A helpful tool during a time of change is a descriptive lens called “the roller coaster of change.” Such a lens helps observers gather information about what a congregation (or some subgroup within the congregation) is experiencing by measuring where people are emotionally and by listening to the content of their feelings. From such a description, leaders can then strategize an appropriate response.

The roller coaster of change is a model that identifies a natural sequence of feelings and relationships that are a part of change. It was first adapted from Ralph G. Hirschowitz by Susan Hassinger, a United Methodist bishop.

A Game

Before you continue reading, take a few minutes to explore your own feelings during a time of change. Work either alone or with a leadership group.

  • Recall a time of great change in your life. It does not matter whether the change was positive and exciting (the birth of a child) or negative and difficult (a divorce or the loss of a job).
  • Begin at the point where you first received news of this change and begin to recall the feelings you experienced as you lived through the change.
  • With attention to the sequence in which you recall the feelings, list them on a sheet of newsprint.

The roller coaster of change shows a natural progression of feelings we experience in a time of change. And it also shows that the feelings we are experiencing and expressing may offer some indication of how far along we are in accepting and owning the change.


If you played the game above, compare your list of feelings to the roller coaster of change. Do your feelings correspond to or add to the feelings offered in the model? If you were able to identify any sequence of feelings you experienced, did they correlate with a sequence noted in the model? Of course, the model is not definitive; it does not include all the feelings someone may experience in a time of change. Nor is the sequence of feelings and reactions meant to suggest that there is a clear movement from feeling to feeling in the order listed. It does, however, offer insight into the types and groupings of feelings that will be experienced, and it shows that there is a general sequence of feelings.


Notice in the roller coaster that when a change is announced, the first response may be one of increased energy and positive feelings. This is a fairly common experience whether or not the news of the change is anticipated and desired. When it is first announced that a baby is expected, wife, husband, and family all feel a great amount of anticipation and celebrate with great joy. When the congregational vote is announced and there is overwhelming support to proceed with building the new facility, there is celebration. But when more difficult news is announced, people have a similar initial response. When a serious disease is finally diagnosed, the response may well be, “Thank God, we finally know what we’re dealing with. Let’s get going and do something about this.” When the vote is taken not to extend the call or contract of a staff person, the initial response may be, “Well, we now know what we have to do. Let’s get busy with a staffing study so that we can call the next staff person and get this thing going again.”

There is a bit of common wisdom in family systems theory that says that as the family confronts necessary changes, the family usually gets worse before it gets better. What is suggested in the roller coaster of change is the opposite. It often seems as if the congregational system gets better before it gets worse (and then better again). That is, the initial expressions of excitement or relief allow participants to be hopeful that they will be able to march through change untouched.

Leaders and members alike often become discouraged and disillusioned later as members of the congregational system begin to work through more difficult feelings. For example, following the initial excitement and acceptance of adding a new contemporary worship service to attract younger people from the community, clergy and music directors may be dismayed at the expressions of loss and anger members register about the changes in worship and music. Or leaders get upset with the number of complaints from long-term members about lack of attention to and reduced programs for older members. The leaders can recall these same members initially supporting the new programming and staffing priorities directed to youth when the retired visitation pastor moved to another community.

It is not uncommon for leaders and members to have a sense of betrayal or disappointment that things did not go smoothly after the initial response of people pulling together and the excitement of people wanting to see changes implemented. It is helpful and healthy for leaders to be aware of the positive energy that often begins the cycle of change. And leaders need to know that these positive feelings are naturally followed by more difficult feelings and a loss of energy. This information allows leaders to avoid feeling blindsided by the criticisms they will experience from the very same people who initially offered support and expressed relief. Leaders can then interpret the changes in congregational attitudes to members who remember the initial enthusiasm and begin to worry that “we’re losing support” as the more difficult feelings begin to be expressed.

Significantly, leaders can depersonalize the criticisms and concerns they will hear. Being aware that the initial enthusiasm will run a natural cycle through some level of anger and depression helps leaders to be less personally sensitive to criticisms that will be leveled at them. And such awareness may help to alleviate some worry about having personally failed at leading the congregation in change.

Systems (such as congregations) naturally seek balance or equilibrium. This search for equilibrium is often experienced by leaders as resistance to the change they are seeking. In fact, as the cycle of feelings in the congregation runs from enthusiasm to anger or depression, many leaders interpret the shift as evidence of personal criticism from members or other leaders. Rather, the shift may be the natural workings of a healthy system seeking stability. Changing systems balance and stabilize themselves by using positive and negative feedback loops.

Feedback loops are the bits of information within the system (or congregation) that are used to keep internal fluctuations within acceptable and sustainable norms. “Positive” and “negative” as descriptors of feedback loops are not evaluative terms. They do not mean “good” and “bad” feedback loops. Rather a “positive” feedback loop is an “excitor.” It tells the system that it is too calm. It is like an alarm clock that tells you that you are too calm and inactive when you sleep and it is time to be up and moving. So it gives you positive—that is, stimulating—information. It is like the initial enthusiasm the congregation offers in response to an announced change that suggests, “Let’s get going!”

In contrast, a “negative” feedback loop is information that is introduced into the system to slow it down. It inhibits the change and acts like a speeding ticket. The most common response we have after receiving a speeding ticket is to slow down and to be very conscious of our speed. Similarly, the initial enthusiasm in the congregation about change will often be followed with more difficult feelings that will act as speeding tickets, that is, negative information that will slow the change down and try to restore a feeling of stability. By using both positive and negative feedback loops, the congregational system will try to keep itself intact and healthy as it rides the rol
ler coaster of change.

An easy example of this is the rather common experience of tickling a baby. When you initially start to pay attention to the baby and tickle him or her, the baby laughs and giggles in response. The laughter is a positive feedback loop. The baby’s response gives you encouraging information that the play is pleasurable and that the baby wants you to continue. The laughter “excites” your participation in the play, and you continue to tickle and perhaps to laugh yourself. When the baby is overstimulated by your play, however, he or she will begin to cry. The tickling pleasure has reached its upper limit and is now being experienced as discomfort, and the baby immediately offers a negative feedback loop by crying. This clearly tells you to slow down. Our most natural instinct at that point is to hug and cuddle the baby to help him or her reestablish a feeling of comfort and stability.

In most cases the crying is not intentional resistance to your tickling, and it is not evidence that you have been bad or done something wrong by stimulating the baby. It is not information you necessarily need to personalize. But it is information. It tells you what the baby is experiencing and what the baby needs from you next. The emotional cycle of the congregation as it moves from excitement through depression and on provides, similarly, information. It is important for leaders to identify how they are feeling and how others in the congregation are feeling to help them know what the congregation needs from them next.

Adapted from Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders, copyright © 1998 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form  .


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