Change, Complexity and Courage

How Did We Make It So Boring? The problem was that the change project we designed as a pathway to release ministry in the congregation threatened to turn into a train wreck.  My pastor and I had spent hours sitting in church chairs in the sanctuary reflecting on the health of the congregation, the opportunities in front of us and the challenges we faced.  We had the right goal in mind and we had a good plan.  It was now time to diagnose our situation and make mid-course corrections. We began our conversation by evaluating what kinds of changes were happening simultaneous to our strategic change and how these changes affected our potential for successful completion of the project.   We needed to reframe the change so that the board, staff and members could process the change at multiple levels.

As we talked about the resistance and support the project faced I leaned back in the church chair I was sitting and unconsciously sighed a long and exasperated sigh and said, “How in the world have we made the resurrection of Christ from the dead and the promise of a transformed life so boring.  We have equated the entirety of God’s work to managing programs.  The means have become the end. This is not only dull it is draining.”

I find two extremes plague congregations and other organizations.  On the one hand organizations and congregations forget the observation that the church is “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” a Latin phrase we inherited from the reformation that reads, “the church reformed and always reforming.”  Change in this perspective is expected because of a continuous movement toward the image of Christ.  Paul said it this way, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which some from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)  In contrast personal and organizational behavior gravitates toward a kind of religious stasis in which all change stops.  Stasis is a state of stability in which all forces are equal and opposing and therefore cancel each other out.  Not all aspects of stasis are bad.

People need emotional equilibrium to be secure enough to risk change. When a person’s equilibrium is upset their behavior mistakenly equates equilibrium with rigid inflexibility based on inviolable tradition. This behavior confuses values and tactics so that the tactics used to express core values take the place of the values themselves. Effective leaders recognize this demoralizing and corrupting trend and work to nurture change at multiple levels of experience.

On the other hand I see organizations that misinterpret “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” as an excuse for personal and organizational impulsiveness.  In this scenario the only thing held as sacred is an avoidance of consistency or constancy.  This behavior mistakenly equates dynamism and innovation with impetuosity.  The result in this case is not creative spontaneity as much as undisciplined failure to follow through and hence an attendant loss of resources and a growing dissonance among those subjected to constant change.

It is important to understand three kinds of change and to differentiate strategies to discuss the challenges in each of them. I call these types of change organic, situational and strategic.  In my observation it is important for leaders to understand the difference of each of these types of change, the way they impact each other and the strategies needed to successfully address each.

Organic Change

Organic change is unique in that it is expected though sometimes surprising or upsetting in its consequences. For example I am getting older.  I never expected to exist in a static body – through out my childhood and young adult years I observed my own development and even looked forward to it.  It would be far more upsetting to have experienced arrested development. Organic change is the real foundation of the phrase, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.”  It recognizes that the transforming (developmental) work of the Holy Spirit in our overall development is paralleled in the physical changes we experience as we age.  This does not mean that organic change is without trauma. One’s first brush with hormones is illustration enough that change, while normal and expected, still requires adjustment and new emotional and relational tools to successfully integrate it.

Organic change is predictable.  Stage development theories of human development for example identify patterns of growth with reasonable accuracy. If these patterns or stages of growth are ignored then an individual’s capacity for social and personal adjustment is stunted. On the other hand if these stages are anticipated then people are less likely to get stuck in the boundaries represented in the space between stages.  Organic change emphasizes integration i.e., how a person relates to a group on the one hand and differentiation i.e., what makes them unique on the other. Part of the challenge in dealing with organic change is to recognize the difference between differentiation boundaries (when individuals need to separate and secure their personal identity) and integration boundaries (when people need to redefine their relationship to the group).

Organic change is not often considered when working on strategic change. However, if the maturity level and specific boundary time of everyone participating in the change is not considered participants may lack the emotional reserves and skills needed to move through the change.  If there is strong resistance to change from specific people the dynamics of organic change may be at play.  Stage development theorists like Erickson, Kohlberg, Kegan, and Fowler are all helpful in understanding how people develop and the boundaries they face in development. Clinton’s developmental stages are outlined below.  Use developmental theories to help people define what they are facing outside the strategic change process.[i]

Situational Change

Situational change often presents the greatest potential for trauma or emotional dissonance.  The unexpected nature situational change reinforces human vulnerability. Situational change typically requires some immediate adjustment because it renders plans and thinking obsolete. Situational change creates emotional and epistemological dissonance or a state in which what we thought we knew and depended upon is upended by circumstance that contradict expectations about what is real or just or normal.  It is possible to pretend that situational change has no effect however this kind of denial leads to increased tension and sickness related to stress.

Situational change is unintended although it is predictable as illustrated in such anecdotal truisms like Murphy’s Law.  The forces behind situational change may be human (relationship changes, economic changes, wars, political shifts etc.); natural (as in weather, geological events etc.) or non-human (as in an unexpected encounter with animal life or encounter with spiritual entities).

Not all situational changes are a product of Murphy’s Law – even a good turn of events creates a situational change that shares the same upsetting emotional consequences as something going wrong.  Look for example at people who win the lottery and are then unable to adjust their thinking and personal management to fit the radical change in their new social situation. The same dynamic works in churches (and businesses) that experience rapid growth that out paces the willingness of the leadership to adjust their thinking, leadership styles and working structures. The tendency in either example is to return to the more familiar situation hence lottery winners go broke and churches loose their growth and return to the attendance level leaders are familiar with managing.

Even though situational changes are predictable they are not always included in planning strategic change.  If situational change is not considered when planning strategic change then any significant situational change is usually enough to derail or collapse strategic change plans.

Strategic Change

Strategic change is volitional – it represents a set of actions one chooses to engage to meet a specific end. All discussions about organizational change are framed as strategic change. Strategic change is often induced by cognitive dissonance which is a distressing mental state that arises when people find that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions.  In response to this dissonance people either change their actions or their beliefs. When strategic change works it starts with belief in the overall purpose of the organization.  When people believe in the purpose of an organization they change their actions to align to that belief.  The problem Pastor Dan observed was that people had begun to question the purpose of their congregational experience and so changed their actions i.e., giving dropped off, attendance dropped off and participation in various outreaches sponsored by the congregation fell.

Successful strategic change also depends on proper reinforcement systems at work in the organization. I saw this at work in one congregation that continually taught that everyone was a priest and that they wanted to develop leaders but their functional practices failed to reward those who came up with new ideas. Instead they discouraged people from taking initiative by having several thick layers of permission requirements that usually ended in a “no” answer.  Initiative was redirected to participation in working in the nursery, teaching Sunday school, serving as a sound technician or serving as a greeter/usher.  Soon people stopped trying to introduce new ideas, recruitment plummeted and average attendance dropped by 400 in two years.  The leadership blamed the diminished attendance on consumerism, lack of commitment and the mega-church down the street – they did not see how their own behaviors contributed to the problem.

Successful strategic change also depends on possessing the skills required for change.  People need consistent role models to watch.  People need to see how to apply the change and see that the change can be successfully engaged.  The simple fact is that adults don’t learn by listening to instructions or admonitions from the pulpit. Adults must absorb the new information, use it experimentally, and integrate it with their existing knowledge.  This is part of the reason small groups are so vitally important in congregational life – they offer the environment needed for adults to absorb information by teaching others, experiment with its use in a safe environment and integrate their existing knowledge.

Use a Multi-dimensional Approach to Change

Thinking of change as a multi-dimensional process is complex.  However, thinking this way can help leaders demystify some of the barriers to change they face both inside their own personal experience and outwardly as they interact with those they lead.  Table 2 provides an overview that outlines the kind of strategy each change process requires to be successful. Without a multidimensional approach it becomes far too easy to characterize those who resist change negatively.  Adding a multidimensional perspective provides a richer diagnostic tool that can anticipate and address resistance to change by identifying what organic and situational factors may emerge as the change occurs.


Change is a multidimensional process and never just a linear process.  The reason some change processes derail is that they fail to anticipate the total context of organic, situational and strategic change and thus launch projects that fall into the trap of idealism, impulsiveness or tyranny. Any of these traps cause leaders to behave in ways that are inconsistent to the message of reconciliation with God and as a result lead to growing cognitive dissonance that brings about needless loss.  If you are leading a change process consider the following questions.  They will help you refine your thinking and engage a multidimensional perspective.

What did we say we wanted to accomplish?

Is what we are doing contributing to that accomplishment or moving us further away?

What changed between when we set our action plan and today?

What aspects of the change process need to adjust because of a changing situation?

What is the non-negotiable end and what are the negotiable means?

If the change is resisted what kind of change may be at the root of resistance?  What is the best strategy to address this resistance?

Are all the participants in a place of equilibrium in their development?  If not, who is in a boundary time and how are they processing it?  Do they need more coaching to process their boundary?

What other steps do we need to help others process the change we want to make?

Is this the right time for change?

What happens if nothing changes?  Is this a biblically consistent outcome?

What things should not change?

How will we address potential loss in a way that is consistent to the message of reconciliation and discipline evident in the New Testament?

[i] Clinton, J. Robert and Richard W. Clinton.  “The Life Cycle of a Leader: Looking at God’s Shaping of a Leader Toward an Ephesians 2:10 Life.” ( Pasadena: Barnabas Publishing, 1995)