In one of the better books I’ve found on the subject of change leadership in the church, Leading Change in the Congregation [Alban Institute Publications, 1998] Gilbert Rendle writes:
“Working with congregations in change is not a dispassionate proposition. While working with goals and programs of the congregation, leaders will also be confronted with emotions … It is important for leaders to know what they and their congregation are feeling.”
Rendle goes on to say that church leaders should be mindful that the emotions people experience when in the midst of change are like the sudden and dramatic twists, turns and drops of a roller coaster.
Award winning sociologist and educator, Michael Lindsay, adds, “Leaders must remember that they do not encounter these ups and downs at the same time as their followers. Leaders ride in the front of the cars of the roller coaster, which means they reach the peaks and the valleys before their followers. Sometimes the lag between the leader and follower can be so great that the leader is reaching the crest of the peak as the follower is just entering the valley before it.”
The Right Pace of Change
The wise leader understands the importance of patience and pace in leading change. In fact, discerning the right pace for a change initiative may be one of the greatest challenges of church leadership.
This was brought home to me by a key leader after an underwhelming response to a change initiative passionately presented by our pastor and me to our church leadership. He told me, “Jim, it isn’t that we don’t want to support your proposal, you need to remember though that you have been living with this for months and we just heard about it tonight. We need the time to pray through and process what we have heard.”
It was a good reminder that my sense of “crisis” and “priority” may not be shared by the congregation and that I should allow them time to catch up with the change I have already embraced.
Control the Rate of Change
Studies have shown there are definite limits to the amount of change an individual can, and will, tolerate. When these limits are exceeded, there may be strong reactions against most any change, even good ones.
By contrast, when change is implemented within the tolerance level, people may not even perceive the change is happening or may actually find the change stimulating.
The reality is that most congregations can handle only one change at a time. Yet, church leaders tend to stack change on top of change, proposing additional change initiatives before the previous changes have been fully implemented. We then wonder why our people are frustrated, angry and unmotivated.
A good rule of thumb, even for a new pastor in his “honeymoon” window of opportunity, is to be sure that the previous change is implemented, embraced and under control before initiating a new one. It is a slower but surer approach for leading change.
Posted on November 4, 2014