Today’s entry is from guest blogger Dr. Steven Goodwin.
A woman came home from a swap meet with a crocheted wall hanging that read “Prayer changes things.” Proud of her new acquisition, she asked her husband for his opinion. “I don’t like it,” he said without missing a beat. “What,” she answered back, “don’t you believe that prayer changes things.” Her husband put down his newspaper and looked right at her, “It’s not that. It’s just that I don’t like change.”
Like it or not, change is now an ever-present reality of life in the 21st century. Everyday we experience the rapidity of change. Our congregations and our ministries are far from immune. Changing times and cultural contexts now force Christian leaders to be skilled change agents. The problem however, is that few leaders have the requisite knowledge and the skills to lead change.
The field of change management over the past 25 years has revealed that there is a predictable set of potholes that inexperienced change leaders fall into time and again. One of these oft-seen mistakes is all too common amongst Christian leaders whose change management style is that of an enthusiastic persuader. These leaders approach change with boundless enthusiasm and cheerleader-like exhortations about the benefits of the proposed change and the blessings that it will bring. Their spiritual gifts and natural energy are harnessed to persuade their followers that the intended outcome will significantly improve the ministry and its efficacy. This style plays straight into one of most pervasive derailments of change initiatives: steadfast resistance or even outright defiance.
The first rule of change is to never announce change positively. Like the man who rejected his wife’s enthusiasm over her new purchase, change is oft unwelcomed. Change means loss. It means stress and hardship and having to learn new skills, patterns, and habits. Change always triggers a grieving process, to one degree or another. The enthusiastic persuader style leader minimizes these losses when she or he stands before the group and gives a rah-rah speech about how wonderful this proposed change will be and how much we all will be better off for having undertaken it. Instead of the hope for outcome, the leader has triggered resistance and defensiveness. These two monsters, once given birth, are difficult to lay to rest.
Alternatively, change should always be announced descriptively. In other words, when introducing change, leaders should transparently acknowledge the loss that the change will bring. Balance out the benefits of the proposal with a candid recognition that it will mean a period of disequilibrium, of tension, and even a painful acquisition of new skills, patterns, and habits. Such an approach feels honest to followers. It comes across as wise and true when the leader demonstrates a complete picture of the change process, the good with the bad. This will not completely eliminate resistance or defensiveness but it will minimize it. In change management, as in all other arenas, honesty is the best policy.
Change is always challenging. Any opportunity to reduce those challenges is worth the effort. I invite you to thoughtfully consider your leadership style of introducing change and whether or not you could adapt that style to introduce change descriptively, instead of positively.
The Rev. Dr. Steven Goodwin is a Lutheran minister who now serves God as the President of TurningWest, a national organization and leadership development firm (www.turningwest.com). He lives in Chino Hills, CA with Lisa, his wife of 29 years, while they support their two children away at college.