Growing and maturing as a leader is as much about unlearning as it is learning. There are some things we have come to believe about leadership that just ain’t true.

Learning, but also unlearning to continue to be relevant

Carey Nieuwhof share 5 things that every church leader (or any leader for that matter) needs to “Unlearn” in order to stay relevant in a constantly and quickly changing culture and landscape.

Originally posted by Carey Nieuwhof


So you likely have some learning goals set for the year ahead. That’s awesome.

But the best leaders don’t just learn new things, they unlearn old things that are holding them—and their teams—back.

Unlearning a few things might be one of the best things you can do this year, especially if you want to be able to reach the next generation.

This is true not only of reaching them with the message of the Gospel. It’s also true of any leader who wants to build a staff or volunteer team of young adults.

If you want to reach the next generation, you should unlearn some things that keep you from connecting with them.

Don’t get me wrong, every older leader brings wisdom and life-experience that’s invaluable, but often our methods interfere with our message. Our strategy and assumptions sabotage our intentions.

This post is a companion piece to the posts I write every year about disruptive church trends. Here’s the 2019 version of that post. You can find the 2018 version here (it’s still quite relevant). Those posts are designed to help us all figure out how the culture is changing and how the church needs to respond.

This post is aimed at helping you do a better job as a leader in leading that change.

Unlearning what’s wrong is as critical as learning what’s right.

With that in mind, here are 5 things every church leader should unlearn to stay relevant.


In an age of massive disruption (which arguably we’re all in), it’s easy to cling to what’s known because so much feels unknown.

As a result, most of us naturally cling to things that used to work hoping they will work again in the future.

Maybe you had an approach to leadership or preaching that resonated a decade ago but for some reasons just isn’t anymore.

Or maybe you had a program that used to be standing room only that currently has a lot of empty chairs.

It’s so easy as a leader to think that you just need to pour more gas on the things that used to work to bring them back to life. The truth is, gas only lights if there’s a spark. And the flame left those things a long time ago.

If you’re pouring more effort into something with diminishing returns, it’s time to rethink everything.


Because leaders who cling to ineffective methods ultimately destroy the mission.

Here’s an example. I have a fairly widely-listened-to leadership podcast I host. Leaders often ask me, “So will you always podcast?”

My answer is “No.”


Because podcasting is the method, not the mission. My mission is to help leaders thrive in life and leadership. Podcasting is currently a very effective method of helping leaders do that.

But I’m sure the day will come that people take out their earbuds and something else comes along that’s even more effective. On that day, I’ll ditch podcasting and jump on whatever else helps leaders thrive in life and leadership.

On the other hand, I’m also in the final stages of writing my next book.

I think I’ll be writing books years from now. Why? Because the method (book writing) has been around for millennia and the book industry, while changing, is expanding rapidly. It’s also the best way to ensure your ideas get broad distribution over many years…sometimes even over decades. But again, if that changes, it will be time to ditch the method to fuel the mission.

Most leaders resist change.

And that’s their demise. The way you’ve always done it, should never be the way you always do it.

More specifically, the next generation, who is attracted to the mission, will always look to join a team that’s flexible in its methods. You did when you were young.

Just because God doesn’t change doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

By the way, here are 9 things that used to work in the church a decade ago that don’t today.


I’m hearing this question more and more from leaders who are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing work culture: what do I do with (young) team members who want to work from home, from coffee shops and have flex hours?”

My answer: embrace it.

There’s a myth that still persists that team members who want to have flex hours or who want to do remote work are lazy.

They’re not lazy. They’re living in the 21st century. We have this thing called the internet these days, and it’s changing everything.

Gone are the days when you needed a central location that everyone reported at a set hour to do set work. Sure, if you run a factory that produces widgets, you probably still run that kind of a business.

But if you work in a church or in an office, arguably, you don’t anymore. If you run reception, sure, you need set hours and a set location. Ditto if your job requires some form of manual labor or production.

But beyond that, if you’re an information or knowledge worker, you don’t.

Bryan Miles has become one of my favorite leaders to listen about the changing work culture. He and his wife Shannon have built a large, rapidly growing company that’s entirely virtual, and last year was voted by Inc. magazine as having the #1 workplace culture in America.

Bryan has a new book called “Virtual Culture: Why The Way We Work Doesn’t Work Anymore“. You may want to put it on your reading list.  I interview Bryan about the rise in virtual culture on episode 175 of of my Leadership Podcast.

Bottom line?

Remote workers aren’t lazy. Lazy workers are lazy.

If you have a lazy team member, deal with it. If they don’t improve, release them.

But embrace remote work and remote workers. What you’ll discover is that productivity actually increases (often dramatically), costs go down and you begin to attract some of the best and brightest talent out there.

Will you need some set hours where everyone’s together? Of course. Many organizations have common days where everyone’s in the office but give freedom on other days.

So how do you evaluate people then if you can’t see them?

Well, first, being chained to a desk rarely improves anyone’s motivation or productivity.

And second, evaluate on them on results, not process. NOT producing is entirely different than how they’re producing.

If you focus on the outcome, not the process, you usually get a better outcome.

By the way, I’ve been working with flex and remote teams for years and love it. Several of my team members are from Bryan’s company, BELAY Solutions, and I love it.

You can learn more here to see if remote work may be right for you.


I literally heard this again this week from a leader. It drives me crazy in the most polite Canadian way.

Two of the seven recent church trends I identified deal with the relative decline of church-in-a-box (as I call it) and the rise of digital church. You can read about those trends here.

But underneath it all is an attitude that people who engage church online are lazy and only watch in their PJs.

Does that have a shred of truth? Of course. I’m sure there are thousands of Christians who are too lazy to go to church and watch in their PJs instead. And maybe online church has been a back door for that group. For that group, there’s not much of a future for reasons outlined here.

But…and this is what leaders keep missing…Online church has a far bigger front door than back door.

The online world isn’t for lazy people, it’s for people. And if you want to reach people, stop ignoring the online world where ALL the people alive today are.

You shop online. You don’t make a physical purchase without checking it out online first. And you don’t drive anywhere new without jumping online.

Life has moved online, so ministry has to as well.

If you keep thinking online engagement only happens by lazy people, you’ll miss 99% of people you’re trying to reach.

You can read more about how churches moving online will impact the future church here and here.


A generation ago, being in leadership for many leaders meant you (finally) got to call the shots. Leaders loved the authority their position gave them…too much.

The top-down model of leadership ruled, and essentially leaders thought everyone else should fall into line.

That model of leadership is still far too alive in too many churches. The best leaders know that any large, growing church is hardly ever a one-person show.

In the same way work is being de-centralized, so is leadership.

The best way to keep smart, engaged people on your team is to value, respect and empower them.

Leaders who continue to rely on their authority will find themselves with less authority.

True authority comes from respect, and respect has nothing to do with a title. It has a lot to do with humility, with a willingness to serve your team, and honestly, with results.

Leaders who serve their teams well, who exemplify deep character and who produce results will rarely have a shortage of other great leaders around them.

As studies have shown, people don’t quit companies. They quit bosses.


I probably take more heat on this idea than almost anything I write about, but I would love to see church leaders finally unlearn this idea.

Is the church a business? No, of course not. We’re a body. The body of Christ.

But just because the church is not a business doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn from business. Many churches are exceptionally poorly run and led.

What you effectively say if you have this attitude is that nothing good happens in the corporate world. They’re not smarter than you on teams, management, technology, people, change management, marketing or anything else.

You know what that is, right? That’s arrogance. Hardly a fruit of the Spirit.

Does everything that the business world teaches you work in the church? Of course not.

But that doesn’t mean nothing does.

So let me ask you: who are advancing their mission faster, businesses in your community or your church?

There’s a very good chance that if your church is growing as fast or faster than most businesses, you don’t have to unlearn the idea that the business world has nothing to teach your church. Most growing churches have figured out that they can take learning from almost anywhere, run it through a theological filter, and put it to work.

A final note: If you struggle with seeing what you can learn from business, just know that one of the reasons you have almost no high capacity leaders volunteering at your church might be directly related to this attitude. If you continually convey to business leaders that you’re opposed to learning anything from business, don’t lie awake at night wondering why no business leaders serve at your church.

Or why none attend.