By Eddie Pipkin

I love ritual and tradition (which kind of makes sense for this line of work, doesn’t it?)  So, every year, I eat the same thing on New Year’s Day.  Like the southern boy my momma raised me to be, I have to ring in the first page on the calendar with a big, steaming plate of Hoppin’ Johns and collards – only this year, I didn’t.  And the surprising thing was, I didn’t even miss them until a day or two later when I was thinking back on it.  The reason for that is that the thing that replaced my normal menu selection was so fantastic that it squeezed out any potential complaint.  If ever there was a tasty metaphor for ministry, here was one: If you’re going to knock people out of their cherished routine, for the sake of all that is holy, do it with style and passion.

I didn’t intentionally set out to upend my holiday tradition.  With coronavirus logistical adjustments (like we’ve all been making), we ended up spending New Year’s with friends in Miami, who were graciously hosting us and introduced us to their tradition, which was roasting a whole pig in the backyard with mojo, accompanied with yucca, plantains, and rice.  It was soooo good that I had two plates and then later loaded up on leftovers.  If you had asked me beforehand about changing my long-practiced custom of rice, peas, and collards, I would have begrudgingly offered to accept the hospitality of my hosts (probably with a pout), but at the time I was scarfing down the new thing, loaded plates of awesome Cuban heritage recipes, I only had eyes for the taste explosion on the table.  Something new = something wonderful.  Doesn’t mean I have less love for grandma’s black-eyed peas, rice, greens, and cornbread any less.  Just means my horizons, were expanded and the joy of a fresh experience embraced.

It’s possible to cherish an old thing, even as you’re embracing an exciting new thing.

Which is why it is sad that too often as ministry leaders, when we decide to implement change, the change we offer up is like a lukewarm plate of leftovers.

We push to shake things up and shift the narrative.  We press people to accept disruptions to their traditions and legacy programs, preaching the need to ‘embrace the future’ and ‘strive for relevance,’ only to serve up recycled ideas and phoned-in efforts.  It’s no wonder we leave people with a bad taste in their mouths.

If we’re going to propose change – if we’re going to implement a significant transition – we need to go whole hog.

Don’t mail it in / phone it in / go through the motions with a lackadaisical, superficial, mechanical half-execution of an idea.

Instead, be all-in / go the whole nine yards / give ‘em the full monty with an enthusiastic commitment delivered without reservation.  Give it your best shot.  Commit your best people to the challenge and empower them to deliver a complete effort, no holds barred.

Why would we do any less if we are sincerely convinced it’s time to change things.  And yet we do.  Often to disastrous results.

Quote: “Whoever finishes a revolution only halfway, digs his own grave.”

–Georg Buchner

Whether we have decided to significantly alter worship styles or times, revamp small groups, reinvent our discipleship approach, abandon the long-established fellowship gathering for something new, tinker with Sunday School, overhaul the administrative and committee structure, remodel a major seasonal event, deconstruct missions and convert to a program of community engagement, overhaul the music ministry, or tamper with the committee meeting schedule, our replacement for what has come before has to be our very best effort.  It has to be something that at least offers such undeniably engaging positives that people will begrudgingly admit they are beneficial to our congregation.

Of course, there are understandable reasons why we set out to upend tired traditions and end up replacing them with half-efforts:

  • We expend all our resources in the fight to effect the change. Change is hard and stressful, and sometimes we find that we have invested so much time and energy in pushing through the change that we have nothing left for investing in the new thing that’s going to replace the old.  Be aware that this is a possibility and guard against it.  One strategy is to have different people, if you can, doing the heavy lifting of change advocacy and a different set of people working on the new thing.  Another strategy is to build in healthy practices for offloading the stress and focusing on the positive ultimate outcome.  It’s always productive to have everyone who will be affected involved in a truly collaborative planning process.
  • We have a strong sense that what is happening currently is not working, but we have a weak sense of what the replacement might be. This is the familiar syndrome of “I don’t know what the replacement thing should be, but I know what we have now is broken.”  Sometimes, we can afford to gracefully retire a program or ministry and not feel pressured to immediately replace it with something new – which can be a gift of time and space – but very often we have to immediately usher in a replacement idea.  So, we should not move forward with disruptive change until we have a crystal-clear plan for the new iteration.  Coming up with the new iteration can be an imaginative, possibility-celebrating, creativity-inviting dreamspace that is collaborative and invites maximum participation.  (“What would your dream version look like?”  How would you reinvent this if you could do anything from scratch?”)  But we shouldn’t move forward with the change until that new thing has been nailed down and given the resources to successfully come to fruition.
  • We forget that all change should be genuinely collaborative. We feel very strongly about the change that needs to happen.  Perhaps a core group of leaders and thinkers or staff members share our strong feelings.  But if people who are directly affected by the change do not – and if in our frustration or need for speed or sheer arrogance – we choose to bulldoze past or sideline those people, we are taking a very big risk.  We are priming them to actively dismiss and advocate whatever the new thing is, no matter how wonderful it is.  It will be a natural, human reaction on their part, and when the new thing is introduced, they will either constantly undermine it, or they will leave as loudly as possible.  We should do everything we can to involve as many of the change-affected participants as possible in the planning and execution of the new thing.  And we should write ourselves a note in giant, bold type that reminds us, “Announcing the new thing to affected people, no matter how passionately and sincerely we do the announcing, is not the same thing as genuinely collaborating with those people.”
  • We are passionate about the change that needs to happen, but the people we need to make the change happen don’t share our passion. This challenge lies in the tension between our strong visionary impulses and the dangerous tendency to think we can do it all on our own.  In most cases, it takes a team to move an idea forward.  And if there is traumatic change involved, it takes a special team.  We need to face the cold, hard facts of what is possible and what is not, and if the vision is godly, we need to commit to first build and empower the team that can make it happen.  In fact, in a biblical sense, it often happens that it is the building of the team that turns out to be more important than the accomplishment of the individual task-at-hand.
  • We can’t change the laws of physics. This is another version of facing the cold, hard facts.  We should be inspired by lots and lots of fun and exciting ideas – if we are indulging our creative muscles, they should spring up from things we observe and read, conversations we have with others, and a little prayerful daydreaming we do during our break in the hammock – but some ideas are meant to fizzle.  Just because it’s a great idea doesn’t mean it’s the right idea for this time in our current context.  Part of a healthy creative life is having a good process for what ideas move forward, what ideas are deemed awesome but implausible, and what ideas are good but need to wait.
  • We simply don’t do the work to do the change well. We are busy; we are lazy; we are distracted.  Change done with excellence is hard work, and sometimes we are not willing or able to put in the hard work.  So, we should put the change off until we are ready.
  • WE THINK HALF-MEASURES WILL SOMEHOW RESULT IN HALF-DISCOMFORT FOR THE PEOPLE BEING ASKED TO CHANGE. We encounter resistance to the proposed change.  We have a clear vision for what the new thing would be, but we decide that we can perhaps ease people into it more comfortably by introducing the vision piecemeal.  We will start out by doing half of the old thing the old way and half of the new vision the new way.  We build a Frankenstein hybrid of a thing which keeps elements of the old (reminding people constantly about why they hate the change) and doing an incomplete version of the new (creating a sense of disorientation and unnecessary ambivalence).  If you’re going to change, change.  At most, save the very best of the old way or tradition.  Give subtle nods to the long-loved touchpoints in the composition of the new thing.

Change can be good.  Change is necessary.  But change is not a guarantee of success, and – like the aphorism about swapping out horses midstream – if done poorly, it can be disastrous.

What are your personal leadership guidelines for introducing and implementing change?  How do you guard against mistakes in launching transformational initiatives?  What disasters have you lived through and learned from?  What successes have you persevered to be blessed by?  Share your stories and your insights!