In my firm’s work with organizations across the globe, there are many tools and practices we share with executives to help them implement long-term sustainable positive change. One of the key mindset shifts we teach is simple but hard: Remember that all change is emotional.
Many leaders develop excellent strategic plans for new things to do within their organization. Few, we have found, plan for how the organization has to change in order to implement these strategies. And it is often the emotional responses of employees or customers, even if they are anticipated, that sap momentum and can torpedo even the best of initiatives.
We occasionally work with congregations and have discovered, that they provide an ideal place to practice and learn more about the most difficult part of any strategic leadership initiative—dealing with resistance.
In one of my first church engagements, I had the ideal situation: A congregation that was focused on important mission work—restoring dignity to the homeless population that surrounded their urban campus. A senior pastor who was inspiring and courageous, willing to lovingly teach and challenge his flock to this very new way of life. A lay leadership team who was ready to lead, to try new things, and even to take the heat in order to embrace their new focus on mission.
The senior pastor, associate pastors, and key lay leaders had worked hard with me in planning a kick-off retreat for this work. Steeped in scripture, full of prayer and content tailored to their specific change, the retreat started off powerfully. Then, right after lunch, it happened.
The exercise asked the leadership team to place a red dot on a large scale drawing of the sanctuary, showing where each of them typically sat every Sunday. We talked about what changes the congregation would need to make to be truly welcoming to people who lived in the area around the church. How they would need to change greeting practices and accommodate different languages or issues the new visitors might bring. Each person shared great ideas and hopes about how the congregation would be transformed.
Then I asked them to place a green dot where they would be personally willing to move in order to make room for the new visitors. Immediately, three people—including the senior pastor’s wife—burst into tears. Uh oh.
What was slated to be a short exercise turned into an afternoon of heartfelt discussion about fears and concerns. Even as they embraced the new mission, the leadership longed for the comfort and peace of their established worship practices. Even though they knew it was right, this change was going to be hard for them, let alone the rest of the congregation.
Over time, working and learning with strong pastors and inspirational lay leaders, I’ve found that the skills and practices needed to navigate through the emotional headwaters of change are best based in church ritual and practices. And when done well, they are the spoken words that allow hearts the freedom to change.
As you lead your congregation to increased vitality, consider framing needed changes in the following well-known church rituals and practices:
For anything new to be born, some of the old must be allowed to die. Just as you would with any member who has lost a loved one, allow your congregants to share the things they loved about the past and will grieve in the changing. You can lift up and discuss the things you want to take with you on the journey to the new land and laugh about things you are glad you’ll be leaving behind. The key is allowing people to express their thoughts in a future-oriented frame. One pastor was surprised to find that the thing he most worried about leaving behind was no big deal to his congregation. They had just never talked about it before!
Every family loves babies. They seem to channel our most fervent hopes into a physical being. Just as families plan for the changes a new life brings to routines, finances, and ways of living, congregations need to do the same planning for any strategic changes. The ritual of baptism, discussed metaphorically by asking your congregation to express their hopes and dreams, creates a spiritual offering of the new life the congregation plans for and allows them to have the conversation about the future in terms of being reborn. It creates a framework that allows people to commit for the long haul of supporting the new way of life, through all its late night worries and “we can’t afford this” moments.
The thoughtful work of spiritual formation creates conversations about who we are today as people of God and what study and learning is needed so that each person can personally commit to leading a change through to completion. Confirmation is the step of moving forward to live out a mature faith. I’ve been touched by stories of deep sacrifice members have made so that their church could move to a new vitality. Their ability to sacrifice came from their willingness to learn together and support/hold each other accountable each other during the low moments and individual doubts. People who “didn’t know the Bible” came forward to teach. Those who were “scared to death of speaking” rose repeatedly to rally the troops. At the finish line, they were able to celebrate the change at the church, and more powerfully, the personal transformation within themselves.
The Hallelujah Chorus
I just visited a church where the pastor invited anyone who wanted to sing the Hallelujah chorus to join the choir at the front of the church to sing. The choir loft was filled with people of all ages singing their hearts out, blanketed in the sound of those who knew the words and notes. Those of us in the congregation sang louder too, bolstered by the courage and messy enthusiasm of the new voices. The act of celebration, the loud singing of praises for work well done and thanks to God for the chance to do it, is perhaps the most missed opportunity in churches today. I am regularly stunned by how little pastors tell stories of good work and how infrequently they give specific praise or thanks to those who do the work. This one action can literally turn a person around emotionally and can change a culture from one of complaint to one of gratitude.
If the lay and clergy leadership of a church can pause and think and plan prayerfully about how they will need to change - both individually and as a congregation - the chance of success for any strategic plan will increase dramatically. It means taking a hard look at your own personal resistance toward death and rebirth. It means that you, as a leader, may have to be courageous enough to let go of your own cherished ways of doing things. Simple but hard.
And the church leadership team that struggled with changing seats? They went on to build a one of a kind outreach—creating a center where the homeless are cared for, fed, and connected with needed services. It is a place where everyone is called by their name, and all are welcomed and loved. They are a vital congregation that has just finished a successful $20 million capital campaign and has new members of all ages attracted to its work and worship. My favorite outcome from that weekend was the “tag-along” spouse of the lay leader who committed that weekend to “spend more time at my church.” Today he runs the center!
These faithful Christians confirm that planning for and allowing your congregation to express their emotions about change is the important preparation of the soil for fruitful ministry. The best news is that you, as pastors, are well practiced in the art of caring for others through church rituals and practices.
You are perfectly prepared for this work of change within yourself as well.