Wineskins Archive

January 23, 2014

Getting Change Into Your System – Part 1 (Sept-Oct 1993)

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by Lynn Anderson and Carey Garrett
September – October, 1993

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote these lines:

The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft a’gley.
An’ lea’e us naught but grief and pain.
For promised joy.

Now, if you don’t believe Burns, ask Uzzah! Or Edsel Ford, or Saddam Hussein. Or, the last guy who decided he was going to make all those fancy changes in his church!


Change is not an option in today’s church. It is a given. Change Happens! But change how? “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” creating backlash in far too many churches.

In 1992, Jeff Nelson and I led a conference called “A Church That Connects.” We were stunned by the level of brotherhood interest. We expected fewer than 150 participants, but more than 600 people showed up from over 200 congregations and 19 states. We explored key changes needed in today’s urban congregations. People got fired up, charged out of the seminar, and hit their home congregations broadside with the most out-on-the-edge new things they heard at the conference. Consequently we have been getting phone calls all year. Some good people had inadvertently contributed more to problems than to solutions. In fact, one or two ministers may be seeking new employment by now. Many good intentions backfired because of naivete about the complexity of managing change.


Knowing what to change and why is only part of the equation. How to change is a key factor! In these days of transition, the most important tools for church leaders may be skills in the art of change management. As Lyle Schaller puts it,

After more than three decades spent working with thousands of congregational, denominational, seminary, and para-church leaders from more than five dozen traditions, this observer places a one-sentence issue at the top of that list: The need to initiate and implement planned change from within an organization…. Reversing a period of numerical decline requires changes. Numerical growth also produces change. That means the key to the effective implementation of a church growth strategy is skill as an agent of planned change…. It may mean a change in the criteria for recruiting and training a new generation of leaders.2

Thank you, Lyle. My corner of the room erupts with a rousing “Amen!” Unfortunately, in most congregations you can find a few people with enough clout to cause serious disruption, but not enough discipline and maturity to become informed on the skills of effective change management.

Overzealous and under-informed change agents meet with backlash for several reasons. First, some try to change the wrong things. Some try to copycat “effective” churches like Saddleback Valley Community Church in Los Angeles or the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago which are growing at phenomenal rates. We can (in fact, we ought to) learn a great deal from effective community churches, but copy-catting is dangerous. While basic growth principles may be transferable to any community, the specific methods and strategies used to apply these principles in one setting will seldom transfer to another. For example, a principle is: Outreach events must be expressed in the musical heart-language of your culture. In making application of that principle, consider that in Chicago or Los Angeles, contemporary “pop” musical idiom may connect. But is that the right musical idiom for Fort Worth, Texas? Or Lepanto, Arkansas? Or Nashville? Or Watts? Effective churches extensively research their communities. They know exactly who their target group is and have tailored their strategies to their target people, not for the folks in your community. It may be helpful to apply principles from “effective” churches but not to copy their strategies.

Second, inexperienced change agents often attempt changes for the wrong reasons. “I like this better,” or sometimes even, “Let’s show those other folks who is in charge.” Quite often, the “changer” would “shift things around to his own liking,” rather than considering the likings of the people that church should be trying to serve.

Third, sometimes change is implemented with the wrong style, heavy handedly. Or manipulatively. Or, by “executive decision,” otherwise known as the “spray and pray” style – all ineffective.

Fourth, a most common “wrong style” is to change things at the wrong pace.. “If next year would help, immediately will cure everything.” Sometimes the urgency of the “convinced” ignores the feelings of the “unconvinced.” This is both unloving and counterproductive. Small wonder that Lyle Schaller would say that change management skill is the key leadership quality for today’s church leaders.

Our agreement with Schaller’s assessment made our 1993 “Church That Connects Seminar” distinctly different from the one in 1992. Rather than headlining our 1992 theme of the need for change, in 1993 we majored on theory and skills for the art of change agency -–how to change, not just why and what to change! This article and the following installments summarize the gist of the 1993 seminar.

A disclaimer and warning: The major motivations for change, and the specific items needing renovation must be approached theologically, not merely sociologically, culturally, or therapeutically. In fact, these human change management skills alone will do only harm if not preceded by a solid theological rationale and undergirded by biblical theological foundations. Good theology can free people from fear of change. For example, what happens if our security rests in the church rather than in the Christ? We may assume our goal is to reproduce a carbon copy of a first-century church blueprint. For some, their very salvation rests on the accuracy and completeness with which they duplicate that blueprint. Add the fact that some feel the “blueprint” has already been “restored,” so they see no reason for change. In fact, they fear that change puts their salvation at risk.

Tragically, these actually are assumptions in some quarters. This is one reason theology must precede strategy. How different our feelings about change will be if we see Jesus (not the first-century church) as the blueprint for all people in all times, and that the church is a community of believers seeking to restore men and women into the image of Christ, driven by gratitude to our gracious God. Then we will not fear change, but eagerly pursue any change that enables us to more effectively give him glory and restore people to him.

Clinging to a past church model or method, however wonderful it may have been in its heyday, is not a sign of “faithfulness.” Rather, faithfulness to Jesus’ mission requires us to explore every possible model and create new methods to restore people to God.

These pages, however, are not about theology, but about effective strategy in upreach and outreach. To explore foundational theological assumptions behind these methods, you might read The Second Incarnation by Shelly and Harris, The Church in Transition by Jim Woodroof, and The Cruciform Church by Leonard Allen.

Now, to broad principles in the art of change management, I interweave my experience with current change literature.

William Bridges, who wrote Managing Transitions, says that “the real problem is not in bringing about change, but to keep too much change from happening too fast.”3 The chill winds of change are blowing across the culture and the church with irresistible velocity. Either we change or we fail, but change must not be merely for change’s sake. Following are some legitimate reasons to change things in a church:

⎯ To encourage authentic and free worship in the heart-language of today’s people.

⎯ To connect with the unchurched world for outreach and effective assimilation of new Christians into the body.

⎯ To intentionally nurture spiritual life development in the people God sends our way.

⎯ To do everything with the excellence that honors and glorifies God.

⎯ To be faithful to God. God never changes, but he has designed his church so that it can continually reshape to connect with all cultures of an ever-changing world. Even in New Testament days, the churches “show a different look” from one city to the next as the gospel crossed cultural barriers.

A good deal of what we know about the art of change management grows out of current marriage and family therapy: The Systems Approach. The Systems school holds that a family is not a collection of individuals, but an intertwined organism. An individual will likely not change significantly without disturbing the ecology of that family. Conversely, frequently a psychotic person treated solo will show remarkable recovery, until he goes back home. Then, in a few weeks the therapy comes unraveled because the individual returns to a troubled family system.

Dr Royce Money says “a church is more like a family than anything else.” So, when we talk about changing a church, we are not dealing with a mere collection of independent units, but an organism, an extended family system. Only a church is infinitely more complex than a nuclear family unit.

Rabbi Edwin Friedmann was among the first to apply systems theory to church and synagogue life in his must-read book Generation to Generation (1986). Many since Friedmann have applied systems theory to all types of organizations. Among these is Peter Senge who wrote The Fifth Discipline, in which he calls the flexible, healthy organizational system a “learning organization”; not in the sense that it gathers information, but in that it is constantly adapting its structure, management style, strategy, and so on. I believe Jesus designed the church this way, so that it can flex to connect with any cultural setting.

Senge thumbnails the complexity of changing a “system” in his “laws of organizational change”:4

⎯ Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions. Example: Twenty new babies a year called for expanded nursery space at our church. Yesterday’s solution: The nursery took over adult classroom 201. Today’s problem: Adult class #2 (mostly made up of parents of nursery children) was left without a room. Yesterday’s solution – the nursery – became today’s problem for the adult class.

⎯ The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back. For those who have tried to push a change in your congregation, no elaboration on this point is needed.

⎯ Behavior grows better before it grows worse. People may appear to go along with a change at first, but just wait!

⎯ The easy way out usually leads back in. Watch for the “gotcha!”

⎯ The cure can be worse than the disease. Research indicates that some 50% of changes introduced in businesses are toxic to the organization’s future. I’d guess that goes for churches, too.

⎯ Faster is slower. An attempt to move a church from a 1 to a 10 in a single fell swoop may backlash you to a hardened minus 7!

⎯Cause and effect are not usually closely related to each other in time and space. Physically this happened to Dizzy Dean when his compensation for a broken toe shifted his form just enough to torque his arm and eventually destroy his professional baseball career. In a church it may go like this: Add needed staff now, by borrowing money, which may be fine for two years. Then the resulting growth calls for building expansion. But the money won’t go around, and you already owe the bank.

⎯You can have your cake and eat it too, but not all at once. We may be able to have both innovative, contemporary worship styles, and the financial support of traditional thinking members, but not usually all at once. However, given time and wise change strategies, we may have both.

Now, here’s my favorite…

⎯ Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants. A doctor doesn’t keep your sore arm at his office for treatment, and tell you to pick it up next week after he works on it a while. No, it is part of a system. Nor can we fix a church by pulling a piece aside and tinkering with it as if it were an autonomous unit. No, a church is a system.

To change a church is to change a system and Senge’s “laws” apply. But guidance from skilled change agents is available and can save worlds of grief. Companies like EDS and American Express are hiring and training leaders to be change agents. Carey Garrett, a sister in our congregation and co-author of this article, helps companies undergoing radical transformation. Think about this: If fast-moving, successful corporate giants have difficulty in managing change, how much more important are change management skills in old, slow-paced, traditional organizations, like churches. But even though the task is challenging, there are things change agents can do as change strategies.


William Bridges helpfully distinguishes between change and transition: Change is what happens “out there.” Change is moving into a new house or to a new church building. Change is dropping Sunday night services at the church building in favor of small groups in homes. It is introducing four worship leaders, singing parts, in place of the traditional single leader. Or switching from the traditional hymns in the book to new songs projected on the screen. External changes.

Transition, on the other hand, for Bridges, is the internal process triggered by the external change; the psychological re-orientation to the new arrangement.

Most of us have experienced this difference. Wham! The company moves us. Or the elders change the hour of worship. Or the preacher resigns. And we have no time to adjust psychologically, even though things have changed. “Problems over change” in a church are not usually over change! The problems are over lack of transition, when leaders keep introducing one change on the heels of another without allowing people to make internal transitions.

William Bridges observes that healthy transitions need endings, neutral zones, and new beginnings.


Model by William Bridges5

New Beginning

Neutral Zone




Bridges likens internal transition to the biblical Exodus story. Phase One is “Leaving Egypt,” ending the familiar way of life. He insists that people need “endings” to the “way it was,” to old routines, roles and relationships – or comfortable traditions. He further insists that “You cannot steal second without leaving first base.”

The second phase of transition is the “Wilderness Wanderings,” or the neutral zone. This in-between time is chaotic, with a potent mixture of possibility and threat. But the wilderness can also be a time of reflection, assessment, and mid-course correction. It is absolutely imperative that the neutral zone be managed well, or people may retreat to the old way. And once people retrench, mounting a second change effort will be infinitely more difficult than launching the first.

Bridges’ third phase of transition is the “Promised Land,” or the new beginning. New terrain. New identity. New roles. No longer slaves or wanderers, but land-holders.

The healthy new beginning can also be an exciting time for fresh commitments. Thus during new beginnings, a church may experience a burst of energy. A side caveat: Change management is much more nearly an art than it is a science. Bridges’ model is only a “way of seeing,” a paradigm. It is not intended to be scientifically precise, much less etched in stone. However, as one ponders the parallels between the exodus and organizational change, practical implications keep popping out. Some of those implications will be discussed in the next installment.

1 Robert Burns, “To a Mouse,” Burns’ Poems and Songs London: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 69.

2 Lyle Schaller, Strategies for Change (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 10-11.

3 William Bridges, “Handling Transition Successfully,” Cassette tape, 1993 Church in the 21st Century Conference, Orlando. Call Convention Cassettes, 1-800-776-5454.

4 Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990), pp. 57-66.

5 William Bridges, Managing Transitions (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1980), p. 70.Wineskins Magazine

Lynn AndersonFor the twenty-five years Lynn has served as an adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University, teaching missions, ministry, and leadership courses. And through those years he has been called on increasingly by scores of minister and numerous churches—as they sought encouragement, resources, and counsel in the midst of the challenges of church leadership. Lynn Anderson is an author, well-known speaker, and founder of the San Antonio-based Hope Network Ministries, a ministry dedicated to coaching, mentoring and equipping church leaders. [Lynn]

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 Five Hundred corporation, and now markets services in change management to several such corporations.

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