How do members actually think about major changes in the church? The “prospect theory” from behavioral economics can provide some insights. The prospect theory argues that most individuals do not weigh decisions objectively, rather, they are influenced by whether they think they have something to gain or something to lose.
For instance, in a classic experiment researchers asked one group of college students what they would be willing to pay to acquire university mugs and pens, while another group was given identical objects at the start of the study and then asked how much it would take to sell them. The students in the first group were consistently willing to pay less for the objects than the amount that students in the second group required to part with them. The insight is that losses loom larger than gains; the rewards of gaining something are smaller than the pain of losing that same thing.
What might this mean for members thinking about change in an institution as significant as the church they attend? If the prospect theory applies to churches, then members who believe that the proposed change brings them significant benefits, or who expect to benefit from its future outcomes, will support the change. Those who feel they won’t benefit from the proposed change, or who expect to lose something in the future because of the change, will oppose the change to avoid those losses. But, according to the prospect theory, this group will oppose the change more actively and fervently than those who support the change. Whether it is a Sunday schedule change, a proposed building program, or simply moving the location of a Sunday School Class, most church leaders are familiar with the tendency for naysayers to be more outspoken than supporters.
Applying the Prospect Theory When Leading Church Change
The research around the prospect theory demonstrates five things that church leaders should be mindful of when leading change:
- People’s perceived expectations about gains and losses associated with a proposed change really matters and should be recognized and acknowledged as being valid.
- Avoiding the pain of a change is more valued than the rewards of gaining something from the change.
- Those against a change will almost always be more outspoken, more active and more passionate than those who support a change.
- Be careful to not give undue weight to those opposing a change, or think they have greater numbers than they do just because they are louder or more active in their opposition. There may be just as many or even more who support the change, but who are just not willing to be as outspoken as those who oppose the change.
- Refocusing the conversation away from how the change might create benefits or losses for specific groups or individuals and towards how it might benefit the mission of the church creates a win-win rather than win-lose outcome of the change.
Posted on November 3, 2020