When Change Is Thrust Upon Us: 3 Models for Navigating New Terrain

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In these unprecedented times, congregations all over the world have pivoted their Sunday services and youth group gatherings to online formats on the fly. But as the sustainability and desirability of these pivots start to sink in, ministry leaders and parishioners alike are being confronted with the long-term costs and opportunities of the changes they’ve been forced to make. And they’re exploring their church’s desire and capacity to change. The following resources can help you and your teams reflect on both as you begin to imagine the next ministry season.

“Our church will never change.”

This refrain is often uttered by the cohort teams with whom Faith Formation Ministries has engaged over the past five years. That doesn’t surprise me, because it’s usually the innovators and change-makers who want to be members of cohort teams. I often find myself coaching teams to be patient when they find themselves more and more excited about the possibilities for renewed ministry that have unfolded during their cohort experience but their enthusiasm is met with skepticism or resistance. 

Riding the Roller Coaster

One helpful mental model for teams who find themselves in this frustrating place is the Change Roller Coaster by Gil Rendle. Rendle reminds leaders that those who are creating the change are often on a different section of the roller coaster than those who will be experiencing the effects of the change. Leadership in these situations requires both empathy and the ability to allow people to grieve before asking them to take on something new. Rendle explains the model in this YouTube video.

Canoeing the Mountains

Author Tod Bolsinger also talks about change and loss in Canoeing the Mountains, his excellent book about adaptive leadership. Bolsinger says that most folks aren’t afraid of change as much as they are afraid of loss. Change naturally entails loss of the known and a call to try something that is new or untried. Read Part 4 of this book to learn how to manage resistance or even sabotage when it comes to inviting congregations into new ways of being.

Fostering a Growth or Sanctification Mindset

Finally, another underlying cause for change resistance is the belief that one does not have the capacity for change. One exciting theme coming out of the education world is the Fixed Mindset vs the Growth Mindset, outlined by Carol Dweck, which basically describes how people think about ability and talent. It represents a continuum where on one end abilities and talents are thought of as innate and unchangeable, and on the other end abilities and talents are viewed as things that can be improved through practice. A fixed mindset views failure as permanent and something to be avoided. Here there is little room for experimentation and change. A growth mindset sees failure as a chance to learn and be transformed into something new. 

There will be many mistakes made as ministry leaders both pivot and innovate during this time. Helping congregations process and learn from these mistakes will be vital in the coming months.

In my work with congregations, I have learned that many churches can line up on a similar continuum and that many congregations live within a fixed mindset. If we reflect on this paradigm theologically, we might say that some congregations have forgotten the power of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification. We tend to lean heavily into the idea that we are saved sinners who remain broken—a fixed mindset—and less into the truth that we are being renewed by the Holy Spirit, continually dying to the old self—a growth mindset. Both individual and corporate sanctification is possible and desirable. Congregations with a sanctification/growth mindset will try experiments, will leave shame and blame aside when there are mistakes, and will be attuned to discerning what the Holy Spirit is calling them into.

A growth/sanctification mindset can be developed by asking ourselves and our ministry teams to reframe our thinking. Instead of prefacing ministry discussions with phrases like “We always. . .” or “We never . . . ” try beginning your ministry debriefs with looking for opportunities God is placing in front of you. Instead of quickly moving between ministry initiatives or programs, plan on pausing to debrief after every program, asking what you learned, what you would do again, and what you would do differently next time. Practice reframing challenges or problems as opportunities for growth and innovation.

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