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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Changing Church

“The only thing that is constant is change; nothing endures but change.” So wrote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in the sixth-century B.C.E. Supposing him to be correct in this observation, I find it strange indeed that so much of our outlook and activity is premised on the permanence of things, as though the status quo of the present has always been the case and can be expected to endure indefinitely. If Heraclitus is right, it is odd indeed that we should expend remarkable energy in preserving what is.

I thought of Heraclitus’s comment when I found myself seated among a group of friends one recent morning, engaged in delightful conversation on matters both trivial and profound. I listened carefully as the conversation turned to how difficult it is for the church to change. I must say, I was fully awake at that point, my attention focused and undivided.

“Why is it so hard to get the church to change?” one of the interlocutors asked, expressing both a thinly veiled critique of the organized church and a disquieted sense of his own participation in it. Considering myself a theologian and sociologist of religion by training, I suggested that, perhaps, it would be useful to explore the question further before formulating an answer.

Generally speaking, people want a church to change only when they are dissatisfied with it. This dissatisfaction may arise because the organization is no longer meeting the needs of the individual or group, or because its efforts to achieve its stated purpose are not met with success. Certainly they are unhappy who observe that a church’s stated mission is seemingly put aside for one unstated but no less instrumental in marshalling resources, programs, and personnel. Discontent can emerge when a church’s leaders conduct themselves in ways that are hurtful or abusive, manipulative or exploitive, insensitive or indifferent. And generally speaking, when people experience the church’s life with disquiet and discontent, they frequently express their point of view with their feet—they walk away!

The phenomenon that tends to elevate awareness of the need for change is thus some form of institutional inadequacy or failure. More positively, however, we can also note that the need for change rises with the recognition that a church—or any organization—is confronted with possibilities and opportunities that might strengthen it and increase its impact, but for which it is at the moment ill-equipped to respond. (I think of a small congregation of aging religionists in the midst of an ethnically diverse community of young families.)

When we ask, “Why is it so difficult to get the church to change?” we are really asking about how to understand and alter this institutional failure. What is amusing about this question is that, if Heraclitus is right, the church is in fact changing; people come and go (though at present they are mostly going); people accumulate experience and knowledge that alters and shapes their sense of self and world-view; and changing circumstances and contexts in which a church finds itself impinge on the dynamics and structures that make a congregation what it is. (I think of the impact of the loss of jobs or income inequality or disparate health outcomes.)

Change happens. It happens whether we want it or like it or not. The question is not really whether the church will change, but rather in what direction, for what purpose, and under whose influence will the church change. Personally, I can appreciate the strong attraction of the predictable and familiar, and I like knowing that where I get my daily cup of coffee will be open for business tomorrow. But change happens, and what is will not be for long.

Through a distinguished career as a social psychologist at Cornell and M.I.T., Kurt Lewin taught that in order to understand and manage change, we need to identify both the evident and the hidden impulses moving in the direction of change (the rationales and motivations for change) as well as the impediments and forces that forestall it (the rationales and motivations against change). Lewin calls the former the drivers of change, and the latter the resisters of change. The presence of drivers and resisters together constitute a force field in need of analysis, much like we might do when we construct a “pros” and “cons” list in a decision-making process.

For example, as a church envisions the need for change, there might be such drivers as increased membership and financial resources, potential for greater impact in the larger community, enhanced capacity to influence and participate in social causes, etc. Or the scale of the drivers might be more local, such as a more effective administrative structure, clearer means of communication among members, improved capacity for response to pastoral care needs, etc.

At the same time, such a church has a culture, or a way of doing things complete with a set of values and commitments, customs and traditions, practices and rituals, habitat and habits, any one of which can be a source of resistance in the minds and hearts of the people. Moreover, to whatever extent the meanings of these features are internalized in the personalities, beliefs, and values of the congregants, the forces of resistance will take on greater affective and cognitive weight.

This suggests that what we take to be the status quo at any given time in a church or other organization is really a somewhat stable balance of drivers and resisters, a sort of equilibrium of countervailing forces. The good stuff is good enough, and is not inordinately threatened by the bad stuff which isn’t too bad. But when it finally occurs to some that something is amiss to such an extent that an alteration (or “intervention”) is needed, change will be sought and this will disrupt the equilibrium. As Lewin pointed out, when change is desired, either the drivers will be unleashed and strengthened, or the resisters will be restrained and weakened.

Leaning in the direction of change under the impulses of the drivers can and frequently does expose the impediments to change. What may not be so readily apparent are the rationales and the motivations for resistance. Be assured of this: As those who advocate for change have stated and unstated reasons and motives at work, so those who are resistant to proposed changes have their stated and unstated reasons and motives. Little of enduring value and impact is likely to occur until participants in an organization (i.e., members in a congregation) have opportunities to identify, discuss, explore, engage, and resolve the tensions and barriers revealed in the encounter of drivers and resisters.

More often than not, confronted with the need for change accompanied by a vision for a different future, the tendency of a church is to push ahead in abusive and conflicting ways. Tragically, the same tendency is apparent in church judicatories and denominations. In his new book, Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future, Peter Coutts emphasizes the need to do the much-overlooked work of preparing a congregation for change; nothing counts against the prospect of change like the absence of readiness for it. For Coutts, this amounts to the discovery of those concealed drivers and resisters, the impulses and forces hidden sometimes unconsciously in our reasons and motivations for and against change. But it also includes situating this disequilibrium in the context of a congregation’s own narrative, with intentional conversation about existing discontent and dissent; nothing enhances change like negotiating the inclusion of all stake-holders in formulating the vision and the strategy to move forward.

We like to think that we function in churches and other institutions as though it is our stated purpose that determines and shapes the capacity to achieve it. Our efforts to identify and organize our resources and assets, our strategies and plans for implementation, and our assessment of our effectiveness all find their epicenter in a purpose, be it codified in a mission or vision statement or intuitively grasped by the participants. But if Heraclitus is correct in writing that nothing endures but change, then we gain an insight into something else he wrote: “It is in changing that we find purpose.” Change, then, has to do with accept-ability, response-ability, adapt-ability, and foresee-ability.

Personal, social, and institutional change happens, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design. The reason why it is so hard to get the church to change is that its change-agents mismanage change by jumping to action strategies and implementation before working through the reasons and motives for both the drivers and the resisters.


On the other hand, Heraclitus would have us recognize that purpose happens, in and through change. Better we listen to him than to the cadre of change-agents or nay-sayers.

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