The anxious seminary students waited for the sociology professor to hand out the final exam. Fifty percent of their semester’s grade hung in the balance. She distributed the exams and told them to begin.

They were stunned. Many were angered. There were no questions, only a large black dot in the center of the page. She told them,“Write about what you see. You have thirty minutes.”

When time expired she told them to stop and turn their papers over. Then she addressed these future pastors.

“I don’t need to read your exams to know what you’ve written. Virtually everyone focuses on the black dot. Some try to define it. Others write about its significance. A few try to connect the contrast between the black dot and the white paper to the biblical motif of darkness and light. Hardly anyone ever sees the whole page. No one thinks of the white space.”

“This is why ministers get stuck in declining churches: they focus on black dots—declining attendance, meager finances, difficult parishioners, a lack of self-confidence.”

“If you want to do extraordinary things in life and ministry, stop focusing on black dots.”

Trained to focus on the negatives

This tale illustrates why innovation is difficult for most pastors: they are trained to focus on the negatives. This happens because formal education trains them how to study, write, craft sermons and master a narrow body of knowledge.

They are not prepared to lead the typical church.

So they receive on-the-job training at their first church, which is usually plateauing or in decline. There they learn that pastoral ministry is mostly about extinguishing fires. Maintenance ministry leaves the newly-minted pastor time for little else than stamping out sparks. Few learn to cultivate healthy forests immune to raging wildfires.

Biased against change

Another reason pastors find change difficult lies in their personalities. Our research into the distinctive traits of revitalization leaders reveals that 70 percent of pastors prefer convention and tradition; they have a “hardwired” bias against change. They value established procedures, uniformity, conformity and the tried-and-true. They may feel the occasional urge to something novel, but their default mode is walking the well-worn path.

They may not like the results their ministry produces, but they prefer doing what they’ve always done more than seeing the church grow.

A minority of pastors have the propensity and need for independent thought and action. They have a built-in bias for change. They cherish innovation, experimentation and novelty. They want to find new and better ways to do ministry.

When their ministry fails to produce results, they naturally look for new ways of operating. They are comfortable leaving the conventional behind to explore and discover new, more effective ways to conduct ministry.

There is hope

The failure of formal ministerial education, the influence of on-the-job training in plateaued churches, and the natural preference for convention create almost insurmountable obstacles to change and innovation. Little wonder that 80 percent of all pastors are stuck.

Fortunately, there is hope!

When change-resistant pastors finally tire of the futility of serving a plateaued church, then they are ready to make the first and most important change. They are ready to change themselves, which is the first and most important step toward church revitalization.