Leadership in Times of Change (Apr 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Michael C. Armour
April, 1993

Whenever I meet with church leaders of late, they want to talk about change. Over and over I hear them say, “We’ve got to do things differently.” But everyone has a horror story about some congregational blow-up in the wake of change. As a result many would-be innovators, knocked down and scarred repeatedly, are ready to quit. Others, not yet wounded, are uncertain where to start. Their leadership training never addressed the management of sustained, long-term change.

In fact, most of us are amateurs in the field of change management. We are prone to rookie mistakes. Quite often it has been our clumsy implementation of change, not change per se, which has triggered opposition and disruption. But it need not be that way. There are certain principles which, if followed closely, secure the prospect of broad-based transition which is both successful and harmonious.

To begin with, leadership must see its first priority as credibility, not change. Credibility is no automatic endowment when one becomes a leader. It must be earned and subsequently maintained. Without it, leaders will be thwarted in efforts at substantive change.

Ministers need to learn that resumes do not bestow credibility, either. It is tempting to believe that our effectiveness in the past means that people will yield to our judgment and experience. Unfortunately, they will not. Resumes only open doors so that we have an opportunity to prove ourselves afresh. In our first few months (or even years) with a new congregation, there is a weekly dialogue among the members. “He is obviously talented,” people say to themselves, “but is he credible?” Unless we are patient enough to resolve that issue in our favor, we will be powerless to influence large-scale change.

In building leadership credibility, two priorities are particularly urgent. First, we must evidence respect for the heritage of the church; and second, we must leave no doubt that God’s word is our conceptual fount. For many people their spiritual heritage is integral to their self-identity. To belittle that heritage is to attack them personally. This does not mean they are foreclosed to criticism of the past. But they rile at criticism which is sarcastic or condescending. The critic who demeans their heritage makes himself an outsider, not “one of us,” and outsiders lack credibility.

Similarly, in a fellowship where biblical authority is a central tenet, leaders impale their credibility if they appear to esteem God’s word lightly. Opponents love to discredit leadership with the charge of disregarding Scripture. That is why I have a strong preference for expository teaching and preaching. Consistent, quality exposition makes it clear that God’s word is setting our agenda. If I take a position which is controversial, but clearly drawn from the text, then those who disagree must argue with the Lord, not with me.

My experience is that our fellowship allows broad latitude to those who demonstrate unwavering respect for our heritage and who show that their starting point is Scripture. People may not concur with something I say. But I can maintain credibility in their eyes if they see that I am drawing my conviction from an honest handling of what God has said. On the other hand, if people get the notion that leadership draws its agenda from sociology, psychology, or some current fad, credibility goes out the window.

If credibility is the first priority in change management, the second is sympathetic understanding of why people oppose change. Too often we analyze resistance superficially, chalking it up to uninformed members. The solution, we think, is a series of lessons on the importance of change. When opposition continues, even after our enlightened instruction, we start muttering about head-in-the-sand traditionalists. It never dawns on us that we may have simply misdiagnosed the resistance in the first place.

People oppose change for a variety of reasons, most having little to do with theology or misinformation. I know many older adults who are well-read and progressive, but who find talk of change in the church upsetting. Not that they are strangers to change. Their generation has seen more of it than any in history. My father, who would be in his eighties if still alive, moved to Texas in a covered wagon, yet lived to see men walk on the moon. What staggering developments in a single lifetime!

Through all that change much of it terrible unsettling, today’s older generation always counted on the church as a safe, stable refuge. It was their one island of predictable tranquility when everything else seemed adrift. Now, in their old age, talk of change threatens to rob them of that comfort. Should we be surprised that they become uneasy?

What these people need is not information, but assurance. They are not opposed to change as such. They simply want to know that what they have cherished over the years will not be taken from them. Once assured on that count, they can accept change – even sweeping change – in other areas of congregational life.

Which brings me to a third principle of effective change management, namely, protecting appropriate zones of stability. In every congregation there are things which, left untouched, give leadership latitude for change elsewhere. Wherever possible, leaders should “draw a circle” around those areas and isolate them from needless change. I call that a zone of stability. The more zones of stability which we maintain during times of transition, the greater the likelihood of successful change.

Let me illustrate this principle by offering an example. In our congregation certain adult Bible classes (but not all) qualify as zones of stability. Members of those classes have been together for 30 or 40 years. The class itself is what binds many of those members to the congregation. So long as their class stays intact, they have only passing concern with change elsewhere. Such classes become a zone of stability, which we are pledged not to violate.

To be sure, circumstances do not always permit us to honor that pledge. But we infringe on it only as a last resort. The same is true of other zones of stability. By carefully shielding them from change, we have broadened support for important initiatives in our overall effort at renewal.

Permit me another example. When we started LIFE groups, our elders wanted everyone in the congregation to take part. But we quickly learned that many older Christians were somewhat limited in their interest. Their 39ers organization (another zone of stability) already provided most benefits of a LIFE group. They saw no need for something else.

Had we pressured these members in LIFE groups, we would have sparked sure resistance. Instead, we simply treated the 39ers as one of our LIFE groups. We even exempted them from the curriculum that all other LIFE groups follow. The only change we asked of them was to report their attendance so we could include it in LIFE group totals.

Now when we talk publicly about LIFE groups, everyone feels included. No one fears a “put down” for having chosen 39ers over LIFE groups. Moreover, because good will prevails toward the entire enterprise, LIFE groups have great freedom to innovate. That freedom might have been abridged had we created a disgruntled remnant which was looking for something to criticize.

It is not enough, however, merely to protect zones of stability. We must also celebrate them and affirm their values. To speak condescendingly about them, or worse, to treat them like a necessary evil, is a horrific mistake. To the contrary, we must see them as constructive components in our strategy for change.

Shortly after our LIFE groups began, we discovered that Sunday night was the best time for many to meet. That meant conflict with our Sunday evening service. Because hundreds of members found the evening worship meaningful, we had made it a zone of stability. Now the choice was to infringe on that service or to impair the fledgling LIFE groups. When Sunday night LIFE groups were approved, we knew some would interpret the move as a first step in abandoning evening worship. That perception, in turn, threatened to alienate their support for the LIFE group concept altogether.

To offset the danger, we did two things to confirm appreciation for those who prefer the evening assembly, First, I personally and publicly committed to lead the Sunday night worship whenever LIFE groups were meeting. Because I had been highly vocal in promoting LIFE groups, my pledge was a substantive indicator that we would not downplay the evening worship.

Second, I poured extra effort into planning those services. I tried to build challenging, thought-provoking lessons into the hour. I wanted every participant to sense that I had made that assembly a priority in my preparation. Had we allowed the service to deteriorate into a poorly-thought-out devotional or a training period for would-be speakers, we would have sent a signal that LIFE groups (where quality is carefully sustained) were more important than the Sunday evening assembly.

The strategy, then is to counterbalance opposition to change by stroking zones of stability. Keep before people a constant reminder that not everything is in flux. What they love and treasure most is still valued and will remain unaltered. As a general rule, the greater the change underway, the more fervently we should affirm the zones of stability.

If this begins to sound to you more like an art than a science, you are correct. There are no sure-fire formulas for success. Leaders who guide long-term change effectively seem to develop a sixth sense, an intuitive feel, if you would, as to how things should be approached. That is why constant, fervent prayer for guidance is an absolute necessity. We must continually beseech God’s Spirit to form the proper instincts within us. Beyond that, we urgently need God’s alliance when it comes to obstacles which humans alone cannot transcend. However much we improve as managers of change, our power to overcome will always remain finite. To neglect his partnership is thus the greatest rookie mistake of all.Wineskins Magazine

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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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