My wife and I once bought our kids a goldfish. A few days later I looked across the room at a fishbowl of murky water and decided to do something nice for my finned friend. I scooped the fish out with my wife’s strainer (I knew she wouldn’t mind), and put him in a glass of water for holding purposes. Then I poured the cloudy water out of the bowl, washed the bowl, filled the bowl with fresh, pure tap water, then plopped my wet pet into that fresh water. I thought to myself, “If he could talk, he’d thank me for this.”
I left home to pick up the kids and came back about three hours later and…the fish…well…God had called him home. The next day my wife went to buy a more hearty fish. She told the pet store owner what had happened and he explained what was behind our wet pet’s demise. Alas! He did not die of natural causes.
The fish died from the change. The expert explained that I should have left the water out for a day or so and let it reach perfect room temperature…and let the chlorine evaporate… then transferred the fish gently to his new home. Sudden change apparently is very traumatic for goldfish.
But before you think too badly of me, consider what would have happened had I not changed the water. The poor little fellow would have died a slow, agonizing, suffocating death. Abrupt change is deadly for goldfish. But so is the absence of change.
The same is true for churches. Swift change can be traumatic for us. But so is change’s absence.
To strike the balance as a leader requires courage and discernment. Courage and discernment to say “no” when reckless revolutionaries would kill the church with traumatic change. Yet courage and discernment to make appropriate changes when unbending traditionalists would slowly let the church suffocate.
Change is difficult, and should not be embarked on impulsively; but change is necessary, and should not be opposed stubbornly. We must hold in tension those two truths. If we either initiate change without sensitivity to tradition, or oppose change for the mere sake of tradition, we will jeopardize the health of the organization in question. (By the way, I think more fish have died from murky water than from change.)
Change is difficult, but change is necessary. We must hold in tension those two truths. If we emphasize either, and forget the other, we will get ourselves into trouble.
Because initiating changes is tricky (and risky), I thought it would be helpful to pass on to you some questions I’ve collected from others, and from my own experience, over the years. They might help you assess whether or not the church is “ripe” for the change you are considering:
1. Can we try it? Is anything keeping us from giving it a test run and an objective evaluation at a determined time? Can this be a “pilot”?
2. Does everyone who should have a voice have it? What are those whose voices count saying about this change?
3. Are we letting people grieve their loss over what they’re having to give up?
4. How’s my heart? What are my motives? Is this change just a pet project for me or will it actually facilitate the fulfillment of our mission?
5. Am I willing for people to leave the organization? And if they leave, how devastating will it be?
6. Am I willing to stay long enough to see this through?
7. Have we plowed the ground—created a desire for change in the church?
8. Are we approaching change overload?
9. Am I willing to take the heat from those who don’t like the change?
10. Have I communicated the vision sufficiently?
11. Is there a reasonable likelihood that this change eventually will be seen as a successful move?
12. What are the risks? Are they reasonable?
13. When I am alone and quiet, what does the voice of the Spirit whisper to me?
Honestly wrestling with those questions will prepare you to embark on the daring adventure of healthy, not deadly, change.
(adapted from Travis’ book, Tough Calls).
Travis Collins wears two major hats, as Director of Mission Advancement and Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US and as a consultant with The Center for Healthy Churches. Travis served for twenty-five years as a senior pastor, the last nineteen years in two large congregations. His experience also includes missionary service in Venezuela and Nigeria. He is a graduate of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Directionally Challenged (2007) and Tough Calls (2008). His third book, based on Acts 20:28, will be released in the fall of 2014 (Chalice Press). Travis and his wife, Keri, have three adult children.