A part of me loves change and likes to experience the vitality and energy that comes when new people and challenges bring growth and newness to my life. But I equally resist change on other occasions, especially in my personal and home life, sometimes bending toward keeping things the way they’ve always been, resisting my self-created comfort zones. However, viewing a new idea as a short-term experiment allows me to lean into change without fearing permanent consequences.
I led the church where I served on staff for 38 years, 35 of those years as senior pastor, into more changes than you can shake a stick at. Give them great credit: for the most part, they went along, sometimes kicking and screaming, but more so with graciousness and willingness to try new and creative endeavors.
Those congregational changes never bothered me but energized me on many occasions. It took a while for me to realize why other changes connected to home, family, friends, and other relationships grieved me greatly, but church changes did not. It puzzled me why other people needed weeks, months, and even sometimes years to make needed changes or decisions in congregational life. Often congregational members could see the rationale for the shifts in ministry opportunities but seemed paralyzed to make the final decision.
Then I realized that my perspective on changes in church life radically differed from most church members. For me, the church is a place where my ministry and life’s calling are actualized. Change is a welcomed sign of new life, innovation, creativity, and measured progress. It is something that typically does not kick up great anxiety or uncertainty. When I realize God is moving in a certain direction or an opportunity for growth and change is present, I am always ready to proceed “full speed ahead” to lead our church in a new direction.
On the other hand, church leaders and members grow accustomed to a particular way of doing things that provide a sense of security, satisfaction, and familiarity. While able to see the opportunities a change might present, they are equally impacted emotionally by what might be lost in the process.
At some point decades ago, I “accidentally” came across a way to mediate change in congregational life that seemed to bridge the gap between the pastoral leader’s calling to provide visionary change to congregational life that often gets stuck in the familiar and comfortable. Our congregation was considering moving from a committee-based approach to a team ministry approach – people serving God missionary based on their interests, passions, natural talents, spiritual gifts, and sense of God’s calling in their lives. The church had established a “study committee” to research the team ministry concept, discuss possibilities for how it could be implemented at our church, and return to the church with specific proposals.
For some reason, which I still cannot pinpoint – perhaps part of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit, which we often miss and by-pass in our personal and ministry decisions – I suggested to the study team that we “experiment” with trying a team-based ministry approach for a one-year trial basis, and then to dialogue with the church family about its successes and failures, how we might improve such a venture, and whether we would want to change our by-laws formally to reflect this new way of doing ministry. The study committee liked the idea, and the expected resistance kicked in when it was presented to the congregation. It was amazing, however, when I told the church members one of the proposal’s key points: the church would experiment with this team ministry approach for a one-year trial basis and evaluate its future viability at the end of that first year. The emotional energy released in that discussion quickly dissipated when people realized they were not voting to embrace a permanent change. They could still return and stay with the old “tried and true” committee structure if things did not work out as expected. Viewing new ideas as a short-term experiment allowed us to lean into change without fearing permanent consequences.
I wish I had video-recorded the business meeting one year later when we evaluated team ministry. Everyone present – I mean everyone – thought it was a grand idea, had enjoyed a positive experience with the approach, and wanted to proceed with it for an additional year – on a trial basis. It was such a popular way of doing ministry that we “experimented” with team ministry for four straight years before permanently changing our by-laws. Our people good-naturedly threatened the leadership if we ever attempted to go back and change it to the “old way” ever again!
I learned a valuable lesson in the process. Sometimes people need time to assimilate a new idea, concept, or approach in a non-threatening fashion that does not have to be permanent at the onset. Trying something on a trial basis doesn’t lock congregational members into something that may prove too uncomfortable or unfamiliar early in the process. It eases people into a future that allows them to try on a pair of shoes or a new set of clothes without locking them into buying them permanently.
We all need a season to absorb a change and to realize that life, as we know it, doesn’t have to be all about subtraction when the change comes. Change and transition can embrace the additions and multiplications while retaining many of the comfort zones and securities we all have valued. Experimentation allows the change to be absorbed in as much non-threatening fashion as possible.
What needed change or transition is on the horizon with your congregational system? What process could you envision to create a “trial run” without locking in the change permanently? Give your people a chance to try the shoes and walk around the store to see if the shoes fit. It might just lower resistance and open the door to more permanent and needed change that your church family can fully embrace.