Urgency Works, but Is It the Only Driver of Change?

It is too soon to create a definitive list of all the things we will have learned from this pandemic, but I’m clear about one thing—John Kotter was right that urgency does drive change. Under pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic and outrage over police violence against black people, congregations have made changes I thought I would never see. Will we be able to continue innovating when extreme urgency no longer forces us to do so?

I started serving as a part-time interim on March 2 and preached my first sermon on March 8. My very first words to the congregation, who “pass the peace” at the beginning of their service, were that they could no longer shake hands or hug each other. By March 10, I could no longer visit members in long-term care facilities. On March 22, we switched to live-streaming worship from an empty sanctuary, and I started doing pastoral care by telephone with people I’ve mostly never met.

I and most of my colleagues in ministry have been in a state of high anxiety ever since, and not just about the virus. Our reasons for anxiety have changed over time. Initially we were most anxious about technology as we shifted to online forms of worship and programming. (One hundred years from now, as historians look through the remnants of this time, they will find long chains of Facebook posts that start, “Did Zoom crash for you during worship this morning or was it just me?”)

Urgency drives change

What happened, though, was that congregations that had been unable to update their websites quickly figured out how to livestream worship, study, and prayer by Zoom or Facebook. By moving prayer and faith formation out of old buildings and away from traditional times they found that they were reaching more people than before. Some members couldn’t make the shift, but most could. An 85-year-old told me last week that I didn’t need to keep sending her a CD of the service because she watched it every Sunday on her tablet!

And then, on top of the pandemic, we all watched George Floyd being killed. And many of us took to the streets, day after day and night after night, demanding an end to racism and to all the practices that support and reinforce it. In Des Moines, Iowa, protesters were met by police who were willing to take a knee with them and listen to what they had to say. On June 11, with Black Lives Matter activists watching in the gallery and the Republican governor looking on, the Iowa legislature (the majority of which are Republicans in both houses) unanimously passed a bill to ban police chokeholds, allow the Iowa Attorney General to investigate deaths caused by an officer, and prevent an officer from being hired in Iowa if they have previously been convicted of a felony, fired for misconduct, or allowed to quit to avoid being fired for misconduct.

Alternatives to urgency

But what do we do when we can see that change is needed, but no one is dying? What do we do when extreme urgency is not shaking our natural conservatism and shattering our habitual beliefs?

Can the church let opportunity take the place of urgency as a driver of change? Can we see opportunity where we have so often seen only decline or defeat?

For example, I spent the first few months of this year (the pre-Covid months) helping to clean out old files at my presbytery office in Des Moines. In the process I came across a file labeled simply “Future.” It contains reports written between 1989 and 1999, all of which talk about how the church is changing. The biggest constant is decline:

  • Rural areas (the location of most congregations in Iowa) are losing population.
  • Churches with less than 100 members will find it increasingly difficult to support full-time clergy.
  • Remaining populations are “custodians of a long church and cultural tradition and will need a continuing ministry.”
  • Training and retraining will be needed for existing leaders to respond to changed circumstances.
  • Creative efforts will be needed to recruit pastors.
  • Evangelism and church growth continue to be talked about, but the church has not made significant advances in attracting new members.
  • A denomination-wide effort will be needed to harness resources and expertise to “project a positive public image of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

All these observations continue to be true 20 years later; we have made virtually no progress in addressing them. Other denominations have produced similar reports. But part of our problem may be that the church has experienced these truths as threats over which we have no control rather than as opportunities to think and act differently.

Opportunities for ministry

What if, for example, rather than continuing to see ministry in small, rural communities as a no-win competition between declining denominational brands, we saw it in the way non-denominational church planters see it—as an opportunity for new buildings, new staff, and new starts? What if we served the existing congregations and their exhausted members by working regionally rather than denominationally to make sure that congregations who want to continue have a localpart-time faith leader from whichever denomination has someone available? (Small rural congregations are already doing this, but must continually fight denominational “gatekeepers” who want to insist on the denominational brand.)

What if we made use of our emerging digital proficiency to serve families who still live in rural areas in ways and at times that are more easily accessible to them than tired buildings on Sunday morning? What if we thought about the changing nature of rural life as an opportunity rather than a threat?

We are living through a period of extreme urgency and extreme change. Things are happening right now I thought I would never see. But there is so much more to do and still too little urgency to do it. Perhaps now is the perfect opportunity to let go of old identities and embrace life-renewing change.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.