(Thanks to my friend Dr. Keith Drury who suggested I write an article on this.)
by Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D., Church Revitalizer Magazine, (Orlando, FL: Greater Orlando Baptist Assoc.), Jan-Feb. 2015, pp. 48-49, available at this link.
7 Steps To Recovering From a Church Revitalization Misstep
As an active church-revitalization consultant of 20+ years, I knew “church change” was understudied. This drove me to Fuller Seminary to earn my third degree there: a Ph.D. with a focus on church change. A resultant book, Preparing for Change Reaction: How To Introduce Change in Your Church, was awarded co-resource of the year by a national magazine. And, people often come up at conferences and tell me how helpful it is.
But people also come up and say,” What do I do now that I made a bad change?! How do I get out of that?!”
I realized leaders are often too stressed when everything is going wrong to find the answer in the book. So, I decided to set out in this article an overview of the “7 Steps to Recovering from Bad Change.”
Step 1: Take a breath. Once you realize a change is bad, your natural inclination is to rush in and halt the change … or plunge forward more earnestly. Both actions will usually doom the change, because you have “two emerging camps.” One camp we will call the change proponents and the other camp we will call the status quo.
On the one hand, change proponents (people pushing for the change) are excited about the change and stopping it abruptly will alienate them. And on the other hand the status quo (people who want to keep things the way they are) will step up their resistance if they feel you are ham-fistedly moving forward.
But, you may ask, “What’s wrong with alienating the status quo? They aren’t the future. Go ahead, let them leave.” That might be an option if they would actually leave, but research indicates the status quo will likely not leave the church. If change polarizes, research shows change proponents will leave, not the status quo. Then you are stuck with an angry status quo (not something many pastors can survive). So from the very beginning of this process, you have to figure out how to move forward while living with both the status quo and the change proponents.
So instead of stopping abruptly or driving forward, tell everyone you are going to talk to people about the change and take some time to pray about it. Tell them that though the change will continue, it will do so more slowly and you are praying to find consensus. This gives the status quo a chance to see you are aware things aren’t quite going well. The change proponents will also be pleased that you understand the change is causing division.
Step 2: Talk to the naysayers. Research confirms that you must go to those who are against the change and listen to them. Don’t act immediately on any of their suggestions, this is just a “fact finding” visit. People against the change usually just want to be heard. They care for the church too! They just want to ensure that your change does not take away something that is important to them.
Pastors seem to have a hard time with this step. In my consultative practice, it seems many pastors exhibit conflict-avoidance behavior. Unfortunately, this will usually doom a church into warring factions unless the pastor takes up the role of moderator: bringing disparate people together in mission.
Step 3: Bring together the status quo and the change proponents. The pastor can be the moderator, but must not appear to take sides (even if they have in the past). Again, research cited in the book shows that when two sides get together they can come up with a “hybrid-plan” that works for both sides and works better than a plan with input from only one side.
Step 4: Apologize for not getting more input. You are not apologizing for the change, but for the data gathering beforehand. Everyone could do more data gathering. But, maybe you are thinking, “Hey, I shouldn’t have to apologize. I’m the leader.” Or maybe even “Why should I apologize, it was their idea?” And yes, the change may have been thrust upon you or you may have felt that they hired you to bring about change. But, as Jim Collins found when researching why healthy companies fall, it is often because leaders develop hubris that they make bad decisions. Hubris means a pride and ambition based upon education, social status, professional status or experience. Collins found the best leaders are ready to say, “I may have made a misstep here.”
Step 5: Implement the hybrid-plan. This may be the easiest step. Still snags will develop. But, because you got the two sides talking to one another in Step 3, it is easier now to get them back together to work out challenges. A key here is that the pastor does not get between the two sides, or else both sides will take pot-shots at the pastor. Let them work out and adjust their hybrid plan together. You can be the coach, but for success they must be the players.
Step 6: Evaluate. This is a key step, that is often neglected. Evaluation adjusts strategies and increases impact. And, if you are going to adjust your strategies it is good to have both the status quo and change proponents doing the adjusting. So, just like in Steps 3 and 5, get together the two sides (after a month or so, sooner is better) and ask them to talk about what is working and what is not. Ask them to adjust their hybrid-plan.
Step 7: Bathe the whole process in prayer and listen to God. Both sides should be encouraged to pray, since the status quo and the change proponents, really in their hearts want the same thing: a church that is healthy and growing. Remember, when Jesus prayed for those that would follow Him down through history He prayed for our unity and for impact, praying “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)
Bio: Bob Whitesel is nationally-recognized church revitalization consultant, who holds a Ph.D. from Fuller Seminary on church change and has been called by a national magazine “the chief spokesperson on change theory in the church today.” In addition to consulting he serves as founding professor of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University and their professor of Missional Leadership.
For more details on the “7 Steps” or information on church revitalization and growth consultations with Dr. Whitesel, visit http://www.BobWhitesel.com