Our Common Life…

“All change is loss.”

“Change is inevitable. Change is constant.”
Benjamin Disraeli

“Brother, can you spare a dime?”
Lyrics by Yip Harburg & Music by Jay Gorney

That last one really has nothing to do with this essay. It’s just one of my favorite Depression-era songs, and we are, after all, talking about change.

Recently, I attended a seminar put on by the Interim Ministry Network. This seminar, the first of a two-part block of training for intentional interim pastors, was entitled “Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry: The Work of the Leader”. In it I was exposed to some fascinating (to me, at least) insights about the effect of change on organizational dynamics and I would like to share a couple of those insights with you.

All systems, including congregations, seek to maintain equilibrium.

When you push on a gyroscope, it reacts by pushing back as it tries to return to the state it was in before the push. Congregations, it seems, are just like gyroscopes. When pushed, a congregation tends to push back. It doesn’t matter if the push comes from within or without. It doesn’t matter whether the push is progressive or conservative. It doesn’t matter if the push is needed or not. The natural desire of any system, including congregations, is to maintain the here-and-now, to resist anything that threatens to upset the system’s equilibrium.

This has important implications for congregational leaders. For many of our congregations, the here-and-now is not all that rosy; and everyone seems to be in agreement that something needs to be done. No matter how wide-spread this agreement may seem, however, even changes that make sense, even changes that are self-evidently necessary and beneficial, will be resisted.  The challenge for congregational leaders, then, is two-fold:  First, an effective leader must learn not to personalize this resistance. Push-back has nothing to do with the leader personally or with the wisdom of the changes proposed. It arises from the very nature of the congregation as a system seeking to maintain its equilibrium. Second, an effective leader must anticipate that push-back and manage it successfully. Without a plan to manage the system’s desire for equilibrium, any effort to implement change is almost certainly doomed to fail.

There is a difference between change and transition and
effective leaders need to deal with this difference.

A key factor in managing change is the need to recognize the difference between change and transition. Change is situational. It’s what happens. Transition is psychological. It’s the process that people go through as they adjust to the new situation the change brings about. An effective leader not only institutes change, he or she also, and maybe even more importantly, must manage transition. In his book Managing Transitions (3rd ed., 2009), Dr. William Bridges argues that transition is essentially a three-stage process. Stage One is the ending phase, the phase in which people let go of their old ways and old identity. Stage Two is the neutral zone, the time between the end of the old and the beginning of the new, the time when critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place. Stage Three is the new beginning, the time when people develop a new identity and new energy and discover a new sense of purpose. To be an effective instrument of change, a congregational leader needs not only to propose new ideas or new programs or new directions, he or she needs to recognize and plan for the congregation’s need to be led through the three stages of transition. Without an effective transition plan, even the most necessary, the wisest of changes will be difficult to implement.

Tony Stoik, Associate Conference Minister

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