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August, 2011
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Congregational Shift: Can a congregation transition without carnage?

by Dr. Chris Gambill
dmhall

There is no change without pain. Change processes in congregations often have unintended as well as intended consequences. Unintended consequences can include conflict, anger, grief, loss of energy and momentum, or even the loss of staff or members. Regardless of how well intentioned a change process may be, it has the potential to bring more harm than good.

For some congregations, these potential liabilities are enough to check any movement toward change. However, as most faith communities surely know, not changing also has serious liabilities and consequences. Refusing change puts a congregation at risk of irrelevance or even extinction. Church history, both ancient and modern, is brimming with evidence that this can and still does happen. The choice should not be between change and no change. The real challenge is to create transition processes that produce the kind of results congregations hope for and avoid as much as possible those things they least desire. With careful and prayerful planning, a congregation can transition without carnage.

When considering change, congregations should seek to be faithful to their own particular sense of calling. Scripture and tradition offers various points of view about change that can inform a congregation as it seeks to be faithful and relevant. For example, in regard to change in general, scripture seems to revere and value both stability and change.

  • “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)
  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

Regarding the speed of change and the energy or patience required to see it through, there also seems to be paradoxical guidance from scripture.

  •  “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV)
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’(Matthew 10:34-36, NIV)

In our experience at the Center for Congregational Health, most congregational change processes fall along a continuum where one end represents a revolutionary approach and the other end an evolutionary approach. A revolutionary approach is one that is typically carried out in a short timeframe and seeks to establish significantly different ways of thinking and behaving. An evolutionary approach typically utilizes a longer timeframe and may or may not seek to establish the degree of change sought through a revolutionary approach. The biggest difference between the two approaches is the impact on the congregation members, themselves. Revolutionary change is hard to miss. Evolutionary change can happen so slowly that the transition is almost indiscernible. Both have a significant emotional, psychological and spiritual impact on members of a faith community.

For congregations ready for a revolutionary approach, the sudden and often dramatic change is welcomed by most people. However, if a congregation is not carefully prepared and does not have enough of a sense of urgency to support quick and dramatic change, then the transition may be resisted or rejected. Quick change processes have less time to build cohesion and consensus. This means there is a higher risk of congregation members not “owning” the changes or of feeling left out of the decision-making processes.

Evolutionary change, because it is slower and more gradual, may be more readily accepted or produce less resistance. Because more time is available for the progression, it has a higher likelihood of producing broader ownership for the change and decision-making processes. On the other hand, the slow pace of evolutionary transition may be frustrating to those with a greater sense of urgency about what they perceive to be needed change.

Which is better, revolutionary or evolutionary change? Neither. Just as it is not an option for a congregation to simply choose change or no change, the choice is also not simply between a revolutionary or evolutionary approach. Picturing change processes on a continuum with the two extremes being revolutionary and evolutionary allows change leaders to move back and forth along the continuum to find the appropriate methodology, speed and forcefulness for any particular situation.

Those seeking to lead change processes in congregational life need to ask good questions. For example:

  1. Which theological principles should take precedence in the change process?
  2. How urgent is the need for change?
  3. How much time does the congregation have to devote to a change process?
  4. How much emotional energy surrounds the potential change?
  5. How much risk can the congregation afford regarding potential unintended consequences? 

Listening carefully and answering these questions accurately can help congregational leaders determine the right speed and energy needed for a change process. While congregational transitions are never easy, they can be managed in ways that bring largely positive results.

 

 

Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health (www.healthychurch.org) based in Winston-Salem, N.C.