by Bob Whitesel, 3/25/15.
I study how churches become divided over a change … and what can be done instead. Research shows that change often goes awry because a person in leadership inadvertently gives the “green light” to someone pushing for change (i.e. the change proponent). The change proponent then pushes ahead too fast, eventually alienating the “status quo” who blame the leader for giving the “green light.”
The leader’s action is called a “negative legitimizing event” because they inadvertently “legitimized” the new idea. And, the result was “negative” because the change proponent ran too fast with the new idea.
However, research shows that division can be avoided if the leader:
- Slows down the change proponent (the person pushing for change)
- And helps the change proponent build consensus before moving forward.
Read about this research in my books: Bob Whitesel, Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change What You Can Do About It (Abingdon Press, 2003) or in my book, Preparing for Change Reaction: How To Introduce Change in Your Church (Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007).
Often I ask my students for “case studies” that depict a “negative legitimizing event.” And I get some painfully humorous examples. Here is one from my student, shared anonymously and by permission:
“Negative Legitimizing Event: A few years ago, we decided it was time to take the organ off of the stage. The start of the conversation happened within the context of the worship team, who felt like they needed more space on the platform for musicians. The organ was sizable and took up a chunk of stage real estate, and we had no organist in the church. At most, the organ was used one time a year. I was probably guilty of legitimizing this and launching into a situation where change happened too soon.
The next body involved was the administrative board. We talked at length about this at one board meeting before it was decided to remove the organ and begin to seek how we could donate the instrument to another church. Within two weeks of that meeting, the organ had been taken down.
What we did not realize (and would have if we had taken more time) is that our oldest member of the church (104 years old at the time this happened – she’s still alive at 108!) had donated money to purchase the first organ the church ever owned… and the money came from her deceased husband’s memorial money. Even though that organ was long gone, this member felt deeply attached to whatever organ was on the stage. Soon, the pushback began to happen quickly.
We ended up losing about six people as a result of this decision and created some distrust with a few remaining members who are still extremely cautious about change today.”