Michael Fullan, who writes primarily about public education and business, describes change as a nonlinear, usually chaotic process. “Change cannot be managed. It can be understood and perhaps led, but it cannot be controlled.”1 Given the chaotic nature of change, linear, step-by-step processes which attempt to manage it are problematic. They do not allow the process of change to unfold in its natural way, and they present an illusion of control that is unrealistic. Even though the proponents of those processes most often discuss their circular nature and warn against trying to follow them too rigidly, the very fact that the process is discussed in steps leads to an overly mechanistic view of organizational change.

An additional difficulty with these linear processes is that they run counter to the culture of most congregations—usually all but the largest ones, which, because of their size and more hierarchical, controlling structures, have developed a corporate mentality that makes the illusion of control easier to fall into. The organic nature of organizations is more apparent in most congregations, however. There is great informality in the way decisions actually get made; there is a reliance on more casual conversation and the building of consensus. Therefore, linear planning processes placed in the hands of a few most often seem alien to congregations, if not an out-and-out imposition. People may go along, because they want to be cooperative or because they do not know what else to do. Most often, though, these step-by-step processes do not produce the desired results. We’ve all heard the stories about the months spent crafting a purpose statement that gets hung on the wall or printed in the Sunday worship bulletin but has no discernable impact on the ministry of the congregation—it’s the kind of thing that happens when congregations rely on a linear process to enable organic change.

The difficulty a congregation has in resisting the use of a linear process is often compounded when it seeks assistance from judicatory leadership or outside consultants. Many of these people work in a corporate culture in which more disciplined planning is essential, and they often rely on being able to share usable “tools” with congregations. What they fail to recognize, however, is that what is essential for their purposes is often detrimental to congregations.

Fullan, in contrast to steps, talks about the components of change. The challenge of leadership is to develop the various components so that they are apparent within the organization. Once that is accomplished, meaningful change can take place in its own nonlinear, often chaotic way. The components Fullan lists as essential to meaningful change are:

  • Moral purpose—sharing the guiding purpose for an organization’s existence.
  • An understanding of change—developing a working knowledge of the key dimensions and dynamics of change.
  • Relationship building—seeking relationships with diverse people and groups, especially those on the fringe and those who resist change.
  • Creation and sharing of knowledge—sharing information in a way that it becomes usable both to initiate and to sustain change.
  • Achievement of coherence—bringing sense and common purpose to the ambiguity that is change.2


The presence of these components in the life of a congregation will encourage positive change. At times the change will be chaotic. At times there will be conflict. But these components set a tone that makes positive change possible.

If this approach to change were taken in a congregation, there would be no formal engagement in a step-by-step change process. Instead, these various elements would be introduced over time:

  • The church board would take time on a regular basis to consider the dynamics of change in a congregation and the forces at work in the world and community that make traditional congregational approaches to ministry less effective than they once were. (For example, the board in the congregation I serve has taken a half-hour at the beginning of each of its meetings to explore issues related to change.)
  • The pastor would begin to introduce concepts that underlie a vision for the congregation. (I began talking about being a disciple-forming community in my discussions with the search committee members, and when I discovered that this concept resonated well with them, I began to talk about it more frequently and more broadly after beginning as pastor.)
  • The congregation would begin to engage in specific actions that affirmed the vision and began to actualize it. (As part of our worship, we have begun regular commissioning services, which acknowledge the ways church members are living out their lives as disciples and pledge the church’s support to them in that effort.)
  • Conversations among church leaders would formalize a new understanding of the congregation’s purpose and vision. (We used the development of a new church brochure that explains how we seek to be a disciple-forming community.)
  • The congregation would begin to address issues of its life and ministry from the perspective of its developing understanding of the vision for the future to which God is calling it. (This concern enters the discussion as we talk about which Sunday school curriculum would work best for us, how to make visitors feel more welcome, and how we develop the annual budget. Virtually every decision we need to make can be viewed from the perspective of being a disciple-forming congregation.)
  • Leaders would take every available opportunity to discuss issues related to change and vision. (I make reference to this emerging vision in sermons regularly and have developed a number of brief phrases that others in the congregation use to reinforce their own understanding of the new direction in which we are moving.)


Approaching change in this way takes time. It also takes constant attention to the ways everything in the life of a congregation can be used to further the change needed to lead the congregation more faithfully into the future.

1. Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 33.

2. Ibid.


Adapted from Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership by Jeffrey D. Jones, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL380_SM Heart, Mind, and Strength:
Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership

by Jeffrey D. Jones

Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you—Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are. 

AL309_SM Traveling Together:
A Guide for Disciple-Forming Congregations

by Jeffrey D. Jones

By becoming congregations of disciples, churches and their individual members will prepare themselves to do the hard work of seeking God’s will and discerning God’s call, finding new possibilities in old answers as well as radically new ways to be and to do church. Jones guides readers through what it means to be a disciple, from key experiences that contribute to the growth of disciples to the practices of disciple-forming congregations.  

AL373_SM Imagining Church:
Seeing Hope in a World of Change

by Gary and Kim Shockley

Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church, we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator, and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else.” 

AL186_SM Leading Change in the Congregation:
Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders

by Gilbert R. Rendle

Many books have been written about leadership and change, but until now none has focused on the kind of change that tears at a community’s very fabric. Alban senior consultant Gil Rendle provides a respectful context for understanding change, especially the experiences and resistances that people feel. Rendle pulls together theory, research, and his work with churches facing change to provide leaders with practical diagnostic models and tools.


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