14 July 2012
Churches Can Change...But It Takes Guts
There is a whole lot of pessimism out there about the ability of traditional churches to change - and it is well deserved. It seems that while the world rolls on in the new millennium, churches often find themselves debating about whether to move boldly into the 1980’s.
Churches are notoriously resistant and slow to change. And as change, fueled by technology, becomes more rapid, churches fall further and further behind.
However, I have hope.
In my nine year call at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer we were able to change in some big ways. We brought children in from the margins of the congregation and gave them a central place in worship and community life. We created a growing community of young families that shifted the demographics of the church from older to younger. We oriented ourselves to newcomers and strangers, creating a welcoming and inviting atmosphere so that people commented, “This is the most welcome we have ever felt in a church.” We embraced technology and social media as a means for connecting with one another and sharing the Gospel. We crossed a major threshold in response to the 2009 ELCA statement on human sexuality, and moved toward being a more open and accepting congregation for our GLBT brothers and sisters.
If we could accomplish these things, I believe other churches can too.
Here are the six things I found instrumental in bringing about congregational change:
The best piece of wisdom I received during my first call process was this: “Every congregation says they want to grow and change. Most of them don’t mean it.” Thus, one should ask questions during the interview process to ascertain whether the congregation does mean it, whether it is motivated to change.
One of the things I am most grateful for about Redeemer is that they meant what they said. They wanted to change and they meant it - even when the change was hard, when it meant shifts in leadership, power dynamics, and the congregational culture. No, it wasn’t easy. Yes, some people left. But, on the whole, the congregation meant what they told me in their call papers, and that made a huge difference. It gave us permission and freedom to pursue our goals.
We can’t just say we want change. We have to mean it. We have to want it.
Much of your agenda in ministry is proscribed for you. You have pastoral care and emergencies, worship planning, education, committee meetings, Lent and Holy Week, Advent and Christmas. With everything that has to get done, it can be hard to stay focused on your objectives, especially if they lie outside traditional responsibilities and program structures.
You must stay focused and help the congregation stay focused on these main objectives. You have to talk about them endlessly - in preaching, teaching, council reports, conversation, committee meetings. You must dedicate time in your weekly schedule to these areas, or else they will get washed away in the flow of congregational life. Make time for them. Learn about them. Make strategic choices about how you spend your time to support them and explain those choices as you go.
Recruit Strong Lay Leadership
One of my biggest learnings in all of this is about the kind of lay leadership that is needed to manage change in congregations. It takes very strong lay leaders - especially a strong executive committee - to pull it off.
Making change disrupts the status quo of congregational life and thus introduces anxiety in the congregational system. This anxiety takes many forms, including people acting out and various forms of resistance. Changing one thing in a congregation can also affect other parts of the congregation in unforeseen ways.
So, leaders much not only be able to do the hard work of the change itself, but then also manage all the ripple effects that it creates. Your leadership must be able to do both, or the change will not take deep root. They must be willing to have the extra conversations and speak honestly, and the attend extra meetings needed to both create and manage the change.
Be Willing to Fail
If you are making a change, then it probably means you are about to do something the congregation has not done or done well before. This probably means that, unless you totally luck out, you are going to fail. Hopefully not epically, but you are going to fail at some things.
This is not a sign that you should not change or that you should not try. It is not a condemnation of the congregation, as if they can’t do it. It means that you are in a learning process and we learn at least as much from our failures as we do our successes. Probably more. You have to help people see it as a learning process and not get down about it or resort to casting blame.
Building the congregational capacity to do something new takes time and lots of encouragement.
Expect to Piss People Off
Change generates conflict, so you have to be ready for it. Going through that conflict is part of the price of creating big change. If you aren’t willing or able to go through it, that’s okay, but you may not be able to achieve the kind of lasting change you seek.
You have to know from the beginning that not everyone is going to be happy with the changes. And you also have to know that its okay.
I really dislike the way we usually talk about conflict among the clergy. We say, “I’m not good at conflict. I don’t like conflict” as an excuse not to do hard things. Well, most people aren’t good at conflict - or as good as they’d like to be. Even when you handle it well, it feels like you’ve never handled it well enough. Conflict is like that. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing. You rarely say exactly what you want to say in the moment. There will be other moments and other conversations.
When it comes to conflict, most everyone is in the same boat, muddling their way through. Do the best you can, have a strong support system within and outside the congregation, and have the courage of your convictions.
When competing people and visions were at play at Redeemer, it was always helpful to me to think about my responsibility to the congregation - not the people, but the institution. I asked, “What is the right thing for the congregation itself? What vision or course of action will enable it to be here and thrive 50 or 100 years from now?”
One of the best pieces of leadership advice I’ve received came from a member who was a retired airline pilot. He said, “When something goes wrong on a flight the navigator looks over to the left to the first mate. The first mate looks over to the left to the captain. When the captain looks left, he sees his reflection in the window.”
At the end of the day - or the end of your call - your ministry will be a combination of successes and failures, hits and misses, wins and losses. It’s inevitable. There were changes I tried to make that didn’t work, but I did everything I could do, as well as I knew how to do them at the time, to try to bring them about.
The question is: when you look at your reflection in the mirror, what will you see? Be sure that you have acted and spoken with as much integrity as you can possibly muster, and no matter how things turn out, be sure that you can live with yourself. In the end, I may have failed at some things, but at least I had the courage to try.
Ministry leaders and congregations must have the courage of their convictions if they want change.
Congregations can change, but it takes guts.
What is your experience of making change in congregations? What things have you found to be important?