By Eddie Pipkin

Recently, a revitalizing commercial district near my house tried out a temporary road diet.  If you don’t know what that is, and you’re too busy to follow the explanatory link, it’s a reduction of a four-lane road to two lanes, with a landscaped median and pedestrian and bike friendly lanes added where the removed traffic lanes used to be.  Urban planners get very excited about this approach because, when successful, it can convert impersonal, dangerous thoroughfares into interactive neighborhood streets.  It can slow down traffic, make the road safer, and get people out of their cars and moving in healthy ways.

That is, when it is embraced by the community.  As more of these road diet experiments have been tried, however, communities have not always welcomed them: from California to Florida, the blowback has sometimes been intense.  And several high-profile attempts at this streetscape change have prompted bitter opposition and a quick retreat by public officials.  As soon as the diet project was installed on Curry Ford Road in Orlando (not far from my house), motorists protested by intentionally driving in the marked bike lanes and flipping transportation officials the middle finger – it was hard to say if it was the drive-through commuters or neighborhood residents who protested more (the neighborhood residents, whom the plan was designed to benefit, were afraid the commuter traffic would just be driven to quiet side streets).  The whole experiment produced a level of conflict that had been completely unanticipated.

Similarly, on 8th Avenue in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida – a place with lots of bike traffic – a road diet project also produced chaos and conflict.  City engineer and project manager, Stefan Broadus, summed it up like this: “Depending on who you ask in town, they might say it was the greatest thing in the world, they might say it was the worst thing in the world, or anywhere in between.”

Sounds a lot like the kind of reaction new ministry initiatives get, right?

In fact, it is our painful experience of the drama unleashed by trying out new things that is probably the number one factor driving our reluctance to try new things.  Yet try new things we must.  We KNOW that.  We know that the alternative is stagnation and – not to put too dramatic a point on it – death.

So, change is inevitable, change is good, and our calling is to (at least some of the time) be agents of change.  We are – to employ a gratuitous summer metaphor – like that youth perched atop the diving platform ready to attempt the never-before-attempted (at least in public) back flip: a stunt that may end in glory and accolades or just as likely in a ridiculous and humiliating belly flop.

On the other hand, as we all know from experience that even the sickening thwack of a massive, bruise-producing belly flop can result in a story that lives on in legend (and I am, at this point, picturing just such a legendary true-life belly flop, which looms epic in the retelling whenever our old youth group veterans get together to trade stories – you probably know such a belly flop story, too).

Useful things can come from even our ministry disasters, and we should be prepared for some ideas to falter and come up short – if we are committed to trying new ideas.

We should be philosophical and humble about this inevitable outcome, like Dare 2 Share’s Greg Stier, as he recounts his top 10 favorite ministry fails, including this gem that cracked me up:

I said this about my co-pastor when preaching  on ‘cracks in our armor’ on the battlefield of ministry: “Rick and I have seen each other’s cracks.” Everyone laughed, and I didn’t know why, so I said, “I’m serious!” And they laughed again. Someone explained it to me after the service.

Oops.  Sometimes our flops will result in self-reflective laughter.  Sometimes they will be truly painful and set our ministry back in ways that take time to get over.  But as Vincent Howell of the Lewis Center for Leadership reminds us in an article called “3 Suggestions When a Ministry Project is Unsuccessful”:

First and foremost, don’t panic. Churches should not fear failure as we approach ministry projects, because Christ calls us to make disciples, and that requires us to be innovative and to learn from our experiences. Jesus makes this clear in his parable of the talents. In that story, two of the servants had a positive approach as they sought to increase the treasure for which they had been given responsibility. But the first servant was afraid of failure, so he acted conservatively, burying his talent instead of being innovative, and thus he had no increase (Matthew 25:14-30). None of us should approach doing the Lord’s work with a fear of failure, for we serve a Savior who does not give up on us even when we feel we have failed.

Be prepared for the possibility of failure, but plan for success.  Whenever you are trying out a new path, begin that journey with an anticipation of success, but no fear of failure.  And even though you hold the thoughts in the back of your mind that not everything will succeed (which you have reminded your team is okay) and some things will inevitably derail (which we’ll just chalk that up to valuable experience and keep moving forward), we want to do everything we can to maximize our chances for success.

Dr. Phil Maynard (Excellence in Ministry’s founder and CEO) writes about some key elements to shepherd your congregation towards success, lessons he has learned over the years as he has consulted with hundreds of churches.  There is an entire section in his soon-to-be-published Shift 2.0 book in which he discusses these strategies for helping people negotiate the challenges of change:

  • Create a Sense of Urgency

One of the best ways to help people see new possibilities is to LET THEM see new possibilities.  If you want to give people a vision for creating a world-class process for intentional hospitality, take them to a church that is doing this well.  If you want to create a vision for providing a life-changing youth ministry, visit a youth ministry that is thriving.

  • Invite Dialogue

You can’t overemphasize the importance of inviting people into the conversation about proposed changes.  This is especially true for those who have perspectives different from your own.  One of the truths about conflict is that it is not always a bad thing.  Many congregations strive for what is called an “artificial harmony,” an illusion that can ultimately result in “death by niceness”!

One of the keys in these discussions is to help people understand both the complexity and depth of the issues under consideration.  For most things, other than the routine and mundane, there really is no absolutely clear path.  As these discussions take place, it is an opportunity to move from the “What do we want?” or “What do we like?” kinds of questions to a more missional focus, like “Where is God already at work?” or “If we were to look through God’s eyes, what might we see?”

  • Take Baby Steps and Manage the Pace

Change is easier when we are not changing everything at once.  Most major changes can be broken down into smaller steps that make them more tolerable.

  • Communicate Sensitively

When communicating change, people need to know: What is changing? What is NOT changing? Why are we making the change? How does this impact me?  In any change that is being made, people are going to experience a sense of loss.  Acknowledge the loss openly and show respect for the past.   Don’t be surprised by an over-reaction and a sense of grief.  Share information over and over and over again.  Help people see the continuity of the change with what really matters.

  • Practice the Art of Framing

Framing is an inevitable process of selective influence over the individual’s perception of the meanings attributed to words or phrases.  A frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others.

One way to package the message when introducing some form of change is to frame it within the vision of the congregation, explaining how the change will help the congregation live more fully into the vision.  Another way to frame messages includes the framing of the change within what people value.  Still another is, whenever possible, to frame the change as an addition rather than a subtraction.

  • Celebrate Early Wins

The change process is fueled by success.  When there are successes, even small ones, take time to celebrate them.  Help people see the impact of the things that are changing.  This will help them to be more open to future changes and create a momentum for moving into the future.

Always, we are encouraged by the words of Galatians 6:9:

Do not grow weary in doing good, for in due season you will reap a harvest, if you do not give up.

Leadership has always required courage and commitment, especially when embracing change.  What have you failed out at recently (as a measure of what grand things you are attempting)?  What have your own experiences been in trying things out and failing along the way?  What lessons have you learned?  What unexpected results have made even the failures worth the work?  Share your own stories, and the learning continue.