After three posts on the topic of change (here, here, and here), it’s time to wrap it up. In recent months, I’ve been facing change constantly, leaving an established church I love to launch a new church. I’ve had to force myself out of ruts, do things in new ways, and trust God more and more. Even before this transition, however, change has been on my mind as for the last few years I was part of a leadership team casting a new vision for the church I previously served. At times we were more successful than others, but we learned a lot along the way.
Here then are five keys for anyone and any church trying to lead people through big changes.
Choose. Admit. Explain. Point. and Find. (Sorry they don’t spell anything.)
Ready? Here we go.
1. Choose your change.
Essentially, pick your battles. Most aren’t worth fighting. I know you know this in theory, but really think about it relative to what you’re championing. Leadership is like poker. Your credibility with the people you’re trying to influence determines your stack of chips. Every time you nudge, poke, or prod them, you’re handing over some of those chips. Sure you’d like it if your church would buy new carpet, but you’re also trying to birth this new outreach ministry. You probably only have enough chips for one or the other in a given season. Choose.
Translation: have the maturity to deal with the things that aren’t how you’d like them to be but aren’t worth going to battle over.
2. Admit the loss.
As the one pushing for change, you can see clearly the benefits ahead. Those listening cannot. What they can see, however, is what it’s going to cost them, and not just financially. Change costs people comfort, stability, essentially the status quo. You may not like to admit this, but most groups will pick a less-than-stellar status quo over an uncertain future every time.
Even more, change is often seen as an assault on the past: “If it was good enough back then, why isn’t it good enough for you now?” Again, loss is the hard part of change. No one wants to leave behind things of value, even if their value is more of a memory than a current asset.
There is no change so small that its not a loss for someone. You may look at that old carpet and only see old carpet, but I promise you there’s someone who can remember the person who donated/installed/selected that carpet, and if you get rid of it (which is a perfectly reasonable decision), you’re severing a connection between that member and that memory.
Translation: People resist loss because it hurts. Admit it upfront, “I know that this is a hard choice because…” If possible identify that you too feel a sense of loss. Present yourself not as an unsympathetic outsider, but as a fellow “loser” who believes in this change even with the cost.
3. Explain the new.
Don’t be vague, brief, or selective in sharing your plans. As Chip and Dan Heath point out in the book Switch, what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. Assume the best about the people you’re trying to influence, and give them enough clarity about the change to make an honest evaluation.
If you want someone to behave in a new way, make sure you explain the “new way” clearly. Don’t assume that those new moves are obvious. They aren’t. I’m wondering if this is the number one mistake we’ve made with new Christians. Apart from telling them to pray and read the Bible, how often do we really spell out what new life in Christ looks like? Specifically, what’s different?
Translation: The more clear you are about the changes you’re proposing, the more resistance you’ll dissolve. Don’t assume that people will just get it.
4. Point to successes as soon as possible.
If you’re pushing for big change–culture or life change–it doesn’t happen overnight. At first, there will be a burst of enthusiasm, but soon–it’s amazing how soon–the energy disappears. It becomes critically important, that you point to successes, even if they’re just baby steps, as soon as possible. Even if you have to create artificial markers of progress, make them, share them, celebrate them, shout them from the rooftops.
Say you begin that new outreach program after all (the carpet can wait, you decide). How will you know when it’s working? What would be the very first sign? Surely it’s not when lots of new families are flooding into services. What happens before that? Is there an early conversation you can highlight, an enthusiastic member you can exemplify, a specific anecdote that illustrates progress?
Translation: Define success, and make progress toward it concrete as soon and as often as possible.
5. Find some friends.
For really big change to succeed, you can’t be the lone ranger. If all it takes to defeat a change that someone doesn’t like is for them to vilify or marginalize you, they will. That may sound horribly cynical. I don’t mean it that way. I place a lot of trust in people, but you’ve got to be honest that people–even those close to you, even you yourself–make their worst decisions when they’re scared, and, again, loss is terrifying.
Back to the poker analogy: Find some other folks who’ve got big stacks of credibility and ask them to donate some of their chips. Can you break the change down into pieces and have someone different champion each one?
Translation: The more friends, the more stacks, and the better your odds.
If God has called you to lead a church, company, or organization, there’s no getting around it: you’re going to have to navigate others through big changes. Even if you’re just looking to help a friend to quit smoking, that’s a big change. These five keys are huge.
Choose. Admit. Explain. Point. and Find.
May God bless you as you lead in Jesus’ name.