Friday, December 7, 2012

Resistance to Change: Stumbling Block to Church Vitality

Do not say, 'Why were the former days better than these?'
   For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
-Ecclesiastes. 7:10

This week, fresh from vacation, (it was wonderful, thank you) I've been pondering resistance to change. It may be the single most significant stumbling block to our future vitality. There are many factors, but let's explore just a few to see if they resonate with you in your setting:

Connection to the Old Way: We feel more comfortable with things the way we have grown used to them. In addition, individual tolerance for change varies depending on self-esteem, past success in negotiating positive change, a life time of impressions about change, conviction as to the need of change, and the degree to which one has a firm unchanging place on which to stand. Or stated differently, change is related to a person's / congregation's / committee's / association's / conference's general sense of security. Change, even good and necessary change, is difficult. Successfully negotiating change can happen when you are able to exercise what my Zen friends would call "beginner's mind"; that is, to be able to look at something with fresh eyes and leave your preconceived notions (connections) behind.

Identity: If ones sense of security and personal identity are related to something that is changing, change will be resisted more. Indeed, the more a particular change renders obsolete ones learning or ability to function, the stronger the negative reaction to it.

Concern about Skill Sets: This is a fear seldom admitted out loud, but for leadership, change in organizations necessitates changes in skills, and some people will feel that they won't be able to make the transition very well. They may thus resist change on that basis alone. Moreover, it can result in early or unexpected transitions, as those feeling unequipped may leave a position for which they are otherwise well matched.

Too Much, Too Fast: As Alvin Toffler states in Future Shock, change is difficult to deal with when it comes to fast, too hard, or unexpectedly. Given that we have been stuck in a bit of a time warp for the past four decades, this has not been a problem in most of our churches, although as the pace of change accelerates, it could be. Then again, has your church tried even small changes like new music? Projection screens? Different times or days for worship? Perhaps 'small' is a relative thing.

Depressed? Angry? Confused?

Yeah, join the club. But I think it is quite necessary to understand what's holding us back before we can get free of it. In my work with local churches around visioning, a fairly consistent pattern emerges: We're really good at visioning, at writing mission statements, at saying who we are or who we want to be. But moving from vision to action is the difficulty. Too many of us keep repeating the visioning process, wondering when change will happen, failing to acknowledge the stumbling blocks before us that must be dealt with before beneficial change is possible.

We say we are a God is Still Speaking church, that there is more to learn and discern. Indeed, the preamble to our UCC constitution states: "It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God."

I transited the Panama Canal last week. As I stared down at the huge locks that open and close as ships pass through, it would be easy to see them as gates preventing movement. But, in truth, the gates facilitate passage. They're not meant to hold something back, but to get it to the right level (or place) so that forward motion is possible. And so I wonder, how is your setting stuck? Do you see an un-transit-able passage ahead blocked by closed gates, or is it possible to name the gates and deal with them so that they will open once our institutional water levels equalize? Can we give our 'stuckness' an honest look, and find opportunities for movement?

It's not impossible. It's happening in some of our congregations already. If you're ready to move on, be in touch. Lynn, Pam, and I have set aside time to be with you to help. It's one of the ways that we're living into our mission statement:

Equipping congregations for Christ's ministry and mission
today and tomorrow.



Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day...

I'm not sure when the 'mission creep' happened - but these days I hear Memorial Day referred to as a day for remembering all who have died. Call me old fashioned, but as a veteran, I prefer to honor those who gave all in service to their country. All gave some, some gave all.

No one loves war any less than those you send to fight it - because only they know completely the costs paid. To my brothers and sisters who served - thank you. To those who gave their lives - we salute you. To those who came home with physical or emotional wounds which will never fully heal - we will not forget your sacrifice and pledge to provide you the best care possible.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Stuff and Baggage

Summers, especially as I look out the window wistfully today, are both wonderful and short. We each have to find our own way to partake in the awesomeness that is summer in Vermont. For Lynn and I, that means kayaking our ponds and lakes, and camping. We have a camping trailer we pull behind my truck and we steal weekends away when we can, even though it usually means racing to Randolph Center on Sunday morning for church from wherever we’re situated. When possible, we enjoy being close to water, and an evening campfire. It’s not roughing it, by any means, but being ‘away’ and close to nature and the primal forces of fire and water restore my soul. 

It is time for a new camper this year, and we’ve had one on order that we’ll pick up this weekend. That means for the last couple of weeks we have been emptying out and cleaning our old camper that we’re trading in. Oh, the stuff we found! Emptying a compartment, I found a box full of stuff that had been placed in this trailer from its predecessor years ago – and hasn’t been touched since. Guess we really needed that stuff.

And that got me to thinking. How much ‘stuff’ are our churches carrying around, taking up space and effort and time and resources and not doing anything to further our ministries and mission? I suspect we all have some things, in one degree or another. For some of our congregations it might be the building itself – of a size which could support a worshipping community of 250 in which today’s congregation of 20 seems almost lost. And what sort of a drag is supporting that building, and how does that baggage steal energy and resources away from mission and ministry?

Now it’s quite possible that a congregation which today stands at 20 active participants can be revitalized into a worshipping community of 60 or 75. In fact, that’s an important part of our vision for the future. But it’s a lot less likely with the building hanging over their heads. And even with a successful rebirth – does the new congregation need a 200 year old building that’s still three times as big as it needs to be?

You know what I long for? The day that we stop using the words church and building as synonyms. We can be church, we can do church, we can birth a church, we can renew a church – and none of those things requires a building. Our buildings are a tool – and if that tool feels more like baggage that you are dragging around - or is dragging you around – well, that’s not a very useful tool.

Here’s some homework for you. Take a close look at your church’s budget, and figure out how much of it supports your building, how much supports staff, and how much goes to mission and ministries. You might be surprised at how much you spend to support and maintain your building. Money that could ensure your pastor’s compensation package meets Conference guidelines, or that your other staff earn a livable wage, or additional support you could give to your missions.

I know it’s hard to separate our hearts from our heads when discussing our buildings. They have a hold on us that’s difficult to look past. And that’s the problem – they may well hold us in the past, and prevent some new thing that could happen in our midst.

At a gathering of Conference staff to talk about church vitality and new church starts, I heard a startling thing: A majority of all new church starts have put language in their constitution that prohibits the ownership of a building. If they have a worshipping community of 50, they rent a space for 50. If they grow to 150, they move to a space which will hold that. If they later shrink, they can adjust again. How liberating. They know something we could stand to learn.