CHANGE & The Name Researchers Give to the Way Most Churches Change

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 10/19/15.

One of the more interesting theories of changing is called the “Garbage Can Theory.”  Loosely stated, it is that an organization is a container in which you throw a lot of people with creative ideas and a lot of problems and you mix them up and see what works.

Churches often succumb to this “trial-and-error” approach to change. “Try this, if that doesn’t work, try that.” The problem is that trial-and-error often burns out volunteers because they get tired of trying new ideas only to see them fail because they were not vetted for suitability.

Thus, the Garbage Can Model is not the recommended for non-profit organizations because it has a high level of trial-and-error and this burns out volunteer organizations.

One of my favorite quotes from Cohen, March and Olsen about this is, “From this point of view, an organization is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work” (Cohen, March and Olsen, 1972:2).

That doesn’t seem like a place that hurting people would like to join.

But, trial-and-error may be the primary way our churches handle change.  Thus Bøje Larsen might say (along with Cohen, March and Olsen) that churches usually employ a garbage can approach for tackling change.

Take a look at the attached diagram of how Bøje Larsen views the GCM interplaying with the expertise of leaders as well as quality management.  (Diagram is by Bøje Larsen, “The garbage can life cycle model of quality management” The TQM Journal, 2001:95-104; retrieved from – CLICK to enlarge.)

FIGURE Garbage Can Model of Change