A sailor adrift is an uneasy sailor. He is stuck far from shore and without wind or motor, moving in an intentional direction is impossible. There is no cooling breeze to take the edge off of the blazing sun. The longer he is adrift the more purposeless he feels and the more uneasy he becomes. Hopelessness and/or panic will set in, sometimes alternately. A good ship’s captain will give purpose to the crew to keep them focused and strong. Pastors and their congregations are the same. Today we are talking about leading through the Neutral Zone of transition.

leading neutral zone

“[The Neutral Zone is] the only way to ensure that the organization comes through the change intact and that the necessary changes actually work the way that they are supposed to.” William Bridges, Managing Transitions

We were in a church that restructured often… yet somehow things always ended up the way they were. Change fails more often than it sticks. That failure can most often be traced to managing the Neutral Zone poorly or even trying to skip it all together. Unlike a train switching tracks, transition does not happen with the flip of a switch. The Neutral Zone is there whether you want it to be or not. It’s the necessary in-between place. 

You can ignore it at your peril, but a more profitable approach is to do the things you can do to help move your people and organization safely through to the other side. What are some of those? Let’s take a look. 

1. Raise Scaffolding

Failure to let go, feeling uprooted and/or disconnected, and an inability to visualize what is to come are big stumbling blocks to lasting change. Temporary structures draw the eye toward what’s coming, offer an idea of what it will look like, allow people to test how they feel about it, and give them an opportunity to be a part of making it happen.

Additionally, the Neutral Zone is a great time for problem solving. Architects need carpenters. What architects design, carpenters actually build into a solid structure. Carpenters understand how to fit materials together and often find flaws in the architect’s design. When they work collaboratively, new, exciting, safe, and solid structures are built. Do not dismiss the concerns of your carpenters while the scaffolding is up. Address every issue.

Failure to let go, feeling uprooted and/or disconnected, and an inability to visualize what is to come are big stumbling blocks to lasting change. Click To Tweet

Scaffolding helps build vision

You likely have a vision, or maybe even blueprints, for the future. Building that vision into the hearts and minds of your people will bind them together and keep them moving forward. Here are some questions to help you prepare yourself and others for the changes ahead by acknowledging loss, and creating temporary structures for processing through the transition:

  • What systems or events are no longer in place?
  • In what ways can their absence leave people feeling stranded?
  • What can you do to meet their core needs without going back to the way things were?
  • How can you prepare your heart and mind to listen and learn from those who are tasked with carrying out your plans?
  • What system do you have in place to receive feedback?

2. Develop Leaders

Ready, FIRE… rarely hits the mark. The Neutral Zone is the time to take aim. 

On more than one occasion, I’ve listened to eloquent and passionate vision-casting sermons. Like many of those in the congregation, I was all in and ready to take action. But when I asked how I could help, the response was, “We aren’t ready.” Those great visions were never fully realized. There are few things that undermine trust in a leader more than jumping the gun. 

It’s time to think through the skills and giftings that will help make “the New” (whatever that is in your case) run smoothly. Here are some questions to help you think through leadership development during the Neutral Zone:

  • What are you trying to accomplish with the New?
  • How does the New change your ministry flow?
  • What steps can you take now to ensure the New is available to every person in your congregation? Who can help you think through this?
  • How will people participate in the New? At what levels?
  • What skills and competencies do your leaders need for the New to succeed? 
  • Can they be taught? To who? How? By who? 
  • How are you going to identify people in your congregation who have those skills and gifts?
  • Do you need to hire?
There are few things that undermine trust in a leader more than jumping the gun. Click To Tweet

Two birds, one stone

Spiritual gifts assessment and training is an excellent way to invest in your people during the Neutral Zone of church transitions. It meets the core needs of people to be seen and heard, and invests in their development as individuals. Additionally, it offers you an opportunity to identify individuals with the giftings and skills needed in the New. 

Earlier this year, I wrote a series about the why and how to invest in spiritual gifts ministries. If you want to learn more about empowering spiritual gifts in your church, these posts are a great place to start:

Identifying and empowering spiritual gifts meets the core needs of people to be seen and heard, and invests in their development as individuals. Click To Tweet

UPCOMING Fuller DMin: Leading for Healthy Growth


Are you ready to plan for healthy growth?

Especially during these challenging times, it’s important that we zero in on the essentials. The program focuses on missional discipleship, transformational leadership, and fruitful ministry. Together, these components create a simple ministry flow that results in healthy ministry growth, flourishing churches, and communities reached with the gospel. We’ve put together a cohort that helps you live into each of these areas in turn.

There are still a few spots open but it’s time to get serious- registration closes in October!

If you’d like more information on the cohort, you can find it here.


The Leadership Difference– Anyone in a position of leadership, whether they’re leading a church, a team, or a small group, needs the skills and strategies found in this book. The investment in mastering them leads to lightening your own load, developing the skills of others, and getting the job done effectively.

Leadership Skills Guides- Written to help you develop leadership skills in yourself and others with just-in-time training. The guides cover 37 essential leadership skills and includes introduction to each skill, teaching points, scripture passages, and reflection and discussion questions. 

Leadership Multiplication Pathway– The Leadership Multiplication Pathway is designed to give existing leadership a systematic development process to produce more and better leaders in their local setting. Coaching topics include  Missional Discipleship, Focused Ministry, Effective Leadership, and Continuous Multiplication.

Photo by Yancy Min on Unsplash