Exactly What NOT to Say When You’re Leading People Through Change

So you’re leading through change. Who isn’t these days?

Change is more important than ever because the world is changing faster than ever.

Here’s the challenge. Most leaders fear change not because they’re afraid of change, but because they’re afraid it’s going to backfire.

The truth about change is that it’s more mysterious than it needs to be.

Many people aren’t sure how the dynamics of change work, and have seen so many leaders get skewered trying to lead change that they’re afraid to try.

Other leaders—unaware of the dynamics of change—storm change so aggressively that they look over their shoulder to discover than nobody’s following.

You can learn how to lead change well. 

Leading change requires a skill set. And the good news is that skill set can be learned.

That’s why I wrote this book outlining a five step strategy on how to lead change when you’re facing opposition.

Today…a question all of us face when leading change. What do you actually say when you’re leading change?

Say the right thing…and change can happen easily.

Say the wrong thing…and plans can unravel in front of you.

Learning the Hard Way

In almost two decades of local church leadership, one of the constants in my leadership has been change.

We’re always navigating it.

The mission stays the same, but the methods, by necessity, have to change to remain effective.

When I was a pastor, we changed everything from the style of music, to the dress code, to buildings and locations, to church governance, to staffing structure, to how we engage volunteers and much more. There is almost nothing we haven’t changed, except the message and the Gospel.

Since leading my leadership company, change has been rapid and consistent: moving from a hobby to a company to a full-time pursuit, rapid growth and pivoting in 2020 to a 100% digital company thanks to a pandemic and the disappearance of speaking in-person.

I have answered thousands of questions about change in group settings and one on one meetings.

In the process of leading change for so many years, I’ve said (or thought) almost everything below…both good and bad. I’ve learned the hard way. But I’ve tried to learn quickly.

Change is so critical…as a leader you simply have to learn the skill of navigation it.

And some language is simply more helpful in leading change than other language.

So…if you want to ruin the chance of change happening , just say these 7 things.

And if you want to help the chances of change happening at your church, try something a little closer to the things I suggest below:

1. The proposed changes are great. I can’t understand why you don’t like them

Leaders who navigate change successfully learn the skill of empathy.

Not everyone is going to cheer wildly when you introduce change. Be prepared for that.

If you want to turn an enemy into a friend, empathize with them.

Try saying something like: I can understand you don’t like the changes…I would be upset if I were you too.

That validates someone’s feelings. And when you feel validated, it gives you a chance to move forward.

Empathizing with people’s pain often opens them up to change.

2. God told me this is what we should do

Please please please don’t pull the God card when you’re navigating change.

I mean by all means invoke God’s name when you’re preaching about Jesus rising from the dead or other core essentials of the Christian faith.

But don’t tell your congregation or organization that God told you to buy your next building or change the music or to build a new wing or whatever else you’re proposing.

Even if you believe God told you to do something, suggest it as a plan…or a wise course to follow…or the best options we see right now.

Rather than being less credible, you will become more believable and more trustworthy.

Too many leaders use God as a justification for the plans they’ve designed.

Please hear me. I pray about the plans we make, seek wise counsel and honestly believe they are the best thing for the future. But these days I never pull the God card out.

Why? Because if the plan fails, it just makes people suspicious or cynical. I don’t want to bring God’s name into disrepute. If I stick to the Gospel, I won’t.

So what should you say?

How about this?

Our team has looked at this and prayerfully considered the options. We believe this is the best move we can make at this time for these reasons….

Ironically, you won’t lose credibility. You’ll gain it.

3. We’ve got this all figured out. Trust me.

Don’t try to be the guy who ‘knows it all’. You don’t.

You haven’t got this all figured out. All you have is a strategy. That’s it.

So be honest. Why not say something like:

No, we’re not 100% sure this is going to work. But what we were doing was not working. So we’re going to try this. 

Better, isn’t it?

4. I know you love the past. It’s completely irrelevant…focus on the future.

I’ve been tempted to dismiss the past. Who hasn’t?

Future is my top strength on StrengthFinders.

But to dismiss the past? That’s a mistake.

Some of that is just arrogance. History did not start with your arrival.

Brian White, who works at Disney, once told me about a great philosophy about handling the heritage at Disney (after all, Disney has almost a century of history, and Frozen is a long way from Steamboat Willie.)

Disney’s approach?

Honor the past without living in it.

Love that. Acknowledge that what happened in the past mattered and is important, and point the way to the future.

Maybe say something like:

We’ve had some great moments and seasons in the past, and we want to ensure we have many more in the future. That’s what I’m hoping this change will accomplish. 

5. Everyone needs to get on board right now

People will take differing amounts of time to get on board. Be okay with that.

You’ll have a handful of highly enthusiastic early adopters. Run with them.

Let others come on board over time.

Say something like:

I realize this is going to stretch all of us, and I appreciate those of you who are willing to give this a chance even though you’re not sure. We so value that!

6. I know people are leaving…who cares?

When you make changes, it’s almost guaranteed that some people will leave.

But don’t gloat or pretend it doesn’t matter.

Because leaving hurts you, you’ll be tempted to pretend you don’t feel it or to vilify your opponents.

People who disagree with you aren’t always bad people. They just disagree with you.

Are there times when people should leave your church? Yes. In fact, here are 7 kinds of people you can’t afford to keep in leadership..

But in the moment—when people are leaving—that’s is a moment for empathy. Express concern both for people who are concerned about people who are leaving and express regret.

But then say maybe say something like:

Yes, it is sad. But I think what need to remember is that they will have another church to go to. I’m excited about creating space for people who haven’t yet been to church…and I’m excited that you want to create space for them here too.

7. This plan is bullet-proof

No matter how well thought-through your plan is, it’s not bullet proof.

It might fail. Really, it might.

So why not just be honest?

Instead, say something like:

I agree. We don’t know for sure if this plan is going to work. But it’s helped a lot of other churches (or…if no one’s tried it that you know of, say ‘nobody’s really tried this before…’), and we believe it’s our next best step. So we’re going to try it. And after we’ve given it our best, we’ll make sure to evaluate it. Thanks for the freedom to try new things. 

What Do You See? 

Those are some lessons from the trenches in leading change.

What have you said or heard people say when leading change that you think is a mistake?

What are some phrases or approaches that have helped you!

Leave a comment!

Most leaders fear peoples' reaction to change. Often, their response is based on what you say about it. Here's exactly what NOT to say when leading change.


  1. Bob Wiseman on February 22, 2021 at 9:32 am

    The truth is, the people who invoke the “God told me to” are almost all lying. Every single one of them. Don’t even give them the benefit of the doubt and a simple, “phrase it a better way”… call them out for their nonsense.

    How did God speak to them? Ask them that. Get specifics. Was it audibly? Was it in a vision? Did a prophet of God tell them?

    I have a ministry acquaintance who announced they are planting a church in the rich suburbs of Omaha because God clearly told them to. After all, they were having troubles finding jobs they could “feel good” about. So God clearly told him to plant a church in Omaha… in a neighborhood that has 3-4 dozen churches, most of them started in the past 10 years.

    Call me cynical, but it’s plainly obvious that this wasn’t a divine calling, and rather, someone who was too lazy and didn’t have the stones to go plant a church somewhere hard…. you know, where people ACTUALLY need a good church and aren’t hearing the Gospel.

    The “God told me to” response is nothing more than a manipulative excuse to get whatever you want, and it’s an attempt to silence any criticism (after all, it comes from God, remember?). Don’t give into it. Call them out for the manipulative snake oil salesman they are, then find a new church.

  2. friv on February 22, 2021 at 4:32 am

    Thank you, Carey
    For me, the best expression that a leader should have is his/her talent. Sometimes, people just look at the final result and decide. Of course, the notes in this post are important

  3. Larry Thomas on February 20, 2021 at 10:25 am

    Some wisdom, apparently intended for pastors, but should be read by both Christian laymen and secular leaders

  4. Eric on February 16, 2021 at 7:03 pm

    Hi Carey, I have greatly appreciated your thoughts since I started following you a few months ago! The comments about “God told me” were great. When we use such wording, it elevates whatever we say to the same authority as Scripture. It weights heavy upon the conscience of those you lead. For the discerning ear, it causes people to question our leadership. And, it has some of the most disastrous of consequences if proven otherwise. Thank you so much for what you are doing! Please continue.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 17, 2021 at 9:00 pm

      I will!

      • Joseph Utter on February 18, 2021 at 9:00 pm

        Thank you so much for sharing this wisdom.
        The God card is one I have witnessed being played many a time, and true to what you said above, a lot of good people grew uncomfortable and eventually left the organization.

        I have been tempted to use this verbiage since I know when I hear from the Lord, but now I’m convinced it’s not important that others know when the Lord grants me that extra close nudge; all others need to hear is “this has been prayed over and examined by multiple people in authority and we believe it to be a worthy and well-thought out plan. We sure think and hope this will work. How about let’s give it a go together, shall we?”

        Thank you so much for all you share for the good of many many, including myself.


  5. stan on February 16, 2021 at 5:31 pm

    I am wrestling with taking God out of the plan or vision. Yes, what is not needed is someone claiming they have a hotline to God’s will. I can’t agree more with how damaging that would be. But I also believe we ought to be able to acknowledge that our leaders are listening for God in any decision. We might not be hearing fully or with clarity, but we also know God is faithful as we seek God’s will. I think about Acts 15 – the leader body prayed, fasted, wrestled then reached consensus through the work of the Holy Spirit. It was collaborative and leaned in to listen for God’s whisper. I think posture is what you’re getting at – a humility that says we think this is where God is calling us to go, but even if not, God will teach us something as we start this endeavor. I want to model that I and my leaders are imperfect seekers. I think about Quaker Clearness Committees and a confirmation of peace in the decision. Thanks for your wisdom. I’ll hang up and listen.

    • Bob Wiseman on February 22, 2021 at 10:53 am

      Obviously, we should encourage leaders to be in prayer over decisions. The Holy Spirit will absolutely guide the decision-making process. If your team comes in and says, “we’ve spent weeks praying about this, and we get a strong sense that this is where God is calling us to go”, then say that. I don’t think this is problematic, nor is it the type of response Carey seems to be criticizing.

      The truth is, so many leaders often just use the “God told me to” excuse as a means to free themselves of any and all criticism for their decision. In other words, they use God to skirt accountability for their actions. It’s vile, and it’s disqualifying for those in ministry. It also overstates what God does to lead those leading the Church.

  6. Jennifer Aufrecht on February 15, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    I once worked with a children’s pastor who told all of my awana leaders that “we are pulling the plug on awana.” Oh man..I cringed when I heard that wording and knew things were not going to go well. He was fairly new to the church and the church leadership wouldn’t let me send out a letter afterward to try to soften the blow. It didn’t go well and we lost a lot of people along the way. The new weekend program eventually did well but the mid-week programming never caught on.

    • Bob Wiseman on February 22, 2021 at 10:54 am

      “We are pulling the plug on Awana” might be the best words a Children’s Pastor can say.

  7. Phil McElheran on February 15, 2021 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks for the great insights into change. Having humility and empathy is so important but often overlooked.

  8. John Ryerson on February 15, 2021 at 12:39 pm

    As with the previous post on change, all good and timely for us as we enter a strategic process. Language matters and “change” can be both positive and toxic for different people. A little Thesaurus doesn’t hurt. BTW Titantic popped into my head in reading this, the unsinkable 🙂

  9. Steve on February 15, 2021 at 11:54 am

    Great points Carey. I was especially impacted by your thoughts about using God’s will as a reason to change. Maybe the reason many invoke God’s name to bless their plans is a mistaken assumption of God’s will. As a leader, thinking God’s will is only for your benefit is very treacherous ground. For example, what if it is God’s will to shrink your church so that he can grow the church across the street, because that church will reach your grandkids generation? Are you still onboard with God’s will? Or what if God is leading you to spend resources on something that will fail, so that he can break you of your dependence on a bank account balance for your sense of security? Are you still onboard? Thinking that God only wants temporary worldly success for your church is a mistake.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 12:32 pm

      Good points. I think the use I’m most concerned with is when I try to use God’s will to avoid responsibility for something I came up with.

  10. Bill on February 15, 2021 at 11:43 am

    So good, Carey. Thank you again!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 12:31 pm

      Thanks Bill.

  11. Didi on February 15, 2021 at 9:27 am

    Such insight and wisdom. Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 10:15 am

      Thanks Didi!

  12. Dave H on February 15, 2021 at 9:01 am

    I’m not sure about not mentioning God’s leading in areas of change. I’ve seen leaders handle that well, and leaders handle it poorly. A senior pastor once, leading through a time of immense change humbly applied Acts 15:28 (It seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us…), with beautiful nuance. It let us know that this wasn’t a slam dunk prophetic word, but also was a result of a deep sense of God’s leading through a number of factors. I agree with the premise, that we should be very careful in this area, I just wouldn’t rule it out.

    • Dave H on February 15, 2021 at 9:03 am

      …and I should have said-Excellent article Carey! Those are some awesome pieces of wisdom! I very much appreciate the insights.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 10:13 am

        Thanks Dave. Nuance heard and received. I’ve seen it abused so often, and I’m very careful using it. I like the ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us” line.

  13. Gary on February 15, 2021 at 8:52 am

    Many church leaders simply remain silent when asked about change. I guess they believe that no reply is better than saying the wrong thing. Boilerplate answers that really don’t say anything are common too. The real meat of change is this: Is it being done to accommodate someone’s (the senior pastor, a significant giver, etc.) preferences or is it being done to further the mission? When the answer is that it isn’t truly mission related it’s much more difficult to convince people to get on board.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 10:15 am

      That’s why I wrote the article. Completely agree.

  14. Danielle Burrow on February 15, 2021 at 8:33 am

    Great article with accurate advice! Being a facilitator of process improvement/change management, these points you outlined can be applied to any type of change initiative. A consultant we work with on huge projects once said something that also resonated with me. He said, “People don’t resist change. People resist being changed.” That completely changed my approach when implementing changed initiatives.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 10:15 am

      Some truth right there. Thanks Danielle.

  15. Chuck on February 15, 2021 at 7:47 am

    This one’s a doozie. I am sick to death of people who invoke obviously flawed ideas in God’s name and try to dogmatize it so. God said so. It’s foolproof. You’ll see. (Not!). Nice homage to honesty and humility! Proverbs 3:5-6 is the implied core here.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 15, 2021 at 10:14 am

      You’re not alone on that Chuck. 🙂

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