By Eddie Pipkin

Change happens.  It’s one of the few certainties in life and ministry.  Often change desperately needs to happen.  We become stuck in a rut, and the only way forward to renewal is by acting out a new script.  Even so, there are healthy ways to embrace change that invite everyone to be a part of the process and give people time to adjust to their new reality, or there’s the wrecking ball method, by which change is here, ready or not, love it or leave it.  I’ve heard some sad tales of late, in which change (which undoubtedly needed to happen) was handled in ways that left a lot of collateral damage.  It got me thinking, instead of making major changes in one fell swoop, why don’t we introduce more changes on a provisional basis?

Change in local church settings is often painful, and everyone knows this, so there is an underlying assumption when we feel it’s time to initiate any change, large or small, that this change is inevitably going to be painful.  We manage towards that assumption, and, ironically, in so doing, we increase the likelihood that the change will be painful.  How does this happen?  This happen because we anticipate the change-related pushback and drama, and we overcompensate:

  • We’re preemptively defensive about any critique of the proposed change. Because we’re convinced that people are going to respond negatively, we respond defensively even when they ask reasonable questions or make cogent observations.
  • We make the change a high-stakes, all-or-nothing proposition and then frame pushback as a kind of disloyalty to the vision for forward-thinking leadership (and by extension, disloyalty to what God wants – which can, in the worst scenarios, become a kind of bullying, since we are the designated spiritual leadership).
  • We communicate in ways that subtly cast a negative patina over the upcoming change. Things get weird quickly when we start from a position of “Yeah, we know you aren’t going to like this, so let us begin this conversation by explaining why you’re wrong and we’re right.”

The whole thing is ramped up towards drama by an effect that non-ministry businesses don’t have to deal with: the idea that we are trying to discern God’s will and follow God’s leading.  Which, of course, we should do.  But navigating this territory with a collaborative spirit (a Holy collaborative Spirit) is high level spiritual work.  And it’s HARD work.

My premise in this blog is that we could ease the drama if we were more flexible in trying things provisionally.  If we said, “We’re going to try this new thing for the next three months and see how it goes,” it would be a valuable safety valve to defuse the tension.  Part of the high-stakes element in implementing change is that the core leaders who have wrestled (faithfully) with deciding what to change have been through countless meetings, prayer sessions, back-and-forth with key players, etc., and they have a lot invested emotionally in the conclusions they have ultimately reached, so they become further and further titled towards those proposals being implemented.  It’s a classic version of the economic principle of “sunk costs.”  If we get far along enough down the road of the implementation of an idea (be it a program, an event, or an organizational principle), even if we start to feel queasy about where it’s going to end up, we can have so much time and effort and resources invested in it that we plunge ahead, no matter the warning signs.  The sunk costs associated with the idea propel it forward with a powerful momentum all its own.  It takes a unique kind of confident leadership to put the brakes on a questionable idea that is barreling full speed towards implementation.

Provisional implementation – trying an idea out for a specified period of time – takes a lot of that pressure off.  If things aren’t working out the way we anticipated, we have pre-established a pause point for setting a new course (or turning back to the old course) and counting the sunk costs as a learning experience.  Otherwise, it’s like we are on a one-lane road, headed up a very steep mountain with no pullouts for turning around.  We don’t have any options for doing anything except continuing obstinately ahead in a forward direction.  Setting things up as a temporary trial period, on the other hand, means we build in those emergency pullouts, so we can stop safely and calmly evaluate things.

Instead of saying, “Here’s a God-ordained change we’ve been given that going’s to rock your world completely, and, by the way, we’re implementing it next week, and it’s a forever change, and here it is, take it or leave it,” what if we said, “Here’s a change we’d like implement – here’s how we think it will be good for us as a church – here’s how we think it serves our vision and God’s priorities – and we’re going to try this change for three months and get everybody’s feedback on how it’s going and whether we should leave it in place as is or give it some tweaks.  We’re just asking that everybody support it for that period and give it a fair shot.”

Of course, this sounds like chaos.

My counterargument would be that we need to embrace more chaos.  In an orderly fashion, of course, but chaos in the sense of flexibility and fluidity.  And chaos in the sense of accepting (and celebrating) that not every idea is going to be a home run.  We get so locked into the concept that every idea we have as leaders – since every idea must obviously be divinely inspired – has to be a home run.  Maybe we are meant to try things that don’t work out occasionally, in order that we gain insights and interactions that would never happen otherwise.  Those unexpected insights and interactions may lay the groundwork for the next truly transformational idea!

Other potential chaos: Maybe the change we are feeling inspired to make involves personnel changes.  That doesn’t mean we have to go permanently swapping out personnel on the chance that the idea may be genius.  We can borrow personnel on a temporary basis!  Churches almost never do this, but it is eminently doable.  Volunteers with unique gifts are more than willing to use those gifts to try out an idea if we ask them.  Plenty of talented people are willing to take on a part-time, temporary paid gig to experiment with an idea.  Bonus!  This new blood injected into our ministry arteries will give us insights that our old blood would not have thought of.  (By the way, this is 100% the reason that, if our leadership is thinking of making a significant change, and if it’s possible to travel to a place where that change can be observed, leadership should do it.)  In this process, our overworked staff and key volunteers might even get a break that re-invigorates and re-inspires them.

Meanwhile, when we decide to embrace change, we can make it more palatable for everyone involved by following some simple guidelines:

  • Get people involved, early and often. Make the people who are going to be directly impacted part of the planning and imagining process.  (Instead of “We’re changing the worship service times, and we need y’all to get on board and be supportive,” how about, “Our worship times don’t seem to be working – how do you think we might adjust them in ways that would be beneficial?”  Give people a chance to give feedback (and be sincerely interested and open to that feedback).
  • Don’t report pushback in negative terms. If impacted people push back on the change, don’t start a negative narrative by describing the push back pejoratively.  Acknowledge their concerns; focus on the positive and on dialogue that moves the process forward; express empathy, even in disagreement.
  • Lead with humility. Even as you are proposing significant change, acknowledge that it is possible you could be making a mistake.  Explain carefully how you’ve reached the conclusion you have reached in arriving at the call for change.  But ask for prayer and support that you are making the right call.  (And if you do end up getting it wrong, say so.  Such admissions build loyalty and trust.)

Some will protest that test changes promote chaos in communications.  People will be confused.  Well, I would argue that people are confused anyway much of the time where ministry is concerned.  Even when we’ve had the same event start time for perpetuity, people still show up a half hour late.  In this modern age of instant communication and smartphone access, as long as we are diligent in keeping our communication current and easy to access, people should be able to keep up.  In fact, if we are changing things around on a regular basis, we are training them to pay attention and keep current.

The ultimate way to promote acceptance of change is to build a culture of constant change: adaptability, experimentation, spiritual entrepreneurship – let’s get in there and try a lot of things and let the Spirit lead and see what sticks.  High energy.  The only constant IS change.  We resist the calcification of habits and longstanding traditions and “the way things are done around here” in the first place.  You may be aghast upon reading those words.  We come from a long line of practitioners of the faith who thrive on time-honored traditions, but there is the tradition that is continually evolving, shifting to meet new contexts, and the tradition that is moribund and unchanging (and doing it just like we did it last year and the year before that and the year before that, just because that’s what’s easiest).

Even if after doing all the things mentioned in this blog, and even if having tried something for a specified temporary period, the impacted folks are still opposed, and your leadership is convinced more than ever that the change needs to continue happening, you’ll experience less drama than would have been the case with a cut-and-dried change implementation.  This is true because some people will realize they like the change after all; some people will still begrudge the change, but they will have observed its positive effects on others; some people will still completely oppose the change, but they will have had time to simmer down in the interim.

Have you and your church tried implementing major changes on a temporary, experimental basis?  How did it go?  What gives you the most anxiety if you think about implementing this change strategy?  What positive effects can you imagine that haven’t been listed here?  Share your experiences, ideas, and objections in the comments section.