One of the most difficult tasks for any leader is making change that lasts. Behavioral economics tells us about “status quo bias”: a cognitive or emotional preference that conditions people to favor the current or previous state of affairs. Leaders mistakenly assume that resistance to new ideas is rational. In fact, some of the resistance is due to the enormous creative and emotional effort it takes to change individual and group behavior.
In his book “The Heart of Change,” John Kotter describes the critical elements involved in making big changes. It is tempting to initiate change by giving people facts and figures, but Kotter urges leaders to choose a different path. The key is to use “compelling, eye-catching, dramatic situations … to help others visualize problems, solutions or progress.” People must see and feel the problem and potential solutions before they are open to change. Leaders must be careful not to be manipulative, but they need to be convincing.
Making big changes in churches is a complicated undertaking because the authority needed to make the change does not always rest with the person responsible for the change. Members who have been part of the congregation for a long time — long before the current pastor’s arrival — often wield significant informal power in institutional decision making. Pastoral leaders need to learn how to cultivate trust with these individuals.
For some changes, spreadsheets and charts may be useful — at some point in the process. In most circumstances, however, leaders need to figure out how they will help people see new possibilities. Leaders need to gauge the best approach to understanding how people feel about the issue, and not just what they think about it. What images present the problem in the most compelling way? What stories can help you shift people’s feelings from complacency to urgency? If a leader can answer these questions, she can begin the process of making big changes.
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Before you go…
What bold dream has God placed on your heart? What great need do you see in your church or community? What must change for the dream to be realized or the need to be met?
A few years ago, I knew we needed cosmetic and technological renovations in my church’s sanctuary. During the pandemic, we made plans for the project. It seemed like the whole church was on board. They were not. While the changes were reasonable and rational, the resistance was emotional.
We hired a consultant who produced a six-minute inspirational video. The video gave close-ups of the worn-down areas and exciting testimonials from members about the potential renovations. After the congregation saw the video, 99% voted in favor of the renovations. We had an obvious need, but no one was ready for change until their feelings regarding the status quo changed.
You can reach me and the Alban Weekly team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next week, keep leading!
Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity