Clergy often try to change their congregations, and as rule their efforts meet resistance. It hurts to be seen as a threat by the very people you are trying to serve, but when a leader’s first move is to advocate for change, that’s generally what happens.
The desire to make change is one of the main reasons people become leaders in the first place. New seminary graduates, freshly educated in the latest concepts of improved and modernized religion, are especially prone to look at their first congregation and see all the ways it could be better than it is.
But a congregation, large or small, is still an institution, and institutions tend to resist change. In the flush of new beginnings, leaders frequently forget this obvious but nonetheless important fact.
Why Institutions Resist Change
Why do institutions resist change? When I ask this question in a group, I hear several theories. Some people like to point to traits of personality: “People fear the unknown,” somebody says. “People dislike change,” Around the room, heads nod.
Others blame the culture of the congregation or denomination they happen to be serving. Pastor Johnson from Wisconsin says, “Lutherans are conservative by nature.” Not listening, the Reverend Dr. Hester Washburn says, “What do you expect? This is New England.” Father White offers a joke: “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? What—change!?” They each believe—at least until they start to hear each other—that if it weren’t for their group’s unique brand of stuck-in-the-mudness, change would be much easier.
I have a different theory. Institutions resist change, not because of any special trait of personality or culture, but because that’s what an institution does. Or better yet, that’s what an institution is—a way of getting people to engage in repetitive behavior. Resistance to change, in other words, is baked in to the whole concept. People show up for work or meetings, unlock doors, publish newsletters, lead worship, prepare lessons, sweep floors, and practice music—all on schedule.
If anyone suggests that a church quit worshiping on Sunday morning and shift to Tuesday instead—or that it can wait another month to get the website back online—any institution worthy of the name is ready with an answer: No. Most of the time change-resistance is a good thing in an institution, responsible for most of the good it does.
Saying No to Change
That’s why, when a clergy newcomer announces that he or she intends to bring the winds of change into a stuffy sanctuary, the institution says No quickly, without thought. In nice congregations, that No may come sugar-coated—it might even sound a bit like Yes, which can be a way of saying “Sure, you can do new things, and we will tolerate them for the short time we expect you to be here.”
No doubt you’re thinking of exceptions to this rule, and so am I. On her first Shabbat, a new rabbi announced substantial changes of worship practice . The congregation clapped and gladly went along with everything she wanted. An exception to the rule? Maybe—but years earlier, that congregation, after much deliberation, had decided on these very changes and the prior rabbi had refused to implement them. The newcomer’s bold stand was for the status quo, not change.
More typically: a new, change-agent minister announced, “I’ll empty out this church and fill it up again!” Years later, a lay leader of that congregation told me ruefully, “I’ll give him credit: he made it almost halfway through his plan.” This is an extreme example of a common pattern: when a leader enters as a change agent, resistance increases long before it softens.
Alternatives to Advocating Change
So—if it’s not a good idea for the leader to enter as an advocate for change, what’s the alternative? What’s the best way for a leader to promote change? To answer, we need first to ask: If an institution resists change because resisting change is in its basic nature, then why do institutions ever change at all?
Sometimes circumstances force change—the state runs a highway through the sanctuary, the treasury goes broke, or a beloved pastor goes to prison. But institutions sometimes change on purpose. When they do, it’s often because they conclude that the only way they can continue to be what they are is to embrace change. In other words, the institution’s change-resistance forces change.
For example, a congregation’s members have moved out of the neighborhood. It has two basic choices: it can wax nostalgic about glory days or change. The change might be to follow the remaining members to the suburbs, offer worship in new styles, or find ways to connect its members to the neighborhood. To make big shifts like those, a congregation first needs to decide that it can only stick to its essential mission (serving people, teaching faith) by shedding some of its external attributes (location, staffing, four-part hymns).
Change Agent Jiu-Jitsu
Paradoxically, the designated leader can bring change quicker by affirming the essential mission than by advertising his or her ideas about change. Instead of lecturing the knitting circle about new postmodern Sunday School curricula, the pastor can sit and gently ask them to explain why yarn and conversation and old friends are so important.
Instead of whipping up the passions of the people who don’t see why there’s not already a praise band, a laser show, or a dog walk in the sanctuary, the leader can become the chief admirer of old ways, chief celebrant of deeper meanings, chief interpreter of deeper value in what was and is and ever more shall be.
Pastors who want to make change do better to connect with advocates for continuity. This can irritate the advocates of change. But know this: when change advocates start criticizing you, you may be starting to get leverage that can help you shift the congregation as a whole.
“Change agent” is rarely the most powerful position for a leader who wants to promote change. The most powerful position is the middle, halfway between the diehards and the revolutionaries. From this mediating spot, a leader can articulate the deeper meanings, suggest how those meanings might be carried forward in a changing world, and ask everyone for sacrifice to make it happen.
Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, which has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.