Carey Nieuwhof on Leading Your Church Through Change


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Carey Nieuwhof has led more change in his church in the last 10 years than most pastors will lead in 10 carey_smalllifetimes! Carey is a “must listen to” leader for church leaders wanting to understand how to lead your church through change. This episode is packed full of helpful insights and critical reflections for pastors or really anyone looking to move their organization in a new direction.

Carey Nieuwhof // [twitter] [web]

Interview Highlights

01:35 // Learn what has been the once constant over Carey’s 18 years of ministry.

02:22 // Hear a quick history of how Carey lead three churches to unite, sell their buildings and unite.

03.39 // Carey explains that navigating change is actually a skill to be learned.

04:20 // It is the job of a leader to give a picture of a preferred future.

04:44 // Find out why Carey moved his congregation out of a 2 million dollar facility and into movie theaters.

05:28 // The number one question Carey was asked as he lead his church through change was “Did anyone leave?”

06:24 // What leaders must not confuse about loud opposition.

09:36 // Listening to opposition to change requires humility and the wisdom to discern if there is a Biblical argument worth considering.

10:00 // Another question to consider when listening to opposition.

11:06 // Carey gives insight as to why we are so disturbed by opposition from key leaders.  Here a personal story of maintained relationship through disagreement about change.

12:37 // Disagreements about change can be related to Strategy, Vision or Mission.  Find out which ones to consider?

14:50 // What to focus on when begging to communicate about upcoming change.

17:19 // Find out what Carey refers to as the big goal when communicating change.

19:55 // Is Carey more or less open to change now that he has been in ministry for 18 years?

Lightning Round Highlights

Helpful Online Resource // Evernote, Mailbox App

Books That are Having an Impact // Deep and Wide (Andy Stanley), Zombies, Football and the Gospel (Reggie Joiner), The Advantage  (Patrick Lencioni)

Inspiring Leader // Andy Stanley, Tim Keller

What does he do for fun? // Road ride / cycling, Strava – Social Media app for cyclists, Writing / Blog, hanging out with family and friends

Check This Out // Strategy Articles 



Interview Transcript //

Rich – Alright, well welcome to the show. I’m so privileged to have Carey Nieuwhof on with us. Carey is a leader, writer, he’s a pastor, blogger, author. And I’m privileged to call him a friend. Thanks for being on the show.

Carey – Absolutely. Hey, thanks for having me, Rich. I’m really excited to be here, and excited about your podcast too.

Rich – Thanks so much! Well, you know, Carey, you’re one of those leaders I fell like has been through a lot of change. You’ve seen a lot happen. I wonder if we could take a little bit and tell the story about the current, where you are at, the history, get to know you a bit more.

Carey – Sure, ya, you know, change has been the one constant over the 18 years that I have been in ministry. And its one of those things Rich that never goes away. So my story is that, I am one of those people who never thought I would be in ministry. When I was 8 years old I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t know what needs to be wrong with you when you are 8 years old and want to be a lawyer, but it’s true of me.

Rich (laughing)

Carey – I went to law school and it was in the middle of law school, and I’m not a really a supernatural, charismatic person, but God intervened. I was a Christian, and God made it very clear to me that there was a call to ministry. It took me a few years to discern that. I finished law school and in 1995 I came up to where I currently am, about an hour north of Toronto, in a little community called Oro. Which you know Rich. I started with 3 small Presbyterian churches. My background was Presbyterian. We lead those churches through a significant amount of change over a decade. And then about 6 years ago, I left and we started Connexus Church. And, um that was a transition, some of the same people but certainly not all of the same people, who were part of those Presbyterian churches went on to start Connexus, a church for unchurched people, a North Point strategic partner, and even in that, even in the midst of that, there has been an awful lot of change in the last 6 years. So change has been the one constant, I guess. That, and Christ.

Rich – Ya, exactly. Man that, ya know, I often say to people, ‘Carey, like I said, he’s just been through a lot.” Now what would you say, you know a lot of people listening to this podcast are obviously leading in churches of all different sizes, but I think we are all trying to figure out how to change our churches. Right, we’re all, you know, in-bread in leaders is this desire to say “Hey, we want to make things better.” Um, how have you navigated, what were some handles that you come back to, time and time again, that you’ve seen, ‘Hey, this is some of the things we have to do as leaders to kind of successfully navigate that change?”

Carey – Well probably, and I didn’t know this right away, but I figured out over time but change is actually a skill, and leading change is actually a skill that can be learned over time, and there are principles, that just work. And I think sometimes leaders find themselves in a trap where they really want change, I don’t know a single leader with his or her soul that doesn’t want change of some kind, that’s what makes us leaders. But we kind of expect other people to buy into that change before we’ve sold it, before we’ve really delivered on it and so we’re waiting for people to change and then we get frustrated because they don’t change and I think there is something, at first it was just instinct, that told me that that was just wrong, like people do not automatically change and people don’t like change. And so, it’s up to you as the leader, ah, to really show people a picture of a preferred future, and to lead them there. Now there are good ways to do that, and there are bad ways to do that, and you know the one question I got all the time is, our little Presbyterian churches what we did was, we started to grow, and um, we sold three historic buildings within 5 years, and we moved into an elementary school. And that elicited some opposition.

Rich (laughing)

Carey – You give up everything that they had known for over a hundred years and these are beautiful little red brick, historic buildings, ya know “Anne of Green Gables” type churches. And they sold them and we moved into an elementary school in the name of reaching people and we built a two million dollar facility and then we left it a few years later when we left the denomination to start over again in movie theaters. Because I mean, we thought it would help us reach more unchurched people in a non-denominational context, with the model of ministry that we wanted to run with. So that’s an awful lot of change and people don’t just stand up and wildly applaud when you announce what your strategy is. So we did get a lot of opposition. The question I would get, and that’s a long way of getting to this question. The questions that I always got was “Did anybody leave?” And there’s a point at which, “well of course people left!” Like, what do you think?

Rich – right

Carey – Everybody who’s in your church today is there because they like it the way it is now.

Rich – Hmmmm.

Carey – That’s something every leader…like everybody that’s at Liquid Church where you serve, likes the way it is now. One way or another. Maybe they may don’t like everything, but they like something about it. So if you are going to change there is an inherent alienation that’s going to happen with everyone’s that currently apart of your tribe. It just happens, right?

Rich – Yes.

Carey – We liked it better when Rich didn’t do podcasts. Right, I mean, you have that. It happens in your tv shows where they start a new character and your’e like well, it was so much better when they didn’t have that character, ya know, it’s like, people don’t like that and so the opposition get’s intense what happens…Here’s one mistake that I think a lot of leaders make and i needed to figure out how not to make this mistake…We assume that because opponents are loud that loud equals large. So because your inbox is blowing up, or because your congregation meeting didn’t go very well, or because you keep getting told after the service, “Hey, can I talk to you?”, there’s fingers pointing, you just assume. And if you listen to the opponents, they will always tell you, “Everybody’s upset with this”, ya, know. “I’ve talked to everybody”. Really, you’ve talked to everybody? “I’ve talked to everybody.” Just checking. And so they, you just assume as a leader, loud equals large. But if you actually do the math, if you actually go through it, we learned early on, we should just do the math here. Probably that loud group of your organization is probably about 10%. And in the worst days it might be 30. Maybe it’s 50. I doubt it. I don’t think it ever got to 50 % in our worst moments. Um, but there’re just loud so you have to do the math and ask yourself, am I going to sacrifice 90% of the population of our organization for the sake of 10% who are not content? And often the people who are opposed to your vision, don’t actually have a competing vision for a better future. So if you ask them, so where, what do you want to do, what do you want to accomplish? They’re like, “I don’t know, it just can’t be that way.” Well you can’t go back, so what’s your vision for a preferred future? And often the answer is, they don’t have one. And really, ok, so you are going to listen to the 10% of the population that doesn’t have a clear destination, that actually isn’t going to make it better. It doesn’t mean they are bad people, they’re just not going to make it better. Your going to sacrifice and jettison the whole organization for the sake of that? And then, if you’re involved in the church, or you’re a business and you think about, well that’s my existing customer base, those are existing users, what about all the market out there? In my case, unchurched people. You’re going to let 10 people in a church of 100 control the future of 100,000 people? You’re going to let 100 people in a church of 1000 control the future of 100, 000 people? Do the math. So those are some lessons I had to learn early on, and we were fortunate enough to learn

Rich – Well Carey, this is whey I love you talking about change, cause, ya know it just falls out of you, like, OK, well there might have been a bit of opposition about selling three buildings and merging and all this stuff. That’s amazing. Can we get down to a personal story, or a time you remember when there was a bit of opposition there, um maybe from a source where you didn’t anticipate it. Now how do you deal with that, because i think for leaders, there’s a person you just don’t like, maybe you’re like, nah, don’t like them.

Carey – nah, I’m not going to listen to them.

Rich – But then there’s the people that are a little closer, um, ya know, how do you deal with that? Talk about something personal?

Carey – Well let’s do two ways. Number one, in the early days, you do get a lot of opposition, you get people standing up, emailing or pigeon holing you or whatever. We learned as an elder board to ask this question, or two questions, number one: Is there a Biblical argument to what they are saying? Because if there is, I need to listen. And just ’cause I’m the leader doesn’t mean I always know best, doesn’t mean I speak for God. And wisdom does come to us, sometimes, even in the face of opponents. Even with your worst opponents, there might always be a grain of truth in what they are saying even if their motivations aren’t great, so have the humility to listen, but the wisdom to only act on things that really are going to determine a better future. The humility to listen, but the wisdom not to act on all of it. (So is there a biblical argument to what they are saying?) Second question to ask, and this one I still ask today is: Are these the kind of people we are going to build the future of the church on? Are they? And, um, in the early days, a lot of them were older, and there’s nothing wrong with older people. We have very, very wise, older, senior adults in our congregation that we listen to but sometimes, ya know, in our case, there were people we just couldn’t build the future of the church on. And younger leaders, when you look at their lives, it’s like, I don’t really see a track record in their lives where you’ve accomplished a whole lot, or maybe your life, you sit in the critics chair all day long, saying this guys wrong, and that guys wrong. That’s just your life. You cannot build the future of your church on people like that. People who are cynical, and negative and always opposed to something, you can’t build the future of the church on. Now, where it get’s tough, I remember about 10 years ago I had a letter from, I haven’t talked about this publicly, but you asked so…

Rich (laughing)

Carey – I got a letter from a key elder. She sent me a note and she just said, ‘I support you 100% and but this time I think you have gone to far.’ And we were getting rid of the last of the old hymns, and I sat down with her and I mean we cried together, and I said, I just gotta disagree with you. I’ve gotta focus on who we are going to reach not who we are going to keep. And we tried to keep up our friendship, and she continued to serve in leadership, and I mean, I see her now, I don’t see her as much, the church is bigger and the whole deal. But whenever I see her, I get this huge hug and I mean, she’s well into her senior years now but just an incredible woman.

Rich – Wow!

Carey – And sometimes I think you just have to work through that and then, I think one of the reasons that people get out of sorts with wise leaders is that often, with your best leaders, it’s not a character issue, it’s not a mission issue, it’s not a vision issue. Usually it’s a strategy issue. And so sometimes if you get to the point where some of your best leaders are saying like, if I’ve got five great leaders telling me I’m wrong, I’m probably wrong. So this is not like, you just go ahead and you just blaze trails. Every once in a while you have a Moses moment where you are going across the dessert all by yourself, you’re speaking for God, but I think a lot of time leaders think they are in those moments when they are not. But if you get to the point where if you’re with a leader you can isolate that to strategy and I think the disagreement between this great woman, and me, was a strategic disagreement. And it was a lot of change at once so when we work through the strategy it was just one of those things that the style of music that we are going to do in the future is going to be more effective at reaching unchurched people, you can sometimes reach an agreement. Or at least you realize whey you are disagreeing, at the time, and that one was tough. Actually that incident, combined with a really, really tough month, I remember it was November 2002, sent me to a counsellors office for the first time ever.

Rich – Wow!

Carey – So that was very personal.

Rich – Ya, absolutely! Now, does she continue to be connected to the ministry today.

Carey – Absolutely! She was there last Sunday, will be there this Sunday, gives, serves, I mean…

Rich – Ya know Carey, I think that commends, that’s a good personal story. I think sometimes when we talk about change right. That’s amazing. It obviously really meant a lot to her, obviously meant a lot to you, that you can come to a point of disagreement, but still not break relationship, is amazing.

Carey – I did a couple of her grandchildren’s weddings, you know. She had a big birthday and the family invited me, Toni, my wife and I were there last summer. I mean, you can work through those things, I would say you just have to figure out why you are disagreeing. I know with our current leadership, we try to find people whose character runs deep and who we also have a great chemistry with personally. That often the misalignment happens, never on a mission or vision level Rich, we believe in Jesus, we love Jesus, He’s great, ya know we agree on that

Rich – Yep.

Carey – The disagreement is strategic and if you can isolate that, you will as least often figure out why you disagree and sometimes find agreement even in the midst of that.

Rich – So now what would you say to a church leader that says “i want to make a strategic shift this fall or early next year and I’ve got a core group around me that agrees with that” but they anticipate a bit of resistance. What are some practical tactics to start the whole things….one or two little first steps toward that change.

Carey – Number 1: Focus on why. I think a lot of leaders get tripped up on what and how. And so the reason…its what Simon Sinek says that people buy why you do

it not what you do. And I think that’s true you know, every time you open your mouth as a leader you need to explain why. So lead with why. Pepper all your private and public communication, your written communication, vision casting with why and then talk about the what and the how, but why almost always unites and how almost always divides. The other think I would talk about is, Patrick Lencioni calls it cascading communication. You can also look at it in terms of communicating in concentric circles, so start with your core team where you actually get input then go a little bit wider to your next level. So we have a level of government in our system, the North Point system, call MTR’s, Ministry Team Representatives. We’ll bounce change of them first like, hey, this isn’t a decision, we just want to get your input. And then when people who are close to you, and share your strategic alignment but aren’t necessarily around the table, when they get input, just like well what about this, or what about that, buy in is much higher. And then you sorta go to the crowd, you know and then you go to the community. So start layering it. And you know what else, people love to be the first to know. If you can give them

Rich – That’s so true.

Carey – ….an inside track and we’ve just really in the last year really ramped that up. it’s like hey, I want you to be the first to know that this is something we’re looking at and really not keep any secrets. I think once in a while a personnel decision is not something that you talk about, but we always say , there’s no secrets at Connexus. We’re not going to communicate this publicly yet, but we’re in the room and you can know….we’re negotiating with Cineplex Odeon on a permanent deal. You know, if you can make it public, do. And then people feel like I’m part of this. They feel some skin in the game, some ownership even before it get’s trotted out publicly. You’ve got a hundred people sitting in a Sunday service where something is announced and they already knew it, you’ve already got 100 evangelists for change.

Rich – Totally, ya for sure. Anything else on this change topic? There’s a lot here. You’ve written a book on it. Anything else that you want to make sure we get in?

Carey – I would just say, you know the big goal, and keeping it short, focus on who you want to reach, not who you want to keep. And the biggest thing that I find hangs up leaders in the midst of change, is that you are only ever going to hear from the people that want you to keep them. You’re never going to hear from the people that you want to reach. Unreached people don’t randomly email you and say, hey if you did this I would come to your church. They don’t do that. They don’t call you, they don’t text you, ya know, they’re silent and so in the same sense that if you’re in a position of power, have influence, you need to think about how God wants you to use that power and influence and affect people who don’t have power and influence. I think if you are a church leader, or even if you are an organizational leader, you’ve got to think about the customer you haven’t reached, not just the customer you have. You gotta think about the person that isn’t in the room, not just the people who are in the room. And I think leaders that are able to maintain that focus and are able to share that focus widely in the organization are going to do the best when it comes to change, and creating a culture of change.

Rich – Ya, friends, if I can just reinforce what Carey is saying, he actually lives out. Apart of what I appreciate about Carey’s leadership, Connexus their church, is when you cut them, they bleed “We will be a church for unchurched people.” THat’s what they talk about all the time. They’re obsessed with it. Which really, i think does drive, like we were talking about there, leading with the why. it becomes the conversation piece, that is the benchmark upon which they judge everything. I appreciate Carey, your leadership, not only on the change, but also on the focus of staying clear on that mission

Carey – I appreciate that Rich and you know just to encourage people, when we started to grow, most of our growth did not come from unchurched people. I’m 18 years into this. The first decade it was probably about 30% unchurched people in 60% church goers. But that’s flipped. The last few years, where 60% of our people are self-identified unchurched people. We don’t think, hey I think they are unchurched. They tell us. And that’s great and so remember that you can change something in 2 or 3 years but it takes probably 5-7 years to transform it. The transformation happens with chance when it becomes part of who are and embedded in your culture. And so if you’re in the middle of change, don’t give up, you’re probably going to be tempted to quit a moment before your critical break through.

Rich – I said we are coming to the end but I have one more question I want to slip in. This is again, a bit more personal. Do you feel, as you progress along in your leadership journey, just personally, more open to change and more open to risk, or less? What is your own personal dynamics on that?

Carey – Ya, you know what, that’s a great question and I’m kinda in the middle of that right now. I think as you get older, the longer you’re in leadership, and the more successful you become, the more change adverse you become. Particularly if something is successful, you’re really worried about wrecking it. I also think we are in the middle of a massive cultural shift. You thinking about it all the time Rich, and you’re up on trends like crazy. So the way I am looking at it now, and I hope to write another book. The third book in the change trilogy will be a ‘Culture of Success’. But the early notes on that for me at least are, maintain what you’ve got but constantly innovate and experiment. You can experiment on the side, and I think an organization that loses it’s experimental entrepreneurial, let’s just preserve at all costs, you just coming close to the cliff. And it’s just only a matter of time before you fall off, so I think when you’ve got success, and you’ve got momentum, and we’re in a season of momentum right now, you want to make sure that yes, you’ve got to preserve what God has built and accomplished. But never every lose, so I am pushing myself to innovate and experiment and fail in areas that isn’t…sometimes you gotta fail in areas that might cost you the whole organization. But I think it’s smarter to experiment on the side. And so we’re doing an social media experiment right now, and we don’t even know whether it’s going to to work. But it doesn’t cost us $50,000 it costs us $5,000. And we’re going to find out whether it works. We’re always adjusting the sails, and always playing around, like if we are doing something off model for a North Point church, you know, we are not being disobedient or whatever, but we’re just trying some stuff that we’re just experimenting with. And if it doesn’t work, you just shut it down. So I think you can lose that and I think the older you get, the more successful you get, older in age but also older in organization and the more successful, the less you will innovate and the less you will experiment.



  1. The great thing about this program is being exposed to new ideas by a guy who has navigated the difficulties he addresses. I like the fact that you Rich are so knowledgeable about techie stuff and pass it along to us. Also rich, your personality is different than I expected…I would have thought you to be more reserved in your demeanor rather than the energetic guy you appear really to be. It was fun to see you in action!

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Rich Birch
Rich Birch is one of the early multi-site church pioneers in North America. He led the charge in helping The Meeting House in Toronto to become the leading multi-site church in Canada with over 5,000+ people in 18 locations. In addition, he served on the leadership team of Connexus Church in Ontario, a North Point Community Church Strategic Partner. He has also been a part of the lead team at Liquid Church - a 5 location multisite church serving the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. Liquid is known for it’s innovative approach to outreach and community impact. Rich is passionate about helping churches reach more people, more quickly through excellent execution.His latest book Church Growth Flywheel: 5 Practical Systems to Drive Growth at Your Church is an Amazon bestseller and is design to help your church reach more people in your community.