One reason many ministers find change so stressful is that they are uncertain how to address it. Their ministerial training did not teach them much about being change agents. They don’t understand how to lead change in their congregations, and many of them have heard so many horror stories of predecessors who tried to introduce change that they are tempted to avoid it as much as possible.
Ministers often tell how resistant their churches are to change, but if the truth were known, most ministers dislike change as much as their laypeople do. Hans Finzel explains why: “Leaders often have the most to lose and the least to gain by revolutions that upset the status quo. Their very jobs can be at stake. Their power can be compromised.” 1 However, if change is unavoidable and if ministers want to remain relevant to a rapidly changing world, they need to learn how to lead change in their churches in order to make the process less stressful.
John Kotter is a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. He has identified an eight-step process to follow when trying to implement a major change in an organization.2 Ministers could ease some of the stresses of change if they follow these steps.
The first step is to establish a sense of urgency. Few congregations will embrace change unless they believe there is a compelling reason to do so. A lack of urgency may well be the primary reason so many change efforts fail.3
The second step is to create a guiding coalition. This is a team of people who have sufficient respect and power in the congregation to lead the change. These will be people who are not satisfied with the status quo and who support the change being proposed. This will require Understanding the Change Process that they have the opportunity to ask questions and make suggestions to improve the planned change.
Step three is to develop a vision and strategy that will drive the change effort. Too many ministers understand that a particular change may be helpful to the ministry, but they never take the time to think through a process that will help achieve it. People must be able to see a vision of what things will look like after the change is implemented, and it must be a vision they can own and support.
Step four is communicating that vision. The minister cannot over-communicate. He or she should use every means available to communicate the vision and the reasons behind the proposed change. If the minister is not getting tired of communicating the vision, he or she is probably not communicating it often enough.
The fifth step is taking action by removing obstacles that prevent achieving the desired change. The minister must encourage people to take risks and start thinking outside the box. He or she must challenge everything that would prevent the change from occurring.
Although every step is important, step six is vital. The minister must generate short-term wins to keep the congregation encouraged about the changes that are taking place. Each win must be celebrated, and the people responsible for the win publicly recognized. As we will see later, change takes time, and without short-term victories people can become discouraged and want to give up.
Step seven is to consolidate the gains to produce more change. These short-term wins provide credibility to what the minister is trying to do, and this is the time to use that credibility and excitement to make other changes needed in the system.
The final step is to anchor the new way of doing things into the culture. The connection between the change that has occurred and the new ministry successes the church is experiencing must be noted. The church culture is the last thing to change, and this will not easily occur unless people can see that the change that has already taken place has improved the culture. Having a process such as these eight steps to follow doesn’t guarantee success. What it does do is help reduce the stress of change by providing an idea of what must happen to increase the likelihood of success.
Change Takes Time
When ministers see how quickly things are changing in society, they can easily believe immediate changes must occur within their ministries. This erroneous belief is likely to lead to failure and greatly increase their stress levels. When it comes to change, ministers must take a long-term approach. Clay Smith believes that “significant changes in the life of a congregation usually take three to five years to put into place.”4 Transitional changes can occur more quickly, but substantial transformational changes in a church take much longer than most ministers would like. If they want to reduce their stress, they must see their work as a journey and look for short-term successes to help them move ahead to the larger vision they have set out to achieve.
The old adage of being unable to see the forest for the trees certainly applies here. Ministers can be so involved in leading change that they cannot see the shortterm victories when they occur. This is one reason why it is important to develop the guiding coalition or team to assist in leading the change effort. Team members may see the short-term victories that ministers overlook. It can also be helpful for ministers to have coaches who can help them identify the positive things that are happening and assist them when they feel stuck and uncertain how to lead their churches to the next level of change.
It is said that the best military strategy ends when the first shot is fired. Military leaders can develop the best battlefield strategy they can, but when the action starts, the strategy often has to change. The change process is no different. The eight steps listed above provide a template for leading change, but the specifics will constantly be changing as the process adapts to the changing conditions in the church and community. Teams or coaches can help ministers identify the needed adaptations so the change process can continue.
During the transformation process there will be intense opposition from those who prefer the status quo. Sometimes even early supporters will decide the struggle isn’t worth it or they will begin to see changes occur they had not planned. When these early supporters jump ship, a minister’s stress level is likely to increase, and he or she may be ready to back off or even shake the dust off his or her shoes and move on to another place of service. The minister must resist that temptation. If he or she leaves or abandons the change process, he or she will frustrate those who do want to see change occur and give added strength to those who opposed it, thus making it unlikely any significant change will occur. The minister must accept that transformational change takes longer than anyone would like and commit to the long haul.
What If the Change Fails?
One of the keys to transformation is to not fear failure. Many of the things we attempt will not work out the first time we try them. Nearly every great idea has to be finetuned at some point. We cannot afford to be so invested in our plans that we refuse to adjust them when necessary. While it is important to take a long-term approach to transformation, we also must be willing to admit when something is not going to work. We sometimes talk about the futility of beating the dead horse of traditionalism to make it run faster, but we can also beat a dead horse of transformation. If the change isn’t going to produce the expected results, we must stop riding it and look for one that will.
DENNIS BICKERS serves as an area minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. He is the author of several books, including The Bivocational Pastor, The Healthy Small Church, and most recently, The Healthy Pastor, all published by Beacon Hill Press.
Taken from The Healthy Pastor, by Dennis Bickers © 2010 by Dennis Bickers and Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, Kansas City, MO. Used by permission of Publisher. All rights reserved. Visit www.beaconhillbooks.com to purchase this title.
1. Hans Finzel, Change Is Like a Slinky (Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2004), 54.
2. John P. Kotter, Leading Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), 21.
3. Herrington, Bonem, and Furr, Leading Congregational Change, 35.
4. Clay Smith, Inside the Small Church, ed. Anthony G. Pappas (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2002), 59.