 4, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    Agree with all points, #5 especially. It has to be done carefully and in the right way, but there are things that the church can either learn or be reaffirmed in by secular businesses. I’ve read a few secular books on various business principles and it’s amazing how they square with what’s written in Scripture about how to lead. It goes back to the fact that all truth is God’s truth.

  12. Jim Turpin on January 4, 2018 at 8:33 am

    I love your Comment about the Church being able to learn from business, I constantly talk to church leaders and ask what Podcast they listen to or books they read. They always list church leaders or preaching podcast.
    I let then know that I listen to those also, but I also listen to secular leadership and business Podcast.
    Even when I listen to Christian leaders, my favorite episodes are when Andy Stanley had the Ceo of Home Depot, Ritz Carlton, and Chick fil a. I learned more from those three Podcast on how to effectively lead people than a whole year of some other ( NOT YOURS) Church leadership Podcast.
    Thanks and keep up the good work

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.