Getting Change Into Your System – Part 2 (Nov – Dec 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson and Carey Garrett
November – December, 1993

Last month’s installment closed with the introduction of William Bridges’ description of how organizational systems or congregations respond to change. Now we are exploring in greater detail his claim that endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings are essential to the transition process.

16

Ending

Some of my “change agent” attempts have fizzled because we “began” without “doing an ending.” Bam! Just like that! This abrupt style is all too common in churches. So, how do congregational leaders “do an ending”? How do we “get the people out of Egypt”?

First, acknowledge their losses. Make sure people understand that you (the change agents) appreciate the significance of their losses. Ask, “Who is losing what?”

Second, compensate for the losses. What kind of trade-off can be offered. For example, in our church when the nursery pre-empted the space of Adults #2, Adults #2 got a classroom which, while less convenient, is much larger – a nice trade-off.

Another example: When our former church went to small groups on Sunday nights, some people felt a keen sense of loss; they simply did not feel right about not coming to the building for a service. So our elders formed a Sunday evening Bible study group at the church building for the “non-group group” to compensate for their loss.

Third, during “endings” people need a vision of what is ahead. “What might the promised land look like?” “What are the benefits of getting there?” This helps give people the confidence to make the leap.

Fourth, good change managers get people involved in the change and help them own part of the development of the vision, so they can see what it will be like “on the other side of the river.” It also diminishes their fears since they retain some feeling of control over their destiny.

Fifth, during “endings” people need lots of information. Overkill is almost impossible. They need to know specifically what will and will not change.

Some change agents simply get frustrated with “X” and want change now, any change, to escape “X.” So they push ahead and “cut a piece off the elephant,” rather than “transitioning the system.” They change things they don’t like, before they know exactly what they do like; with no compelling rationale for the change and no clear picture of where the change will take us. Being forced to leave home without a clear destination feels a lot like being kidnapped. People want to know the parameters and benefits. Change must be driven by a compelling, carefully planned, strategic rationale, not merely blind frustration. Again, information is crucial. As Carey Garrett says, “Think of the most information you could ever communicate and then triple that.” Information helps diminish the shock of “endings.”

Don’t forget that you, the change agent, may have progressed to “the neutral zone” or “new beginnings,” but other people may still be way back in “Egypt.” Maris underscores this in the following statement. Read it over carefully two or three times:

No one can resolve the crisis of reintegration on behalf of another. When those who have power to manipulate changes act as if they have only to explain, and when their explanations are not at once accepted, shrug off opposition as ignorance or prejudice, they express a profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own. For the reformers have already assimilated these changes to their purposes, and worked out a reformulation which makes sense to them, perhaps through months or years of analysis and debate. If they deny others the chance to do the same, they treat them as puppets dangling by the threads of their own conceptions.1

Re-read that second sentence! If those in power “shrug off opposition as ignorance,” they show a “profound contempt for the meaning of lives other than their own” (emphasis supplied). Somehow the words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” seem appropriate here!

Sixth, show how precious values will be preserved in spite of the change. Even secular organizations try to carry values through transitions. How much more important that Christian people feel confident their core values are not only being preserved through the changes, but that proposed change in their church will more effectively perpetuate, communicate, and apply the core values of the faith. When it comes down to it, the only valid reason to change things in a church is precisely to better preserve and perpetuate its core values!

When Israel was poised to cross the Jordan into the promised land, Joshua calmed their fears of the unknown by reminding them that the most important thing of all would not change. “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests who are the Levites, carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before” (Joshua 3:3). In other words, “Get ready! Everything is going to change – except God. He is still our God, and we are still his people.”

Seventh, provide closure to what is ending through celebrations, ceremonies – even with symbolic gestures. For example, the new president of one corporation was making his company less hierarchical and more empowering. So, he called a news conference and personally painted out the president’s “reserved” parking spot. He circulated a video tape of the ceremony through all departments. This sent a strong “closure” signal.

Some kinds of closing ceremonies are old hat in churches. Funerals. Weddings, too, in a way. Graduation ceremonies. Going away parties. Bond burnings.

In one church where I served, the elders “relieved from her duties” a Sunday School supervisor with 20 years’ tenure. However, they designed a Sunday evening service in her honor, highlighted reminiscences from former co-teachers and students, and presented her with a plaque. This “ending ceremony” sweetened the bitter pill for her, and, at the same time, sent a clear “closure” message to the congregation.

The Neutral Zone

Scene two: The Wilderness Wanderings (or neutral Zone). Beginnings got the people out of Egypt. The neutral zone “gets Egypt out of the people.”

Of course, that in-between “neutral zone” time is usually a bit dangerous, but several strategies enable helpful “wandering” through our neutral zones.

First, during this time of instability and fear, there will be more need than ever for ample communication. But “neutral zone” communication must be more personal than “ending communication.” People will want to bend the ears of their leaders, so leaders will need to be “out and about,” available to people. William Bridges slightly modifies the Tom Peters’ concept of MBWA (Management By Walking Around) for the neutral zone – “Moses Been Walking Around.”

The neutral zone is not the time for leaders to hide from the “nay-sayers.” Rather it is a time to sit down around the coffee cup in Bible classes, back yards, and living rooms, involving all “constituencies” in the reflective and creative process of listening, dialoguing, clarifying – and yes, sometimes even modifying.

Second, in the neutral zone put temporary structures in place. You are no longer doing things like you did them in Egypt, and you’re not yet sure how you will do them in the promised land, so transitional structure helps stabilize things.

For example, 26 months ago our congregation totally revamped its way of appointing elders. Historically at Preston Road, the elders themselves had selected whomever they felt qualified, whenever they chose, simply by announcing their appointments to the congregation. But the congregation had changed. Approximately 80% had become members within the previous four years. So the elders, feeling they no longer represented “the new church,” threw the selection process to the entire church.

The “transitional structures” for the “neutral zone” were managed by two ad hoc committees of men and women from a cross-section of the congregation. The first committee designed a plan for congregational participation in elder selection. The second committee implemented the plan. But once the new elders were in place, the temporary ad hoc committees disbanded.

Third, in the neutral zone it was important for leaders to tap into the creativity within the group. People are breaking out of old ways and doing and seeing things. New insights may flourish. Creativity often soars. All the more reason for leaders to ask, listen, and empower during this phase of transition.

Warning: attempts to move too quickly thorugh the neutral zone may build a trust and credibility deficit for leaders and run the risk of frightening people back into an even more resistant “old way,” just as the children of Israel “murmured” when Moses moved too fast for them, and begged to return to the “security” of slavery in Egypt. Leaders must be aware of where people are on the transition continuum in order to choose appropriate change strategies.

New Beginning

The last phrase is the new beginning as we “enter the Promised Land.” You are now moving into the new building. Or beginning the Sunday evening small groups. Or trading your song leader for a worship leading team, with contemporary music and without hymnals. Or you are shifting the Bible school from Sunday morning to Sunday night. Or the new preacher starts next Sunday. Life in the promised land!

What strategies are helpful now?

First, again, ample communication is needed. But people are now looking for information on what the future will look like. “Give me a detailed plan. What are the milestones? Exactly what is my new role?”

Second, build in small wins. Stop and celebrate any bit of concrete progress. This reassures supporters and helps bring along the skeptics.

Third, build in time-outs. People can only endure so much change at one time. Some leaders ignore this, to their regret. For example, one congregation launched into a laundry list of “eleven initiatives,” all equally important, all to be implemented at once. To avert disaster, wiser heads persuaded the change task force to back off and prioritize. Then after the implementation of each new “initiative” the church took a breather, celebrated the gains, and allowed people’s internal transitions to catch up.

Endings. Neutral Zones. New Beginnings.

An excellent example of healthy transition through these phases is the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas when, in 1990-91, they changed ministers. I had stood in the Highland pulpit for 19 very happy years, and I remained on staff for another year writing and doing church consulting. It was not a dismissal, nor a “forced resignation,” nor an “angry departure.” It simply seemed to Carolyn and me that God was bringing that chapter of our ministry to a healthy conclusion. Still, the transition out was very painful for me, Carolyn, and the congregation. However, the church moved through an unusually healthy year-long transition process.

The ending was formalized by three “ceremonies.” The first “ending ceremony” was the day I announced my resignation. Even now after more than three years, as I write these words, my eyes mist over and separation pain stabs my heart. I see the shocked expressions, tears, hugs, and of course, some denial – even some resistance. The second “ceremony” was a “going-away party” the church threw for us. After the morning service, we adjourned to the Family Life Center for a sort of “receiving line” of hugs, tears, and well-wishing, along with punch, cake, and festivities. By this time, people were feeling less hurt and rejected. They were beginning to understand how this change could be positive.

The third “ceremony” was the Sunday morning I preached my last sermon at Highland. By this time most of us were adjusting to the reality of the ending. The day was still painful, but the “ending” had been “formalized,” and we had all been allowed time to “grieve our losses.”

Then came the neutral zone. For a year the church chose not to hire a new preacher. Several of the elders and some deacons did the preaching. Randy Becton, Glen Owen, Paul Faulkner, Charles Siburt, Jimmy Mankin, Tom Milholland, John Willis, Bruce Davis, Carroll Osburn, and others led throughout the “wilderness” year.

During that year, the Highland Church also did a thorough self-study, asking: “Who is the Highland church? Where are we going next? What kind of person do we want in our pulpit? Focus groups abounded. Rivers of communication flowed between the congregation and her leaders.

Then, a year later, when Mike Cope became their minister, the Highland church “ceremonialized” their “new beginning.” John Allen Chalk had served that church four years prior to my 20-year tenure. So Chalk and I were invited “back home” for a special “Mike Cope Ordination Sunday.” John Allen and I spoke brief messages and “handed the gavel” to Mike. The elders gave Mike a charge, laid hands on him, and ordained him as their new preacher.

After Mike’s response, the assembly was dismissed to a banquet in the Copes’ honor. Chalk and I each reminisced some humorous and touching pivotal moments from the past, as did several of the elders; Mike painted his dream for the future; and with fervent prayer, tears of nostalgia, and tears of joyful anticipation, the Highland church launched into its “new beginning.” Externally, Highland “changed” preachers, but much more importantly, they managed an internal transition in a very healthy and positive way.

Strategies That Apply Throughout All Stages

In addition to strategies peculiar to each of the three phases, some change strategies apply all across the process.

First, prayer. Both change agents and congregation must bathe deliberations in constant prayer.

Second, provide ample theological rationale for changes all through the process.

Third, constantly communicate the strategic benefits of proposed change.

Fourth, change only those things critical to the objectives of the church. Needless changes deplete your trust account and burn credibility needed for critical issues.

Fifth, continually assess. Be sure at each step that the church has the capability to make the proposed change.

Sixth, constantly nourish an environment of trust, collaboration, cooperation, openness, and learning.

Seventh, change leaders must consistently model the changes and thus re-enforce the new way. How not to model change: I pleaded for all staff members to “change,” and be punctual at meetings so as not to waste the time of others. Guess who was late to the next staff meeting?

In summary: Change is urgently needed in many churches; however, theological transition must precede tinkering with church systems. Change attempts will likely backfire without skilled management of change, and external change is only the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline lurks the much weightier issue of internal transition. Effective transition is more likely if change leaders view churches as organic systems, like families, not collections of independent components.

Successful transition must negotiate three stages: endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings. Appropriate strategies during each of these phases vastly improve the likelihood of positive results.

But, attention please: one even more fundamental and indispensable ingredient must be in place – understanding the force and complexity of perceptions.

How People Resist Change

Effective church leadership must learn how to help congregations progress through these stages. No stage can be skipped or ignored. But not everyone passes through all stages at the same speed. If, for example, four people are all hit with a change at the same time, weeks later one may still be in the “ending,” another in the “neutral zone,” and one might have already reached the “new beginning.” Why the differences?

  • Each person’s own personal tolerance for change. We are all wired differently.
  • Each person’s perception of the value of the change.
  • Each person’s perception of the value of the change.
  • Each person’s perception of the way a change is being managed.

Change agents who ignore these personal differences court disaster. Unfortunately, sometimes church leaders even take the attitude that these resisters are “not very spiritual” or are even downright “mean,” which is not necessarily so. “These people” may simply be at a different transitional stage than are the leaders. A process of internal transition may have taken the change agent years, yet he or she may expect a church to switch in only a few weeks.

Remember: Each of these phases is normal, inevitable, and not to be by-passed.

There are some things that church leaders or change agents definitely cannot do. For example:

  • They cannot change a person’s tolerance for change, which is inherent to each person’s unique make-up.
  • They cannot force people to change. The “what we really need here is a bigger hammer” syndrom will lock up a system or “break” it. Remember, the harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
  • They cannot form people’s perceptions for them. The totality of past experience and current situation shapes perceptions. This makes perception personal, unique, and change-resistant.

Thus, the next issue and final installment in this “change” series will address “Changing Perceptions.”


1 P. Maris, Loss and Change (New York: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1975).Wineskins Magazine

Carey Garrett and her husband, Al, are members of the Preston Road Church of Christ in Dallas. She has led a team of change managers for a Fortune 500 corporation, and now markets services in change management to several such corporations.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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