Wisdom, For a Change

change2I received an email from a long-time colleague finding herself in an all-too-common situation: asked to “grow” a church where the leadership begged her to help bring them into the 21st century, she now finds that this same leadership effectively blocks each and every attempt she makes to lead.  Her default setting is to think she is doing something wrong (hence, she writes “What am I doing wrong?”) when in fact she is experiencing that frustrating reality known as “normal.”  She asked for my “wisdom” on leading change.  After reflecting on it for the past week, here is what I came up with.  I shared it with her, now I share it with you: Core Principles for Leading Change.

Note I say ‘principles” rather than “rules,” “laws,” “keys,” “models,” “steps,” or “guidelines.”  This is intentional.  We are a “magic-bullet” seeking church.  We want a formula.  We want a prescription.  We want a “best practice” — even though we have been spoon-fed an unending supply of same for decades and it hasn’t done squat to move us forward.  This is simply because copying what someone else has already done is a lousy definition of “leadership.”  There are three key variables to every leadership situation that simply cannot be codified and controlled: context, chemistry and competency.

Context — each place is different — different people, different history, different trajectory from past into future, different value sets, different time, different location, different community, different culture.  One size does not fit all — never has, never will.  Wearing some athlete’s sweat pants won’t make you an athlete — adopting some other church’s “best practice” won’t make you effective or successful.  Those churches that thrive are those who understand their context and act accordingly.  They innovate, adapt, customize and correct.  They’re smart.

Chemistry – I know of dozens of situations where a congregation struggled for years, chewing up and spitting out pastor after pastor — earning themselves the reputation of “clergy killer” — then, seemingly miraculously, they get a pastor whom they love, and who says about them “I have no idea what other people are talking about; this is the best appointment I have ever had!”  What gives?  Well, we often view congregation’s like McDonald’s franchises (the absolute dumbest analogy ever conceived…) instead of communities with distinctive personalities, quirks, hopes, dreams, expectations, values, vision, energy and momentum.  We don’t assume any two people should make a happy couple, so why do we assume any leader will be a good fit in any church?  Most of the “we did it, you can do it too!” church resource tripe published each year is more about the chemistry of the leaders and the lead than it is about the intrinsic value of the program.  What worked “for us” worked because “us” has a good chemistry.

Competency – not everyone knows everything — and what one person knows does not necessarily translate simply to someone else.  Every individual has a unique set of gifts, knowledge, experience, values, expectations, vision, passion, skills, abilities and talents.  Combine a group of people together and you end up with something greater than the sum of the parts — but no less unique… and no less limited.  When an individual or an organization plays to its own strengths — builds on its own competencies to do well what it does best — the results are generally excellent.  It does little good for me to try to be good at what you are good at — I need to be good at what I am good at.  Copying you means I will never live up to my own potential.  This is the tragedy of our current copycat approach to ministry — we continuously create mere shadows of effective ministries.

So, there is an essential “to thine own self be true” foundation to what I want to share as my “wisdom” about leading change.  Over the next couple weeks I will expound on this short list of principles — offered in two tiers (the essential and the subsequent):

Top Tier:

  1. Observe, listen and reflect (be slow to act, and don’t react)
  2. Shape and control the conversation (lead, don’t manipulate)
  3. Stay anchored in the future
  4. Deal with the questions that really matter (keep the main thing, the main thing)

Second Tier:

  1. Reframe resistance as opportunity & challenge (not as problem)
  2. Don’t confuse “collective wisdom” with “conventional wisdom”
  3. Be prepared to make one “big thing” little (bargaining chip)
  4. Avoid the hegemony of how (what, why and who are ALWAYS more important)

Okay, now I have an assignment.  See you in a few days…

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7 replies

  1. Say it again and again, louder, older. United Methodists need to hear and integrate this into their being, judy Kohatsu (retired!! )

  2. Dan,

    You said, “Avoid the hegemony of hom.” I’m not clear what “hom” is.

    Thanks.

    In Christ,
    Randy Hansen

  3. My guess is that “hom” was supposed to be “how”, but I could be wrong.

    I’ve heard in my church, now and then, that we need to move into the 21st century. What this usually turns out to mean is that we need to find a way to do 1950′s church in 2014. I’m not sure if that will work or not.

    • It definitely won’t work. Very few organizations can claim that their future lies in their past. There is great value on honoring the past… as the past.

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