How to Introduce Change Into a Traditional Rural Church: Part One
(In a previous post, I shared a few thoughts on "Change and the Rural Church." Here I share Part I of some (hopefully) helpful and very specific thoughts on how a leader might introduce blessed change into a traditional rural congregation.)
William Bridges’ book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change offers some helpful “handles” that we can grasp onto as we lead a rural church through a process of change. Bridges lists four “P”s to keep in mind when leading change: Purpose, Picture, Plan, and Part to play. First, a leader must help others to understand clearly the Purpose behind the change. Then, she or he must give people of Picture of the change: to help them imagine what they change might look like, especially the good it might bring. Positive change often begins with an act of the imagination. We should also share with our people a Plan: an outline of the steps and schedule with which any change would move forward. Those who are affected by a change need to have the process of change clearly communicated to them. Finally, Bridges notes that it is important to give people a Part to play – let them take ownership for the change and for making it happen successfully. Change should never feel like just something the pastor alone wants to do: especially if it is to become a sustainable, lasting change.
With regards to the Rural Church, I might add a fifth “P” to Bridges’ list: Past. When introducing an important change into a rural church, it is crucial that people understand this change as still somehow being congruent with the church’s history and past. A good leader will study the church’s history, and then tell a coherent story about how this change simply represents a logical next chapter in the church’s ongoing narrative.
With Bridges’ “handles” or “hand-holds” in the back of our minds, how then specifically might we introduce a particular God-driven change into a traditionism-bound rural church? Please note that I take it for granted below that a leader has listened, discerned, prayed about, and been convicted of the need for a particular change: how then do we proceed?
First, we earn the trust of our people.
Trust is the currency of change – particularly in the rural church, where everything flows from the gift of relationships. People will consider a change proposed by a leader whom they know and trust. While some trust should automatically be given by congregation members to the pastoral office itself, the truth is that we must also earn and steward the trust of our people. How do we earn that trust? First, by loving our people sacrificially to show them that we care for them: they will trust us to the degree that we have suffered with them. Second, by the honest, transparent integrity of our words and our deeds. Third, by establishing a standard that anything we do will be done right. We earn trust by our compassion, character, and competence in the pastoral role. This trust overcomes suspicion of the word “change” in the rural church.
Second, we make sure the our people are acquainted with the present, active, surprising God who is always doing a new thing.
In our preaching, teaching, and praying, this is the God who should be made known: not a far-away Deist God who has left us to our own devices, but the risen Christ who is always challenging our drowsy complacency, and beckoning and calling and propelling us forward in new endeavors.
Third, we try to be sure that the change is called for by God rather then merely a reflection of our personal preferences.
This requires a prayer of self-emptying, where we genuinely lay down our own agendas and reflect upon what God really wants. We are to be providence-driven, not preference-driven.
Fourth, once confirmed in this, we reflect upon who will be affected by the change, and how they will be affected.
This will help us to navigate the personal dynamics of change, and to know whom to talk to and how to do it. Everything that happens in the rural church happens through relationships. We should walk through various scenarios in this stage, including both the potential positive and negative impacts of the change on the church’s relationship and family networks. It might be good to make a long list of all of the salient features, all of the factors and relationships that might affect the issue or change in some way. Who will be the most affected by this change? Who might feel a sense of loss or anxiety?
Fifth, we talk about the change and its possible impact with a wise friend outside the congregation: particularly someone who may have experience with such a change.
Our friend(s) can help us think through the change and how we might best approach the process of change itself. Ron Heifetz reminds us that sometimes we need to leave the dance floor for a little while and climb up with a colleague to the balcony to get a "balcony view" of the whole situation before us. A colleague will also provide a support network in later stages of the process.
Sixth, we reflect upon how to narrate the change.
We need to be able to articulate why this change is necessary. We should begin with the theological rationale behind the change. Then we should be able to narrate how this change is consistent with the church and its history. Rural people feel the need to tell a coherent story about themselves and the church over time: how will this change be integrated into that narrative? What points in the church’s history are consistent with this proposed change? We should also remember that people act in what they perceive to be their own best interest. We should thus be able to explain clearly how this change will be for the good of the church and of its people.
All of the above is “the work before the work,” but is absolutely essential in introducing change.
My next post, Part II of "How to Introduce Change into a Traditional Rural Church," will lay out the next steps we might follow, including how to gather a core group who takes ownership of the change.
What have I left out so far? What, in your experience, are the other initial elements of introducing a God-driven change?