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.”
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.
Susan Nienaber is a senior consultant with the Alban Institute.
“Neophobia” originally appeared as the Ask Alban column in the third 2012 issue of Congregations magazine. Copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future
by Kenneth J. McFayden
Strategic Leadership for a Change provides congregational leaders with new insights and tools for understanding the relationships among change, attachment, loss, and grief. It also helps leaders facilitate the process of grieving, comprehend the centrality of vision, and demonstrate theological reflection in the midst of change, loss, grief, and attaching anew. All this occurs as the congregation aligns its vision with God’s and understands processes of change as processes of fulfillment .
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. Rendle pulls together theory, research, and his work with churches facing change to provide leaders with practical diagnostic models and tools. In a time when change is the norm, this book helps leaders to “lead change” in a spiritual and healthy way .
Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations
by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock
Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.
Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation
by Sarah B. Drummond
In Holy Clarity, Sarah Drummond explores the most basic reason leaders of religious organizations conduct evaluations: To find and create God-pleasing clarity regarding the organization’s purpose and the impact of its activities. Leadership and evaluation are not separate disciplines, she argues. Effective leaders evaluate because they need to know what is happening in their organizations and how those activities are effecting change .
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