Time for Change


Throughout my professional career, I have consistently found myself in situations where I have needed to help individuals and groups embrace and execute change.  Whether I was training clients in the fitness industry, working as a member of a distance learning department going through some significant renovations, leading cultural change in organizations, or offering counsel as a consultant, dealing with change has been a prominent part of my professional life.  While I certainly recognize that everyone deals with change, not everyone has had the opportunity to view change from multiple angles and positions within an organization.  My hope is that I can offer some hard-earned wisdom about how to facilitate change within an organizational context, particularly as I think about what it might look like to facilitate change in the church.

It can be tempting to think that the first step in inspiring change is vision.  A visionary leader may well think she or he knows where their church needs to go.  They may even think that the way they see the world is apparent to everyone else.  But, as Jeff Hunter notes on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish, “We walk around and we have these sort of unchallenged beliefs about ourselves (a) that we are perceiving reality accurately, (b) that our perception is not only accurate but valid…(c) that if it’s obvious to us it must be obvious to others.  And all it takes is a moment of reflection to realize none of that’s true.”  Vision is an important part of the change process, but it is often best for vision to emerge as leaders “challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions—problems that require us to learn new ways” (Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994], 2).

In order to challenge those within any organization (even the church) to face difficult problems, it is often helpful to work through a more collaborative diagnostic process in order to produce a collective understanding of the where “we” are (the current state) and where “we” want to be (the desired state).  Coming to an agreement on the current state of a given church or organization means not only identifying problems and what may need to change in order to resolve them, but also gaining clarity on what makes your particular church distinct.  As you gain greater clarity about the distinctive strengths of your church, conversations about change can often become questions about how to build off those strengths.  How do we accentuate what makes us uniquely capable of contributing to the mission of God?  What is standing in our way as we attempt to accomplish the work God has gifted us to do?  Until there is a shared understanding about how “we” have been gifted and positioned to make a distinct contribution for Christ, driving change becomes less-than disciplined because the corporate identity cannot provide any sort of anchor.

So, if diagnosis is the first step, what might the diagnostic process look like?  How might one go about organizing a diagnostic process?

First, you will want to start with a smaller group of participants.  Identify those within your church who will help you drive toward organizational change.  Pulling those individuals together and asking them to assist you in getting an initial understanding of how others are perceiving the current state will allow you to work begin adjusting your perspective, raise new questions, and build an initial consensus.  After you’ve worked through the process with a smaller group, you can begin to expand the process to others within your congregation.

I have often found it helpful to choose some paradigm(s) to guide my questioning.  Lencioni’s four obsessions from Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, Logan’s five levels of culture in Tribal Leadership, Toma’s eight elements of organizational capacity in Building Organizational Capacity in Higher Education, Lewin’s notion of driving and restraining forces, Porter’s five forces framework for assessing competition, or the Blue Ocean strategy canvas have all proven to be quite helpful in learning to ask a more comprehensive set of questions during the diagnostic process with organizations.  At times, I have also found it beneficial to describe the paradigms to those who are thinking about the current state of their organization; however, you will want to ensure that your conversation does not turn into a lecture.  Explaining a model should be used to prompt further conversation and reflection on the current state of the organization.

Second, avoid making recommendations too early.  I’ve found it helpful to begin by making observations.  Observations give you the opportunity to (a) make sure that you have heard accurately what others have said and (b) to gain agreement on the current state of your church.  After I’ve had a conversation about the current state of a given organization, I generally walk through my observations with those who offered their insights and ask two questions: (1) are my observations accurate and (2) are my observations sufficiently complete.  The first question goes to how well I’ve listened to what was said and whether I have represented the perspective of those who shared their insights well.  The second question is really an admission of my own limitations.  I can’t see everything, nor would I assume that every matter of importance was covered in my conversations.  While no list of observations will be exhaustive, the list should be sufficiently complete in the sense that there is no area of importance that has not been adequately discussed.

Third, “paint a picture” of the desired state.  Based on the various perspectives that have been shared, you will likely have a good sense of where the organization wants to go long term.  Nailing down a clear, agreed upon desired state is extremely important.  It puts everyone on the same page and creates a standard by which organizational initiatives and behavior can be gaged.  If, for instance, you say you wanted to lose weight but continue to have dessert after dinner every night, there is good reason to think that you are acting against your own interests.  Organizations and churches have a way of doing something similar by allowing scope or mission creep, neglecting accountability, or allowing misalignments between resource allocation and strategic goals.

Finally, make some recommendations.  The more I work with organizations the more I find that there are few who really have a strong grasp of who they are, where they want to go, and how they are going to get there.  These three elements are interconnected.  As you ask questions and make observations you may well find that the path to a desired state needs to be more circuitous and less direct. That’s ok.  Each organization is different.  Tailor your recommendations based on what you see in the organization.  Even if you’d like to see things move forward faster, keep in mind that you want to produce sustainable change within the church rather than fast change that might cause more tension than necessary.

The process described above isn’t fast…it’s deliberate.  It may feel slow.  Remember that the process you use to begin changing your church will, to some extent, set the tone for the changes you want to see.  Be patient, take what your congregation can or will give you, and stay the course.  Most importantly, set yourself up for success by working with those in your church rather than trying to work against them.  After all, they aren’t the opposition. They are the people God has given you to guide and shepherd. Don’t allow a desire to change, even a desire to change for the better, keep those in your congregation from growing closer to Christ.


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