CHANGE & “2 Don’ts (& 1 Do) to Change a Resistant Church.” New article by @BobWhitesel published by Church Revitalizer Magazine. Leadership.church www.8steps4change.church

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ARTICLE ©Whitesel 2 don’ts & 1 do to change a resistant church, Church Revitalizer Magazine July-Aug 2020 

2 Don’ts (& 1 Do) to Change a Resistant Church

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 6/24/20

Most of my clients in the past 30 years have been congregations that don’t want to change. Small churches, rural churches, urban churches or mega-churches, they all have the same thing in common: the leadership wants to bring about change, but the congregation doesn’t. The solution is understanding two don’ts and one do. 

DON’T force change.  

Change proponents usually force change arguing that is necessary for the survival of the church. They also suggest that if people don’t want change, they should go elsewhere. But researchers(1) have found that status quo members won’t usually leave a church. The status quo just quietly wait for the change proponents to make a misstep and then they reappear to cry foul. Because the church is the status quo’s social environment (e.g. extended family), they can’t go elsewhere.  Therefore successful change involves getting the status quo members involved in the change. See how below.

DON’T quit in protest. 

Change leaders often leave a church with metaphorical protest, citing Matt. 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.” (NIV).  But theologians such as R. V. G. Tasker remind us this verse is about Jesus sending out the 12 on a short-term mission which requires “such haste that they must not linger at any house which will not receive them.” (2) Today’s long-term and evolving relationship between pastor and congregants, usually requires working through change rather than quitting in protest.

DO these 8 steps.

So how does successful organizational change occur? There are actually eight steps first formulated by Harvard management scholar John Kotter. (3) I adapted them to church change while completing my Ph.D. research in church change at Fuller Theological Seminary. In fact, these eight steps are a key element of the D.Min. course I  wrote and have taught at Fuller Theological Seminary titled: “Leading Turnaround Churches.”

Here are the steps summarized from my book: “re:Mix – Transitioning Your Church to Living Color,” Abingdon Press (2017) with Mark DeYmaz. Learn more details of each step at:  ww.8steps4change.church

1. “Establish a Sense of Urgency.” Begin with a period of time acquainting the congregants with the need and biblical mandate for change. Because of the urgent situation, many church leaders will be tempted to ignore this step and launch headlong into transition. Yet, in my consulting work I have found that this step is critical. Pray, study, research and dialogue on the importance of a church transition first. But don’t make plans yet. Your task is to increase awareness of the urgency for change. How that change plays out is in the next steps, which for success require input from many church factions. Scripture; Ezekiel 3:17-19.

2. “Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition.” Even though you might think you know the situation the best, due to history, education or background: a church is a communal organization and leadership works best when there is a communal consensus. Find those who resonate with the transition and help them take the vision to the rest of the congregation. These may be “persons of peace” (Luke 10:6). The Greek word here for peace is derived from the word “to join.” It literally means a person who helps people from different viewpoints and even warring convictions to join together in unity whereby oneness, peace, quietness and rest result. (4) Scripture: Luke 10:6

3. “Create a Communal Vision.” The step 2 guiding coalition creates the vision, thereby taking into consideration concerns and insights from various segments of the church. This guiding coalition helps you draft, refine and edit the vision. People must see the future before they can work toward it. The goal is to have an easy to read, clear vision statement in no more than a paragraph that is crafted by persons of peace from varying church segments. Scriptures: Proverbs 15:22, 29:18.

4. “Communicating the Vision.” Take your guiding coalition as well as congregational members to places where turnaround ministry is being done and let them experience it firsthand. Also use stories to help people picture change. Atlanta mega-congregation, 12Stone(c) Church, found that the story of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River (Joshua 4) inspired their attendees to trust God for “many bold crossings” in their faith journeys. Scripture: use a story that illustrates your church’s spiritual waypoints.

5. “Empowering Others to Act on the Vision.” It is important to delegate your power to others (or burn out). Too often passionate church leaders are tempted to go it alone. One pastor said, “Jesus had to do it alone.” And atonement and redemption were definitely things that only the Son of God could accomplish. But remember, Jesus rounded-up and delegated to his disciples his power. Scripture: Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 9. 

6. “Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins.” Probably the most overlooked step, short-term wins help people see the validity and direction of a new vision. Short-term wins are projects and programs that can be undertaken quickly and temporarily. They usually won’t change the long-term outcomes (yet). But they demonstrate the validity of the new direction in a quick way. So, use temporary “task forces” instead of semi-permanent committees to launch new projects in ministry.  Scripture: Luke 10:17-20.

7. “Using increased credibility to change systems, structures, and policies that don’t fit the vision.” Short-term wins will give the guiding coalition the social capital to make long-term structural changes. Don’t start with structural changes. You haven’t enough buy-in from hesitant members. Only after short-term wins validate your approach will you be able to change systems, structures and policies. Scripture: Matthew 8:1-22.

8. “Institutionalizing New Approaches.” Finally, it is time to adopt a church personality that reflects these changes.  Now your church vision statement might be changed. Now your church’s personality in the community might change. Your logo and byline might change. Don’t be tempted to do these first (most leaders do and fail because of it). The church’s new personality is the last thing to jell and it comes organically from the church’s new direction. I remind clients that “Vision won’t bring about change, change will bring about vision.”

Footnotes: 

(1) Bruno Dyck and Frederick A. Starke, “The Formation of Breakaway Organizations: Observations and a Process Model.” Administrative Science Quarterly (1999), 44:792-822. I have applied the Dyke-Starke model to the church in Bob Whitesel, Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change and What You Can Do About It(Abingdon Press, 2003).

(2) R. V. G. Tasker, The Gospel of St. Matthew, Tyndales new Testament Commentaries, 1961, p. 103.

(3) John Kotter, Leading Change, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), John Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Harvard Business Review (Boston, Harvard Business Publishing, 2007),

(4) James Strong The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 1515.