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Navigating change

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.
Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels.

Ask almost any church member: do you want your church to grow? Certainly, most people will respond. But ask if they want that same church to change, and watch them backtrack, stutter, sputter and wonder aloud why a good thing needs to change.

For pastors and lay leaders, navigating necessary change and desired change is a river voyage fraught with treacherous rapids and tricky sandbars. Yet Christianity nearly always calls the faithful into change and their leaders need to help them find the way through.

"The world is constantly changing, and the church responds to the needs of the world," says the Rev. Thomas Elliott Jr., an assistant professor of practical theology at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. He also has 26 years of experience as a pastor.

"So the church is also going to change," Elliott says. "Church is really about joining God and God's mission in the community and the world. I think most folks want their lives and their churches to make a difference to the world, inviting people to respond to God's mission and helping them to discover their unique gifts."

The Rev. Bob Whitesel says churches successfully change and grow when ideas about change are presented carefully and with forethought. First, he recommends consulting congregational leaders and others invested in keeping the status quo. "The people who want to keep things the way they are. What successful change leaders do is they carefully define change boundaries as they're defining the vision for the change."

"Let's say, they want to start a new service,'"says Whitesel, professor of Christian ministry and missional leadership at Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. "One boundary might be, ‘We won't change the time for our current service. We're still going to have a choir for our traditional service.' You figure out what people are concerned about and then you address those concerns and tell them how you won't infringe upon those concerns."

Listen to the naysayers

The leader must bring the naysayers on board, say the experts in church change. They also say: listen to the naysayers. Recognize why some may be fearful. Realize even those who seem supportive may, at the last minute, back away from the best pastoral planning. And keep your eye on the cross, letting God guide you.

The Rev. Cheryl Jefferson-Bell of Leawood, Kansas, outlines five strategies she sees as essential to change. "Prayer, discernment, openness, listening and faith," she says. "Helping bring change is not a black-and-white thing. People are not going to always jump in.

"I think it's interesting when we as a church get stuck in our ways. There isn't always even that immediate idea of making a change. But when we look at Jesus and Jesus' ministry, Jesus was all about change. He said, ‘We're not going in the right direction. We need to go this way.'"

Elliott concurs. Working with seminarians, he stresses change's communal impact. "It's not just about me and Jesus," he said.

"In my own case there was always a little bit of uncertainty (about moving) to a new church. You're going into a new church and everyone knows you and you don't know them and maybe what's happening. For me, I committed to answering the call to ministry and I haven't been to a place where God is not there.

"There's an excitement in that. You do it a few times and you figure out, ‘Wow, God, it's an adventure.'"

Remember the mission

Still, change disrupts churches and denominations because "castle tending is easier than kingdom building," says the Rev. Junius Dotson, the new general secretary of Discipleship Ministries.

"People have a vested interest in maintaining their perspective of tradition, order and power," Dotson says. "It's even more difficult to enact change on a general church level because people become more interested in preserving the institution rather than advancing the Spirit of movement."

Proponents of change – or the people charged with bringing it into being – make it past the obstacles and the difficult times by remembering the mission, Dotson says.

"Focus on the mission. Clarify the mission. Pursue the mission," he said. "Eventually, we get back to remembering what is most important and even as we make change we do so in a way that enhances our ability to live out the mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world."

Like it or not, there is a connection between how other organizations change and how churches change, says Whitesel, whose books include ORGANIX: Signs of Leadership in a Changing Church (Abingdon Press). Too many volumes on changing the church and leading it into change focus on one example in a particular context that cannot be applied in another, he said. But his examination of thousands of case studies shows strategies designed for organizations can be adapted to church life and leadership.

Those steps are outlined in a new Abingdon Press book, re:MIX: Transforming Your Church to Living Color by Mark DeYmaz and Whitesel.

Connect with the Bible

After taking those steps, "then you don't do the change alone," he says. "I call it a coalition because you have to have people who are for the status quo. You form a coalition with some on it who are not for the change or who are hesitant. With them you create change boundaries. Then you attach it to a biblical story."

The biblical connection proves critical. "Research has shown that if people have a story to associate with change, people are much more likely to embrace it. Change happens then about 85 percent of the time."

Pastoral leaders should preach about the story so congregants will remember it. "Then the next step is creating short-term wins," Whitesel said. "Things like projects or programs you can undertake on a short-term basis."

Dotson also recommends a win-win approach. Recognize, he says, that the person in front of you is "not someone to be conquered. What if we could create a path that focused on ‘healing and wholeness' rather than ‘I win and you lose.'"

Listen, engage others

Clergy and laity at all levels must be open to new ways of thinking, must learn to listen, must improve their listening skills, Dotson says. They have to confront what they're afraid of and expand their awareness, struggling to see things from a different perspective. Then, they can collaborate. "Change begins with me but it can only be enacted when I engage others in creating a new future together. Collaboration is the energy that fuels a new way of being."

Jefferson-Bell, now a congregational care pastor at the multi-site United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, has pastored small, medium and large-membership churches in rural and urban areas. And she has been a district superintendent.

Through it all, she's learned that bringing the idea – and the data – to the table is just the beginning of initiating change. The best, most well-intentioned leader should also be open to God's spirit and to hearing from others.

"There may be someone at the table who has the experience and everything you need," Jefferson-Bell said. "But if you're not willing to listen and to be open, you can be stabbing yourself in the foot."

Longtime religion writer Cecile S. Holmes is an associate professor and head of the journalism sequence at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication.


Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, September-October 2016.

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