Leading Through Apathy

Even the most healthy and vibrant churches experience pockets of congregational apathy. While apathy can emerge for a variety of reasons, it is always heightened – paradoxically so – during seasons when church leaders are working to implement significant change. Apathy becomes contagious when some church members believe that leaders are forcing too much change too quickly, while others believe there is too little change too slowly.

Too much change too quickly.
For some people, absorbing significant change in a compressed period of time causes them to tune out altogether. Still, church leaders are wise to not mistake apathy for negativity. In fact, I would dare say that most people who struggle with accepting change are much quicker to numb themselves to what’s happening around them than they are to intentionally sabotage change efforts.

Too little change too slowly.
Whereas some people are naturally resistant to change, others are quick to embrace the promise of change and become frustrated when it is slow to arrive. But if these same people expect others to be the sole agents of change, and are themselves unwilling to get involved, they too can become apathetic.

Different people react to change differently, and for some change represents a gateway to apathy. Hence, a key leadership challenge during seasons of significant change is to selectively help church members to move from apathy and disconnection to enthusiasm and engagement. Here are three ways to help do so:

  1. Meet people where they are at.
    This may sound easy, but it is not. It’s difficult because many people who are apathetic don’t recognize their own apathy. And others who do acknowledge their apathy can’t tell you why they’re apathetic. Finally, there are some who are apathetic but not open to being ministered to – they’ve already given up, and that’s that. Still, as leaders, we need to do our best to meet people where they are at, which means that for people who dislike the nature, volume, or pace of change, we must reassure them that while the church is changing, our commitment to the mission of making disciples, and loving God and neighbor, has not. While it seems overly simplistic, reassurance is often enough for apathetic people to become more engaged, and to have faith that change will happen at the right pace and in the right time.
  2. Be firm.
    If leaders have prayerfully discerned God’s leading for their church, and have courageously endeavored to follow God’s leading, then they must stay the course. It is a colossal mistake for leaders to abdicate forward movement in favor of helping apathetic people feel more comfortable.
  3. Be gentle.
    In his excellent book Replenish, Lance Witt makes the point that gentleness is a key component for leadership. Witt goes on to cite four specific examples:

    • Jesus says he is gentle and humble in heart;
    • Paul says an overseer should be gentle;
    • Paul told Timothy to pursue gentleness;
    • Paul says he and his fellow workers treated new believers with gentleness, like a mother caring for her children.

In the supercharged, win-at-all-costs world we live in, displaying gentleness to others can have incredible impact. In many cases, a gentle, pastoral approach to people who have succumbed to apathy is exactly what is needed for them to move from apathy to enthusiasm, and from disconnection to engagement.