by Susan Nienaber

Q: My congregation has never been very good with change. Whenever a new idea is proposed, it is quickly shot down with the phrase, “that isn’t how we do things here.” Our new pastor has been drawing in new and younger members, but the “back door” of our church is getting wider as these new members come in but can’t move into any leadership positions. They become discouraged and leave. Or, if they do get involved in a program or a committee, their ideas are always shot down. Is my church the only one that experiences this dynamic? How do other churches deal with change? 

A: Your church might be diagnosed as neophobic! So far, “neo­phobia” hasn’t made it into every dictionary (I’ve only found it in a couple), but it is a very real condition in the world of congregational life. The first time I heard the word was from Amy Tingleaf, Bill Savage, and Jil Gaylor, members of the Upward Theatre group at First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, OK. This group created a terrific (and very funny) skit about a ficti­tious church member who is terrified of all of the changes going on in his church. Amy describes the purpose of the skit: “As our church was facing some major changes on the horizon, Dr. Serene and Mr. Static came to life in a skit focusing on how chal­lenging change can be. The point of the skit was to not make fun of people with anxiety disorders, as that is a serious and very real medical condition; but rather, Mr. Static is a composite for the congregation as a whole. Adding humor to an otherwise potentially stressful situation can have a healing quality and bring people together.” (See the video here.)

All joking aside, difficulty with change is an issue as old as time in many con­gregations. It is no surprise that many congregations, and many active partici­pants within congregations, have a fear of newness. There are often deep fault lines between those who are open to chang­ing the congregation’s culture, programs, or ways of making decisions and those who are heavily invested in preserving the past. For example, I frequently hear longer-tenured members say things like, “Well, if we just had a [fill in the blank] like we did in 1963, then all would be well.” And, on the other hand, I hear shorter-tenured members sometimes say, “If we did [something similar to what we did in my last church], then all would be well.” Furthermore, while the worship wars—contemporary vs. traditional styles—were declared “over” many years ago, stress over worship styles remains a com­mon area where tensions about change reside in many congregations.

Assuming that change is inevitable, what’s the difference between how a healthy congregation manages change vs. a congregation that is not as healthy?

1. Healthy congregations accept the fact that change is inevitable; if we are to continue to grow, we need to adapt. There is flexibility in thinking and feeling in healthy congregations that pro­duces a sense of ease with change. 

2. Healthy congregations tend not to have a lot of areas of the congregations where members have too much ownership over a program or group. Healthy congregations rotate leadership and have the ability to let go of programs that no longer help the congregation fulfill its mission. 

3. Speaking of mission, healthy con­gregations have a clear sense of mission, purpose, and direction and are guided by that purpose, not by individuals’ wants and preferences.

4. Healthy congregations appropri­ately use humor and creativity to help members manage their anxiety. This is what is so beau­tifully demonstrated in the skit “Neophobia.” First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa is a vital congrega­tion that, even in the midst of the worst recession in our country since the Great Depression, raised tens of millions of dollars for a large-scale building project. As a result, they needed to shift their Sunday morning schedule to accommodate their new facilities. They used humor to address members’ anxieties in a proactive way, allowing everyone to lighten up the intensity and enormity of the change.

5. Healthy congregations tolerate a level of risk and experimentation. Not only are members flexible in their thinking and their emotions, they are forgiving of one another and don’t jump into blaming when things don’t go well.

6. Healthy congregations have healthy leaders—both lay and clergy.Healthy leaders know how to manage change and how to work well together as partners in fulfill­ing the mission of the congrega­tion. Strong leaders anticipate their congregation’s anxieties about change, keep folks focused on what is truly important, and find ways to effectively communicate. They know when to listen carefully to members’ con­cerns and when not to get distracted by complaining. They set a positive tone and build mutual accountability throughout the system.

So, if your congregation is “neopho­bic,” take heart. Even the condition of “neophobia” can change with patience, education, and understanding. Find ways to constructively talk about change andkeep folks positively connected to those with whom they have differences. If this doesn’t work, consider getting some outside help from your denomination or other outside resource such as Alban. If your congregation is not changing in some ways, it is probably declining and dying. The sooner you get help, the better.

 Many thanks to Amy Tingleaf and Upward Theatre, Dr. Jim Miller, and First Presbyterian Church for sharing the gift of “Neophobia.”

Congregations, 2012-07-25
2012 Issue 3, Number 3