Mercy Street Church of Christ
Abilene, TX
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Leading Change and Transition

Leading Change and Transition

I hear that a number of our thriving churches are taking a critical look at their “contemporary worship” services – the services that we began over a decade ago that feature electronic, “contemporary” music and images. We appear to be moving to more eclectic, “ancient-future,” blended sorts of services.

I’ve sure had my questions about some of our contemporary worship – the music seems dated, highly personal, lean on biblical content, too much performance rather than participatory, etc.

However, looking back on the move of some churches to have a contemporary service, I think that perhaps the greatest, most lasting gift to the church will be that for most of our churches, their contemporary worship service gave them experience in change for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel. In about a decade, our worship changed more than it had changed in two hundred years. The risk, pain, and disruption caused by the move to these services required our clergy and churches to do work that many of us were ill equipped to do – lead the church to change.

For generations we clergy specialized in preserving the past, treasuring what was given to us by the saints, passing that on to a new generation, insuring continuity. Now we are required to be leaders of an institution that needs change.

In learning more about how to lead change I have been greatly helped by a great little book on change in organizations, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges.

Bridges begins by distinguishing between “change” and “transition.” Change is situational and external– new job, different goals, new rules. Transition is internal, what happens and is happening. Transition is what needs to happen in you as the result of the change that’s going on around you, in order for the change to be owned by you.

As one moves into change, it is helpful to note the predictable states that people in transition find themselves. In my past four years I have seen members of our Annual Conference in all of these three phases of transition. And, in Scripture, I have seen all of these phases evident in the people who worked with Jesus.

Three Phases of how people transition through change:

Endings – letting go, some grief, sometimes some relief. Any change begins with an ending. Major issue in this phase is loss of attachment, influence, power, security, meaning and relationships. People suffer from the loss of illusion. Ending requires letting go. In this phase it is important to honor the past and acknowledge what has been done up to this point, yet all with the understanding that the past will not continue to hold us captive.

Leaders must see the problem first, before attempting to sell the solution. Expect and plan for a variety of reactions and emotions, and acknowledge all of them as valid. Give people instructions and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. In the ending, people can be expected to have a variety of emotions: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness. Expect to hear lots of “Why questions.” Why us? Why now? What did we do wrong? Why weren’t we told sooner? Is there a hidden agenda? Is there any way to avoid the pain that comes with change? Etc.

Neutral zone – this is the in between area of change. Limbo. People feel disoriented, “in between.” They are beginning to realize that some accustomed things are ending, but they are not ready, nor do they clearly see what comes next. Expect a lack of clarity and anxiety over the future. What’s going to happen? People are often less productive and less motivated during this phase. Rumors abound. People search for facts, hanker for answers but are distressed when the answers they get from their leaders seem vague and unsatisfying to them. Much energy is expended in what Bridges calls “Recreational complaining.”

And yet this can also be a very fruitful period. This time has much innovation potential. In this period, leaders must resist the temptation to get through the crisis and come up with easy solutions. This ought to be a time of experimentation and breakthrough possibilities. The new world and new roles have not clearly emerged so this can be a time to try out a variety of options, a time for resourcefulness, trying out different possibilities.

Leaders need to listen while an organization is in the Neutral Zone, says Bridges. They need to explain what the Neutral Zone is and to validate people’s feelings as normal. Leaders also need to strengthen intragroup support and communication, giving people opportunity to voice their fears and hopes. Be patient, while keeping up a certain amount of pressure.

New Beginnings -- at last we have reached new rules, new roles, and a new place. Now at last there is a higher degree of comfort, increasing acceptance and commitment to new vision. People step up and express a more positive mood, saying things like, “We knew we needed to change; we just couldn’t figure out how.” There is a new focus on the tasks at hand. The organization reaps the benefits of improved productivity and increased clarity but there is lingering concern about being successful in new environment or in a new role. People continue to ask, “How do I fit in and how can I contribute?”

How do leaders help in times of New Beginnings? Bridges says we must do four things: Give people new sense of Purpose – help people understand the purpose behind the changes. Picture – help people imagine the future and how it will feel. Plan: outline steps and schedule when people will receive information, evaluation, support and training. Give people a part to play: help people understand their new role and relationship to the new world.

And then we start all over again! Change tends to come in waves and in any healthy institution, change is constant. There is always something else to be fixed, some new task to be assumed. The leader doesn’t have to manage it all, but is there to interpret, reassure, and encourage. If our church is to keep up with the movements of the risen Christ, we are going to all have to gain more skills in constant change and transition.

The good news is, We are!

Will Willimon




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