Rocks, Hard Places, Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects

Within a twelve-hour period of time I had essentially the same conversation with three different pastors.  The topic was leadership and the dilemma was unrealistic expectations.  Here is the gist of each conversation:

My church people talk all the time about how they want to change and grow, then they reject or argue with every suggestion to do something new or different.  Then, when I back off, they start asking me why we aren’t doing more to grow.  It drives me crazy.

I find myself constantly between a rock and a hard place.  We set Radical Hospitality as one of our major priorities and we are training people how to be more open and welcoming.  We do a good job greeting people, but just let them try to get involved in making decisions or suggesting changes, then they are no longer welcome.  Last year, at every meeting, we talked about how to get new people to come to our church.  This year, at every meeting, someone asks what we’re going to do about all the new people who are trying to change everything.

My church has this really bad habit of unanimously approving new ideas then expecting the pastor to organize and implement them.  There is no ownership.  This is a pretty big church to expect the pastor to do everything.  I have to be very careful about bringing in any new ideas because I know people will give me total verbal support, but once they approve it, it will be dumped on my plate.

All three is these examples are simply illustrations of normal passive-aggressive behavior in the face of change.  Change shifts momentum, and the normal response to a shift of balance is to push back.  All people seek equilibrium, and any occurrence that makes them feel the least bit uncomfortable, insecure, or disquieted is met with an equal, but opposite reaction.  Too often, we dismiss such reactions as negativity and opposition.  Most transformative change takes time.  It requires some very intentional nurture and understanding to help people move forward.  Ultimately, leading change is about recreating culture — about helping people unlearn old habits and let go of outdated or less helpful practices and beliefs.

This is every bit as much art as science, but we tend to treat change as a rational, mechanistic process.  When people react from an emotional or irrational base, we try to talk them out of what they are feeling with a heavy dose of information.  We treat a fundamental heart condition with a head solution.  However, it isn’t an either/or, but a both/and issue.  We need to use the tool of information in the process of transformation.  But even learning is a change process, and like many change processes, it often meets with resistance.  Here are five reflections on the change process that leads us away from the passive-aggressive knee-jerk negativity toward generating a more positive momentum.

  1. People don’t resist change nearly as much as they resist being changed.  When people feel some measure of control over what is happening to them, they are less resistant.  Often, decisions to change or launch a new program are made by a handful of people in a meeting room with a closed door.  When the change occurs, many people are completely ignorant of what exactly is happening, why it is happening, and what the desired outcomes might be.  This heightens the resistance response.
  2. Awareness raising is essential.  Most people are more open to change when change makes sense.  If we can help raise awareness for the need for change, we will find less resistance when we implement change.  Inviting people into the conversation of problems, possibilities and the options for responding to them is often what many people need to help them become more change-flexible.
  3. Creating a clear understanding of the benefits is essential.  When things change, most people are readily aware of what it may cost them or what they may lose.  It is easy to see how a change might make us uncomfortable or insecure.  It is not always as easy to see how a change might benefit both the individual and the community of faith.  The burden of responsibility lies with the leadership to show people how the benefits outweigh the costs of any change.
  4. Breaking down the “us/them” walls to create an “all of us” mentality is helpful.  How can we best respond to change or the need for change together?  Instead of thinking how one group can get another group to accept change, find ways to communicate that we are all in this together — the changes we make are the changes we all need in order to improve, grow, and move forward.
  5. Start a movement toward change.  Many pastors feel that the responsibility for change rests squarely on their own individual shoulders.  Lasting change requires an ongoing process of expansion and inclusion.  Individuals build connections with a small group; the small group builds connections with larger groups; the larger groups connect to other groups — ripples in a pond, constantly growing and moving out.  Over time one becomes a handful which becomes a group which becomes a community.  This takes time, but there is always safety and energy in numbers.  Grow change organically instead of forcing change mechanistically.

There is no magic wand to help people become more change ready, but even the most entrenched group can learn to change.  When benefits outweigh costs, when people understand what is happening to them and why, and when people feel they are being heard and respected, the whole process of change is much easier.  Leaders can offer few things more valuable than making the process of change and transformation less frightening and threatening.  Leaders model this as much as they teach it.  When we embrace change as exciting, engaging, and good, we send the message that there is nothing to fear.  When we share the responsibility for change as well as the benefits gained by change, we send the message that change is nothing to fight against, but something to celebrate. 

Change is never easy, but change can be good, and well thought out change is what we are all about.

3 replies

  1. This is interesting but at such a high level of abstraction it’s hard for me to relate it to the real world. Case studies might be useful, especially cases where things go awry and we can analyze how it could have been better handled.

  2. Thanks for this! I agree that much of what pastors do is as much art as science. And I agree with your line that “Leaders model this as much as they teach it.” (I think this sort of thing also applies to the art of preaching.)

    While this might be for me a case of the teacher showing up at the time I am ready for the lesson, ISTM that this sort of thing (that you write here) is the sort of thing that speaks practically and care-fully and very helpfully to working pastors.

    Again, thanks!

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