Underestimating The Work Of Congregational Change

When it comes to leading congregations toward positive, life-giving, mission congruent change, one mistake of pastoral and lay leaders rises above them
all: underestimating the work involved in leading deep change. The primary expression of this classic mistake tends to be launching our change processes too soon. Before the congregational growth environment is ready, we initiate change, followed by great frustration when the change effort fails. Many dynamics contribute to our tendency to start too soon, yet the following missteps may look familiar to congregational leaders.

Mistaking Inspiration For Timing
Often leaders are visionary people who lead by inspiration. When they discover a new insight, a new opportunity, or a new direction for the church, they grow excited, ready to share this new discovery…. NOW. Moments of high inspiration are mistaken for the a signal it’s time to begin the change process. These leaders must retrain themselves when it comes to large-scale adaptive change. Yes inspiration is very helpful when preparing sermons and needing an energy boost. At the same time, because we are inspired does not mean the preparation work for change is complete or even begun. Leaders who recognize inspiration as a helpful tool, yet not a timing indicator, can use inspiration’s energizing effect without undermining their congregational change effort.

Exaggerating Trust Levels

The default tendency of most pastors and lay leaders is to exaggerate trust levels in the congregation. After coaching so many clergy and lay leaders who believe they are highly trusted, only to discover they have minimal working relational capital, it’s clear leaders exaggerate trust levels . So they initiate change, only to find they started without sufficient trust which equips the congregation to risk.

Underinvesting In The Change Coalition
The strong current of individualism running through American culture influences many leaders to believe we can lead change on our own, or at least with a small change coalition. But the larger, more significant the change, the larger and more expansive the change-leading coalition must be. Pastors and lay leaders who launch their change effort without a guiding and sustaining coalition committed to seeing the changes through will experience adaptive failure.

Launching When The Urgency Is Low
Urgency is the motivation to tolerate the discomfort of laying aside the familiar in exchange for an unfamiliar, yet positive future. When our motivation for change is low, the inertia created by familiarity wins every time. Congregations who adapt are driven by a high desire, or shall we say need, to become something more. When a sense of apathy permeates the congregation is not the time to initiate significant change. Instead that is the time to raise the urgency level. Adaptive failure results when we believe initiating adaptive change will be the catalyst for raising motivation. Change efforts require the reverse, high levels of urgency to sustain us through the change process.

Assuming Persuasion Is Sufficient
Preachers are notorious when it comes to believing stating the case for change is sufficient. “If I can get that into a really good, meaningful sermon, then people will be on board.” Or, perhaps you have seen it play out another way. “When we gather the necessary information; showing our thirty-year attendance patterns on a graph, then our congregation will be ready to change.” There’s enough truth in this perspective to make it helpful. We do need to understand why change is necessary. Yet, understanding alone is sufficient when we are engaging only low-level change.

Underestimating Resistance To Deep Change
People change every day. We in congregations change every week. Much of the time we negotiate change fairly well, else we would be in conflict at all times. But when it comes to adaptive change, we meet resistance. Giving up something very important; a spiritual ritual which was so life-giving at one time, is hard work. Our rhythms, norms, processes, structures developed around our practices. We find ourselves believing our way of being church is not only one good way to be church, but the best or only way. In fact, we come to believe that being church the way we are is what it looks like to be a faithful church. We mistake methodology for faithful practice. So when we ask congregations to change, we are asking something very near and dear to them to be laid aside. Novice church leaders are often blind-sided by the vigorous resistance to their innocently recommended changes.

Ignoring The Obstacles To Change
When it comes to congregational change, two strategies which bear excellent fruit. First, new experiences of faithfulness, growth, and spiritual invigoration in the present can overcome obstacles and impediments to change. These new experiences lift disciples up into a new reality, influencing them to lay aside their hesitation and resistance. Second, some obstacles and impediments require direct attention. Time does heal some wounds, yet others fester without attention. The infection and toxicity in some wounds prevent healing until directly addressed.

Our hope is that by identifying these expressions of the classic change mistake, we more easily avoid them. By reviewing these together before launching change, pastors, staffs, visioning teams, and lay leadership teams will save themselves high frustration and plenty of angst. May we lead wisely, guided by informed approaches to change, with constant engagement with God’s Holy Spirit.

Mark Tidsworth
President, PLA