Preparing for the future:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:19-21

Facing organizational change is the most common challenge encountered by churches and religious organizations today. Churches are forced to deal with changing attitudes in theological interpretation, diversification, global ministries, technology, social responsibility, membership needs, liability exposure, and tradition. From its inception the church membership has continually experienced difficulty matching its calling with the attitudes and personal agendas of the congregation. There has been a noticeable tension between the way things are (what it does) and the way things ought to be (Gods purpose for the church). The way things ought to be is determined by God’s divine calling, and not the culture of the congregation that dwells on past traditions thus failing to be transformed by new challenges of ministry.

The metaphor of herding cats, representing implementing church organizational change, depicts a cowboy sitting on his horse with a cat straddled across the saddle as he attempts to herd hundreds of unorganized felines toward a common goal or location. The goal is to move them in the same direction but he soon discovers it is a formidable if not impossible task as each cat maneuvers in a different direction. The modern church congregation is no different as each member has a different opinion regarding the purpose, spiritual calling, and attitude toward ministry and religion. Religion is seen as the root word of the term- religio, to “rebind.” Thus churches are necessary to serve (or bind) those who need help in personal restoration, fellowship, and spiritual direction. But for the most part, “churches do not seem to be serving the membership very well.” Martin Luther King made this interesting statement, “The modern day church is often a weak and ineffectual church and is often an arch supporter of the status-quo.”

This article is written for the leader who wants to break out of the status-quo, understand the necessity for transformation, and take the steps necessary for making change happen in their congregation.

Recognizing the Need for Change

Many church members today support keeping their congregation just the way it is, with no-one coming in, no-one leaving, with absolutely no change. One strategy to overcome in the church, their preference for status-quo, is to argue that the current situation is worse than people think. Members are more likely to favor change when the organization faces a crisis: “If change does not occur, the organization is going to fail.”

The primary task facing the status-quo church is the rediscovery of its true self or purpose. The church should ask “Who are we as a church?”, “Why are we here?”, and “What is our purpose?” The theological question “who, why, what” regarding the church’s very existence must be resolved before the “how do we fix it” question of implementing change can be addressed. The church is in a crisis of identity, and nothing less than a divine Holy Spirit driven transformational intervention that recaptures the “who, why, what” of its existence will end the crisis.

Congregations, in order to thrive according to God’s will and purpose, must want to develop and change by transformative learning. A transformational congregation is a one that is continually expanding its capacity to prepare for the future, to re-create itself, to take a fresh perspective of their ministry, and recognize its purpose according to its calling from God. Hanging on to tradition can be detrimental to the health of the church. Statements like, “We’ve never done it that way before.”, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”, and “That’s the way we’ve done it for years, and we don’t want to change!”, becomes a plan for disaster.

Learning from the past requires a critical examination of events and traditions, and the causes and consequences of those events. A healthy congregation is one that recognizes there will be challenges, and not an absence of trouble. The saying, “Old habits die hard”, is accurate and, regardless of the source of change, responses to change typically have four distinct stages: resistance, confusion, testing, and recommitment:

Resistance: All change, even when viewed as positive, involves some resistance. The movement from what is known and familiar to something unknown requires adjustment. Imposed changes to our habits and routines often lead to a sense of loss, anger, and insecurity. Resistance may be expressed in sadness, complaining, resentment or stubbornness.

Confusion: Initial resistance often moves into a stage of confusion. The credibility of decision makers is questioned and there is a fear that hasty and unnecessary changes are taking place. Since what is familiar is gone, whatever takes its place feels uncomfortable or confusing. This is the period where frustrations are expressed through repeated questioning, lack of cooperation and poor listening.

Testing: Eventually, as the changes are tested, they become more comfortable and familiar. There is less focus on the past and more attention is given to what is ahead. Anxiety is reduced, and there is new energy in planning and problem solving. The cats are starting to adapt to their new situation and circumstances.

Recommitment: In the final step of the process there is a willingness to actively pursue the goals of the change and implement whatever is needed. There is a sense of personal satisfaction that the process is complete and the change is in place. The members are starting to settle in and accept the changes and we can hear them express their contentment.

Successful change occurs when leaders accept responsibility for leading their organization through a process of transition. Purposeful transition considers how change is dealt with and makes all the difference in whether change strengthens or weakens the church organization. The church leader, as change agent, cannot help the congregation transition unless the membership wants to be helped.

Implementing Organizational Change

Kurt Lewin proposed a three stage theory of change commonly referred to as Unfreeze, Change, Refreeze. His research focuses on factors that influence people to change, and the three stages needed to make correction successful. His theory would enable a church to implement visionary change within its congregation.

Unfreezing is probably the most important of the three stages and focuses on getting ready for change. It involves the organization understanding the need for correction and alteration. It means getting ready to move away from current comfort zone conditions and preparing ourselves, or others, before the transforming event. The more the organization feels that correction is necessary, and the more urgent it is, the more motivated the church members will be to make modifications. For the church it is, “Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead.” (Phil 3:13b)

Stage two is the implementation (process) of Change, or transition, as transformation is not an event, but rather a process. Transition is the inner movement, or journey, we make in reaction to a change. This process occurs while making the corrections that are needed to attain organizational goals. This stage of implementing organizational conversion is often the hardest as people are unsure or even fearful of the unknown. During this stage people are learning about the proposed changes and need to be given time to understand the benefits to the church’s ministry and how it will help people. Support is important in this stage and can be in the form of training or coaching while anticipating some mistakes along the way. The use of role models and allowing people to be involved in the modification of solutions will motivate the change process. Enhanced communication provides the congregation a mental picture of the desired transition and the benefits to the people will maintain the focus necessary for a successful transition.

Refreeze is the stage that establishes stability once the changes have been made. Here the proposed alterations are accepted and become the new norm. It is often at this point where people recognize that the next change could happen at any moment. Change may happen within days, weeks, or months, but one thing can be certain, change will happen. Modern thought, status-quo, and the lack of interest among many church members, reveals that the freezing process does not fit their personality or attitude toward ministry. The ability to adapt and make changes is a continuous, chaotic process and flexibility is necessary. For some church members change is unacceptable and churches have been known to split apart because of their desire to keep the status-quo.

Every change agent attempting to bring meaningful correction and transition to a congregation encounters resistance. Such ‘resistance to change’ is common to religious institutions. Although universal in scope, resistance to change finds it base in the internal dynamics of each congregation and is unique based on the membership and their attitude toward ministry.

Today’s congregation’s, are called to be learning institutions, and they will be measured by their adaptability to the necessary changes required to meet the demands of their calling. The faithful church will build its foundation on solid rock (Luke 6:46-49) and will not become self-serving but servant-minded to their community. Congregations must be willing to trust God’s grace and forgiveness to become congregations that allow people to make mistakes, to learn from them, and renew themselves as a learning organization. They must plan for the future.

The successful congregation must adhere and follow Matthew 6:19-21 where they are told not to be concerned about things moths will eat, rust will corrode, and thieves will steal. Where a congregation’s treasures are, their heart will be there also.



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