Humans have been choice makers since the days when hunter-gatherers had to decide when to hunt and what to gather. Choice making has been a part of the Christian faith ever since Jesus extended an invitation to four fishermen to “follow me.” Making choices is what humans do. But over time, people in Western society have gained ever-increasing autonomy, personal authority, and opportunity to be choice makers.   

The development of a choice-making culture in our society has had an impact on congregations. Take, for example, the prevalence of conflict in congregations today. In a 2004 survey published by Christianity Today, 95 percent of the responding pastors said they had experienced congregational conflict of some kind. Twenty percent reported that they were currently engaged in a congregational conflict. The most common conflicts were over the common choices congregations have to make: vision and direction (64 percent), who should be the congregation’s leaders (43 percent), and how to allocate the congregation’s finances (33 percent). The most prevalent kind of conflict, however, was over who gets to make the choices: 85 percent of the respondents said they had experienced conflict over “control issues.”1 Congregational conflicts are typically fights over choices.   

We live in a fully democratized, consumer-oriented society in which people believe they have the autonomous power to make choices, including within the realm of religious belief, practice, and participation. Over the past generation this belief has been trending upward, and the trend does not appear to be abating. This is the cultural context faith communities in North America operate within now, and it has implications for congregational life. When it comes to congregational leadership in particular, the implications are twofold: leaders need to understand how people make choices and then understand how to influence those choices. In other words, leaders need a motivational view of leadership.   

At its core today, leadership is about helping people choose to do something new that will make the community more authentic, meaningful, vital, and able. In an era of personal choice, leadership has become more and more about encouraging and facilitating faithful choice making for the future, which will lead to new intentions and actions in the community. To enact such leadership, leaders need to appreciate motivation as both a science and an art. They also need to recognize that motivational leadership is a practice that takes practice.    

The reality is that the psychology of motivation is a complex but necessary science. I say “necessary science” quite deliberately, because we live in an age when the need for change is all around us in our society, not just within the church. To face long-term concerns such as growing environmental problems, the legacy of deficit budgets by governments, social welfare issues, the tragedies of developing nations and so on, leaders must influence people to move beyond the motives of short-term self-interest so that we as a society will embrace a greater stewardship of our future. The science of motivation is a crucial tool for this task. But it is also an art, since influence depends on appreciating the sense of reality or the worldview of diverse people and the motives and attitudes behind their perspectives, and then discerning how to appeal to those motives and attitudes in different ways that help people choose to change.   

If we choose to lead change, then we must appreciate the power of choice people have today. If we wish to influence those choices, we must understand human nature and how thoughts, feelings, habits, motives, attitudes, and intentions all influence people to change. Ours is a society in which we define ourselves by the choices we have made, are making, and will make. If we as leaders hope to influence the people of our communities to make faithful and helpful choices for our futures, then we need to understand the complicated workings of human motivation. And much more than just the sustainability of our congregations is at stake. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls congregations “the light of the world,” “a city built on a hill [that] cannot be hid,” and “the salt of the earth.” Faith communities are called to be visible, life-giving change agents in the world. To be faithful in this calling, we must first be open to choose change ourselves. Then, if we choose change, perhaps we can be part of the remedy for the ills of our age.   

The story of the church shows that people of faith have always seen and accepted the challenge to change. We need think only of the mind-boggling diversity of the church today as compared with the way it looked on the day of Pentecost. But despite the diversity, the highest aspirations of communities of faith have always been the same, which is to be    

  • faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ,    
  • authentic as the body of Christ,    
  • aligned with the missio Dei,    
  • significant to the people who make up the faith community,    
  • relevant to the needs of the wider society, and    
  • intentional in service of others, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.    

Thus it has always been. But in our day these aspirations seem to us more challenging, given what appears to many people as the sudden arrival of rapid societal change. Such change has left many congregations wondering how they will cope, let alone evolve. But imagine what a congregation would look like as it rises to meet these aspirations!   

In our faith communities we deal with people trained by society to believe they have an autonomous right to make their own choices. But knowing how those choices are made gives leaders an inside edge. Whether we recognize it or not, clergy are in the change business in virtually everything we do. Consequently, understanding motivation can make a difference in virtually everything we do.   


1. Eric Reed, “Leadership Surveys Church Conflict,”Leadership Journal, Fall 2004.     


Adapted from Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future  by Peter Coutts, copyright© 2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.





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AL437_SM Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future  
by Peter Coutts    

In Choosing Change, author Peter Coutts acknowledges that clergy today recognize the impact our individualistic culture of choice is having on congregations. But Coutts also points out that many leaders do not think about motivation. For them, encouraging change is about selling their congregation on a new idea, governed by the assumption that a better idea should win the day. Leaders see the need for change in their congregation, and they earnestly want to help their congregation to change. But the approach to leadership they learned, which perhaps worked better in days gone by, is no longer working. Leaders are in the motivation business, argues Coutts. Choosing Change provides an overview of current thinking from the field of motivation psychology. 


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