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.