When you understand the barriers to change in your ministry environment, and why resistance to change is the top complaint among church leaders, you can overcome the challenges and become a catalyst.
Much can be said for change. Nothing significant happens without it. But for all the sermons, books, seminars, and prayer gatherings, why do we see so little deep, lasting change in individuals, families, churches, and communities? Could it be that despite our attempts to convince otherwise, what we have is exactly what we want? And if that’s true, how do you become an agent for change in your church or ministry? The first step, as always, is a deeper understanding of the problem.
“DO YOU WANT TO GET WELL?”
When Jesus encounters a 38-year-old man paralyzed from birth, he asks him a profound question. “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6, NIV). Seems like a foolish question to ask someone who spends every day hanging out at a healing pool. Obviously, the man wants to get well! His response is telling: “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (verse 7).
Jesus asks a simple yes-or-no question. Instead, the man offers an excuse. Perhaps Jesus’ question doesn’t have such an obvious answer after all. “Getting well” introduces a whole new set of challenges. For the first time in his life, this man will have to find a “regular” way to support himself—he’ll have to get a job. He’ll need to find another place to live, and he’ll probably make new friends as the orbital center of his life shifts. Would he even be able to make it in this whole new world?
I’ve learned not to underestimate the importance of Jesus’ question: Do you want to get well? Change is upsetting to us on many levels. And the people who are resisting needed change in your ministry are fundamentally choosing the bothersome “known” for the hope of the unknown.
BE PREPARED, BECAUSE REACTIONS ARE ALWAYS STRONGER THAN ACTIONS.
Newton’s third law of motion states: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” And when it comes to human dynamics, the reaction is almost always stronger than its precipitating action. Researchers at MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning study the challenges of introducing problem-solving change into systems where people are involved—families, churches, and organizations. They’ve discovered that “people problems” always include at least 70 variables for every individual involved! The result is that when we devise relational solutions, we inevitably create unintended consequences. The side effects of our ministry solutions often create challenges that are far greater than the original problem we were attempting to solve!
When a youth pastor friend attempted to reach kids on the fringe (part of what he was hired to do), his efforts cost him his job. That’s because one of those fringe kids impregnated one of the “regular” youth group girls. Change often creates bigger problems than it solves…at least in the short term.
CHANGE UPSETS THE EQUILIBRIUM OF YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL SYSTEM.
Every human system finds an equilibrium that resists being upset by change. For example, in addiction-recovery circles it’s well known that the person most likely to smuggle in alcohol to a man in treatment is his wife—the very person who threatened to leave him and take the kids if he didn’t seek help! Why? Because as the man begins to get sober, he inevitably asserts his opinions about things his wife had previously tended to on her own, such as finances, discipline, church attendance, and so on. The change upsets the wife: “Who the heck are you? I’ve been steering this ship on my own while you’ve been out doing who knows what.” She concludes, “I liked you better when you were a drunk!”
CHANGE UPENDS THE FAMILY.
It’s not that the wife doesn’t want her husband to change; rather, the change has upset the equilibrium in the family system. The husband played an important role as the family scapegoat. As long as he was the bad guy, he served as a magnet for blame, a ready culprit for everything that went wrong in the family. If the husband goes away or changes, the spotlight has to shift to others in the system who were previously the good guys.
Notice what happens when you return to your family of origin for the holidays. Do you quickly fall back into the role you played growing up? It’s difficult to shed your role in that system. And any attempt on your part to break out of your expected role will be met with resistance. That pushback and punishment continue until a new equilibrium is found. The same dynamic is happening, right now, in your church and ministry. The bottom line: Jesus is all about change. For more about the impact of change on your personal growth, listen here!
CHANGE THREATENS YOUR “TRUE CULTURE.”
Organizations are living entities with a true culture that may or may not show itself in a mission statement, list of core values, or three-year goals. Your church’s true culture exerts far more influence over congregational life than any printed documents do. A “secret sauce” in your church and youth ministry determines the fundamental culture, making all change outside its historical data nearly impossible.
Smaller churches, for example, share an ethos resulting from the common experience of having a string of short-term pastors on their way to bigger and better things. As a result, stable families in the “left behind” church feel obligated to protect the flock from transient outsiders who inevitably arrive with a briefcase full of new models and strategies but likely won’t stay long enough to see them through. This logical survival strategy protects church members from further hurt but also drives away any pastor who might otherwise have desired to put down roots and develop a fruitful ministry in that community. The very thing these people long for, they inhibit from happening out of self-protection.
The only way to interrupt these rigidly defined roles is for pastoral leaders to resist the temptation to bail and, instead, remain much longer than people expect them to. In the process, the body can discover a new equilibrium, but probably not without a significant cost.
UNLIKELY PEOPLE ALLY THEMSELVES TO RESIST CHANGE.
We’re often shocked by how strongly and quickly the resistance to change develops—especially when people working for change are attempting to solve a problem that everyone agrees needs to be addressed! Even Herod and Pilate, who previously despised each another, became allies to halt Jesus’ actions. “Herod and Pilate, who had been enemies before, became friends that day” (Luke 23:12, NLT). And the Jewish leaders had been at bitter odds with both!
CHANGE ALWAYS EQUALS CONFLICT.
Engaging in a ministry of reconciliation, fueled by the Spirit of Jesus, presupposes a life of conflict. It’s natural to assume that because we’re following Christ or serving him in ministry, we should now be conflict-free. But your ministry has already taught you that this presumption couldn’t be further from the truth. All change is painful. In fact, for any significant change to occur, we must first:
Experience the pain of remaining in present circumstances.
Envision the possibility of a new and different future.
Create a relational connection with someone who can walk with us through the painful process of change.
Like the transformation of a cocooned caterpillar into a butterfly, pain and struggle are part of the process. Any attempt to help a caterpillar break free from its cocoon only ensures its death. It must die to its original state before a resurrection to new life is possible.