“Do I stay or do I go, and it is finally I decide, that I’ll be leaving in the fairest of the seasons.” – Jackson Browne
Living in the northeast, I get to witness the changing of the seasons. Each season has its ebb and flow, its ups and downs. When it’s cold we long for summer, until it is too hot outside. We love the beauty of the change of foliage, yet find it a significant nuisance when we have to rake all of the fallen leaves. Spring comes with a birth of new life and another dose of allergy medication. We grow accustomed to change in the weather and expect it.
Why is it, then, that we are still wrapping our minds around change management and leading change within local congregations? We see change every day in our lives; however, change remains so difficult in the congregations we lead. Here is a simple idea – not groundbreaking by any means – but hopefully helpful to you.
Think about seasonal change, or think of change like you think of the seasons.
Seasons give us a beginning and an end.
Everyone can manage the winter because they know that spring is coming. Sure, it’s uncomfortable for a while, but at least you know it won’t be like this forever – unless you live in Alaska.
So when introducing something new, use the concept of the “trial period.” In churches, we talk so much about eternity that we think that any change we make will be forever. This new program or idea will not be forever, and you know it. You know it because you will probably have to change the new thing you do faster than you would want to. After all, what version of smartphone are you on now? Give it about 20 seconds and a new one will be out. The marketplace is constantly improving and growing.
Clergy often fear our evaluation because it’s personal and we realize that what we have offered for years is no longer what people are asking for today. We have gone through seasons in the life of our church, and these seasons change.
So use it to your missional advantage.
Try something – for a season. Have a start date and an end or evaluation date. Give it some time; don’t pull something off the shelf after a week.
Seasons give us permission to try something new.
Go ahead and have that extra Christmas cookie. Why? Because the holiday season gives us permission. If I do that in the middle of the summer I feel bad about myself, but from November 27th to December 25th all is good! We also know that we will be bombarded with infomercials about how to lose all of that holiday weight on January 1st. New Year’s resolutions, right?
In the church, we know that our seasonal life gives us permission to do things differently. The expectations of the seasons also shape our permission-giving. For instance, in the season of Advent you are expected to talk about Incarnation, the birth narrative, or themes around expectation and hope. But with the four weeks of Advent you are given time and space to take a familiar story and be creative and different in your story telling. You can change things while also remaining consistent with the thematic elements: you may have an Advent wreath, but who does the readings each year changes, right? Think of it in that way. How can I take what we normally do and create something new? Yes, that will mean changing things, but don’t worry – it’s only four weeks. At least, that is how you should communicate with those who are fearful.
And here is how a lot of people will respond:
Week 1: “Well, that was different – not sure if I like that.”
Week 2: “Hey, wait a second, didn’t we do that last week? Is this going to happen again?”
Week 3: “They did it again! I’m not sure I want our church to become a church that does this…oh well, only one more week anyway.”
Week 4: “Last week – it was different, but now it is done. Not too bad after all.”
So take advantage of the permission the season will give you. Think of the natural rhythms of your church. People are more willing to live through Lent because they know that Easter is coming. Let the natural world around us help shape how we create consistent change in our church. Then maybe change won’t be a scary thing after all.
I believe that developing consistent change within the culture of your church will transition a culture from fear of what’s next to the hope of what will be.
One final and helpful part of this is to make sure that it increases in value to the congregation right away. When it snows, it snows. It’s beautiful and we see it. Often in our churches we don’t get to see the effects of a change. Establish early wins and let the “fruit” of the new ministry or change in programming be clearly seen and communicated.
Be encouraged – seasons change.