Congregations unavoidably, inescapably, inevitably, unalterably change. Which is really a good thing, of course, or we would still be lighting our sanctuaries with candles and timing our sermons with sundia
Let’s start with some givens:
- Change is inevitable
- It’s happening around us all the time as climates and technologies and cultures change
- It’s happening within us as well–none of us is exactly the same set of cells and experiences today that we were yesterday
- For a few of us, change is our reason to get up in the morning
- For most of us, though, change is terrifying and we resist it with all the energy and tenacity and pure mean-spiritedness that we can muster
- Change is as inevitable in our congregations as it is in our bodies or in our communities because, even if we want our congregation to always stay exactly the same size and be exactly the kind of congregation that it is right now because it is so perfect and so comfortable and so lovely, and we can’t afford anything else anyway–which is surely not, by the way, what God has ever had in mind for any of God’s congregations–we will still have to add new people to replace our current people as they leave or die, and new people mean change.
So, given the inevitably of change, how do we make it possible for our congregations to move their furniture around, sing different songs, change staff, and follow God’s ongoing call to them without coming apart in the process? How do we practice change?
Instead of negotiating a significant change once a decade with anticipatory fear and trembling all around, invite the whole congregation into the effort to get good at this. Talk about it in meetings, write about it in newsletters, have change parties! Invite everyone to come to church wearing something they’ve never worn before! Have sit-in-a-different-place Sunday! Celebrate small changes as much as large ones, because what looks like a small change to you may be unimaginably large to me.
Change needs to be the norm rather than the exception in the life of a congregation. In the same way that Israel understood itself to be always on the move with God, whether in the desert or in exile, we, too, should be always on the move and watching for God as we go. Colors, carpets, pictures on the wall, where the choir sits, when the congregation stands, how the minister preaches, and particularly what the members do with themselves after worship – all of it can change. And not all changes have to be permanent – sometimes we just need to lay down some new pathways in our brains. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if research showed that changing where we sit in the sanctuary on a regular basis is one way of working out our brains as we age?!
Everything can change, but every change does not need to be perfect. In the church, we may have gotten used to thinking that there is one theologically consistent movement of the liturgy or that there are only a few ways to lay out a sanctuary. We could learn a lot from developers of new technologies who know that, in today’s world, there is no time to fully plan in advance the next technological breakthrough. Instead, they create and launch good-enough products and quickly learn from their community of users how each product needs to improve over a series of iterations. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter has pointed out, this kind of change process looks more like improvisational theater than the perfect script.
For some people, change will always be hard, but these same people probably have friends who will be early adopters of any change program. (I’ve learned from my mother, for instance, that not all older adults are resistant to change. Some adopt changes easily because they’ve had so much practice in their own lives.) Congregational leaders can admit their own struggles with proposed changes and can model how they’re learning to think and act. They can be, in effect, peer supporters/coaches/mentors for those for whom proposed changes are more challenging.
Human brains are apparently hard-wired to appreciate positive surprises. Think back to your favorite experience with something you consider to have been a “breakthrough” product—pop-rocks, the iPad, disposable diapers, Amazon, Etch A Sketch. Are you smiling? People who think about pleasant surprises will almost inevitably smile and want to tell the story. They want to experience more and to share the surprise with others. Surely we can find opportunities in the church to offer positive surprises!
Sometimes, the changes you’ll be experimenting with will be on the cutting edge of faithfulness to God’s work in your community. Sometimes, though, if what you’re doing is trying new paint colors or asking everyone to sit in a new spot, you may be accused of fostering the dreaded “change for change’s sake.” But so many of the churches I see are stuck—they’re looking at the same three water spots on the sanctuary walls and singing the same 50 songs from their 30-year-old hymnbooks and driving past the same 1000 families who need help in order to spend 60 minutes in their comfortably safe worship space. In order to become unstuck, we need to practice. We need to refresh our eyes so that we can find God again, and sometimes that means looking for God from a different pew. Sometimes, the cutting edge of God’s faithfulness is you.
I’ve just begun to think about how to practice change, so I welcome your stories about what you’re doing in your congregation.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.